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Bell & Circuit’s eerie, deadline-driven beats

Musician Russell Emerson Hall is shown sitting on a lawn chair with a yard and trees in the background. Next to him is another chair, with a MIDI controller keyboard sitting in it.

“Format Fetishist Volumes 1+2” showcases Russell Emerson Hall’s propensity for stylish curation.

Russell Emerson Hall has been one of the more prolific post-hardcore musicians in Madison for years now, finding time to split his efforts between numerous projects including Daughters Of Saint Crispin, Housewife Heroine, and The United Sons Of Toil.

Bell & Circuit, his moody downtempo instrumental hip-hop project, has also been churning out beats on the regular for years. But for good measure, Hall recently decided to accelerate the pace of production by holding himself to strict monthly deadlines rather than waiting for inspiration to come. That beatmaking marathon resulted in his latest release, Format Fetishist Volumes 1+2.

Bell & Circuit has been an ongoing project for Hall since 2002 and he’s produced full-length albums, EPs, and extended ambient tracks under the moniker. The project draws a great deal of influence from legendary trip-hop label Ninja Tune, which has been a home for artists like Amon Tobin, Bonobo, DJ Food, and Funki Porcini. He also pledged his love for DJ Shadow: “When I heard Preemptive Strike and Endtroducing, those records blew my mind,” he says.

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Those inspirations materialize in the bright piano loops and distorted bells on “The Internationale Is Alright,” the woozy guitar and vocal chants on “Functional Lament,” and the dubby waves on “Insight vs. Foresight.”

Hall started a Bell & Circuit YouTube channel in January 2021 as a way to hold himself more accountable to his music-making schedule. He was inspired by “Rhythm Roulette,” a Mass Appeal video series that asks producers to head to a local record shop, pick out albums at random, and then use them to sample and assemble a beat.

Hall held himself to fairly strict deadlines throughout the process. Once a month, he made himself build a track and create two accompanying videos: one he describes as a “cinematic montage” and the other a more in-depth look at the techniques and equipment used to make the beat.

When Hall finished with his once-a-month work, he went back and sifted through the tracks to find the ones that would make the cut for his latest Bell & Circuit release.

“It was nice to be able to throw away stuff. I’ve never really been able to do that before,” he says.

After the tracks for Format Fetishist were chosen, Hall took a scalpel to the beats, cutting them for length and remixing some elements. It was the type of fine-tuning that his self-imposed beat-making regimen didn’t initially allow for.

He describes Format Fetishist as a beat tape, a collection of instrumental hip-hop tracks assembled almost entirely using samples from vinyl albums, with the exception of a few songs that feature 808 drums or live bass.

The results are a mixture of piano loops, chiming percussion, jazz horns, and distant drums that’s occasionally interrupted by unidentifiable sounds, adding to the eerie mistiness of the vibe on Format Fetishist. Ghostly vocals float to the surface intermittently but often fade quickly to make room for a guzheng, some film noir brass, or a crash cymbal. All the moving parts assembled here by Hall create a distinctly late-night sound throughout tracks like “Languid Jackie” and “Nobody Loves Me.”

The albums used for the beat tape are all from Hall’s personal collection, from which he picked albums largely at random—or at least without much pre-planning. It seemingly streamlined the process compared to what he went through making his previous Bell & Circuit full-length, 2019’s Fear Is The Only Darkness, which he recalls being a huge pain in the ass.

“I basically spent months sampling stuff and I had just tons of samples,” he says. “I was sifting through them all and trying to jigsaw them together and I was like, ‘I’m never doing that again.’”

Hall said the process for Format Fetishist was generally more enjoyable, though there was some frustration that bubbled up from trying to cobble together beats from samples that maybe had no business hanging out with one another. At the beginning of the project, he used a random number generator and then chose the album in the corresponding numeric position on his shelves. But eventually the process became a little less structured and involved simply listening to albums in his collection and making a note when pieces of songs stuck out as potentially worthy samples.

A lot of hip-hop has been built from jazz, funk, and R&B samples, and Hall says that he relies on those genres for many Bell & Circuit songs. But he also tries to mix in a wide range of elements like a sampler album from Japan Airlines, a Korean boys choir, and Inca flutes.

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At the beginning of 2022, around the one-year anniversary of the Bell & Circuit YouTube channel, Hall decided to change things up and began making two beats a month. After six months of that, he came to a realization that the artificial deadlines, while good for productivity, were starting to become an annoyance rather than a creative support. Hall also found he was having more fun making beats than videos, which can be an extremely labor-intensive process when you’re handling all the filming and editing.

Bell & Circuit will almost certainly pop up again in some combination of audio and video formats, but Format Fetishist Volumes 1​+​2 already stands as an impressive demonstration of what can happen when an artist limits options and takes procrastination out of the equation. 

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