Bell Orchestre As Seen Through Windows Review

Album. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Bewitching instrumentals from members of Arcade Fire.

David Sheppard 2009

Boasting no fewer than three members of Arcade Fire – bassist Richard Reed Parry, violinist Sarah Neufeld and French horn player Pietro Amato – instrumental sextet Bell Orchestre are established stalwarts of the vibrant Montreal indie scene and an increasingly big noise beyond Canadian borders.

In truth, their 2005 debut, Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light, wasn’t so much a big noise as a vertiginous, multi-textured one - some of it captured in the readymade echo chamber of city tunnels. While its successor revisits the debut’s smorgasbord of classical minimalism, urgent post-rock and conservatoire-meets-Spaghetti Western brass, it’s a far more focused, almost architecturally structured affair; its dynamic shifts smoothly achieved, its sonics buffed and squeezed into a panorama of vivid colours by producer John McEntire and his cornucopia-like studio toolbox. No tunnels required.

Oscillating between guitar-less, electronically smeared soundscapes and the soaring possibilities of horns and strings, As Seen Through Windows at times recalls McEntire’s day job group, Tortoise, at their most expansive - although Bell Orchestre’s default setting is far more organic and contemplative than the genre-melding Chicagoans. Which is why opener Stripes is a bit of a red herring: an ominous pulse of bowed double bass and churning electronics ushering in an unsettling weave of distorted brass lines whose abruptly interrupted climax is akin to suddenly waking from a turbulent dream. The more typical Icicles/Bicycles repeats the formula but swaps disquietude for melodic loveliness  - aching violins riding a gentler rhythmic throb before taking wing on beautifully orchestrated waves of horn and ever more rhapsodic strings.

Angst briefly returns on a cover of Aphex Twin’s Bucephalus Bouncing Ball, the original’s skewed beats and melting microchips traded for teeming analogue percussion, double bass and whiplash violin that build to an inexorable horn crescendo that’s like a medieval fanfare played by a tipsy Balkan wedding band. But by the time we get to the orchestral/big band jazz essay Dark Lights and the wistful string quartet-like interplay of closer Air Lines/Land Lines, every vestige of electronic sheathing has been sloughed off, revealing Belle Orchestre’s bewitching, symphonic soul.

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