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Music Review: Bell Orchestre – As Seen Through Windows

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In my quest to get caught up on what I’d missed in 2009 (there’s a lot), I turned back to Montreal’s fascinating Bell Orchestre. If listening to this six-piece instrumental group leads to a lot of comparisons to Arcade Fire, it’s for good reason. Bell Orchestre recorded their first record in the same studio at the same time that AF was doing the classic Funeral. And they toured with Arcade Fire in 2005, too.

As Seen Through Windows, released in March of 2009, is the band’s second full-length release. It is a dazzling piece of work, sharply integrating the qualities of each instrument while producing something entirely unique to listen to.

There’s a grand cinematic quality to Bell Orchestre, of course, but there’s also a sort of muted chaos that allows each member the opportunity to stretch and bend their instruments through the course of the compositions. They allow the strangeness to immerse them at times, but never lose sight of the bigger picture and the broader sense that Windows truly is, above all, a record and that Bell Orchestre is one concise unit. The showiness and individuality of some other instrumental acts is absent.

Call them chamber rock or call them baroque pop, do what you will, but Bell Orchestre’s vibe lies beyond classification. Some pieces on Windows lean on a crude instrumentation, while others are so fluid and so textured that sound like rich treats filled with sweet surprises.

Amazingly, there are no synths and no fancy electro touch-ups here. The quality of the music comes entirely from the sextet. Featuring Mike Feuerstack’s lap steel guitar, Stefan Schneider’s percussion, Kaveh Nabatian’s trumpet, Pietro Amato’s French horn, Sarah Neufeld’s violin, and Richard Parry’s bass, Bell Orchestre’s approach to music is holistic. And yes, Neufeld and Parry are full-time members of the Arcade Fire.

The grand cinematic quality turns the songs into scenes, fittingly, and offers the listener a sense of the visual as much as it offers a sense of the audible.

Take the plodding calls of the aptly-titled “Elephants,” for instance. Here Bell Orchestre is concerned with producing a scene, locked in time perhaps, with the wail of elephants and the sounds of a desolate plain. It is a gorgeous moment, both musically and otherwise, and the sextet generously allows it to exist for over eight minutes.

Perhaps As Seen Through Windows is a more appropriate title to the record than Bell Orchestre lets on, as many of the compositions are observations of what can be seen rather than what can be heard. “Icicles/Bicycles,” for instance, actually manages to sound like shards of frozen water clinging to the roof before transitioning to a curious ride on two wheels through a frosty white field.

Bell Orchestre’s sense for the visual makes Windows shine, offering listeners more than just a standard listening experience. These pieces spring to life, offering colour and vibrancy alongside chills and hesitation. There’s a beautiful curiosity unfolding here and these six players do well to translate their joy and sense of discovery to each and every note.

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About Jordan Richardson