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Bell Orchestre says it out loud and clear

Forget what you know about jazz pop and classical compositions: Bell Orchestre's second album, As Seen Through Windows, makes big, intricate songs designed to blow your speakers.



Though quantifiable or measurable, loudness isn't a skill used rightly or wrongly, nor a right held by some and not by others. Really, all music can be, and perhaps should be, played loud.

True, when KISS alights on the Common next week they may try to light up the crowd with "Shout it out Loud" or "I Love it Loud," reminding you that loudness has been strenuously claimed and protected by rock 'n' roll, from guitar gods to punks and after. (Anyone who saw Dinosaur Jr.'s Virgin Fest set last week will attest to that. Or perhaps the film It Might Get Loud, with Jack White, Jimmy Page, The Edge and others, comes to mind.)

A gain in volume is a gain in enjoyment and listening pleasure. Surely, somewhere, someone is studying just such a relationship.

Which brings us to Bell Orchestre's second and latest album, As Seen Through Windows. Above the barcode on the back cover, a message reads: "This album should be played loud!"

Message received!

Right from the get-go, the opening track "Stripes," which combines foghorn-blowing brass and silvery flashing keys, beckons a creeping volume level.

"The music works really well when you fill a space with it," says Richard Reed Parry from his home in Montreal, where the six-piece instrumental group is based. "This isn't background music. A lot rests in the details, so for that to come across I find the record should be played loud."

Parry plays upright bass, percussion and keyboards in Bell Orchestre. He's joined by violinist Sarah Neufeld---the two play in Arcade Fire as well---Pietro Amato (French horn/electronics) from The Luyas and Torngat, who've played the festival; Stefan Schneider (drums/percussion), also of The Luyas; Kaveh Nabatian (trumpet, melodica) and Mike Feuerstack (lap steel) from Snailhouse. Sway Machinery's Colin Stetson (clarinets, French horn, trumpet and bass saxophone) has been supporting on the band's 2009 dates so far.

That's a lot of detail. But detail is important when discussing this band. In architectural terms, two elements cross each other to form the detail. The same could be said for Bell Orchestre's music, which consists of many details: crossings of electronic and acoustic sound, dance rhythms and minimalist contemplation (or, put another way, movement and stillness), classical and pop, jazz and folk, structure and improvisation, melody and dissonance.

The title track, "As Seen Through Windows," begins with long lines of analogue-sounding synth and plucking strings. They each signal horns to come in, to mourn and beseech, for bass to churn out funk and snare drums to roll and stop for shots of dub. It sounds nuts, but it works.

From there, Bell Orchestre picks up the pace, hurrying to the Balkans. Those who caught Slavic Soul Party's Atlantic Jazz Festival appearance a couple years back will appreciate "The Gaze." Then, they shift into a darker, downtempo jazz with "Dark Lights." John McEntire (Tortoise), who recorded and mixed As Seen Through Windows, plays bowed vibraphone.

"He's kind of a recording hero of mine," Parry says of McEntire. "We wanted to have this album more extreme-sounding sonically." When the band wanted "the drums to be insane-sounding---over-compressed," McEntire knew innately how best to do it, Parry offers as an example.

Of course, people have stuck---stabbed is the verb some might use---McEntire's entire body of work with the loopy label post-rock. With two albums to its name, and plans for more, according to Parry, Bell Orchestre is already getting pinned down by the term, which runs the risk of making the music sound pretentious, distancing and practiced without a note being heard.

Simply put, Bell Orchestre makes music that crosses a divide between pop and classical forms in the same way of Britain's Stereolab, with its use of strings (not in a romantic sense either), or Iceland's Sigur Rós and its use of strings, slowness, tension build-and-release and choirs.

Besides listening to and working with McEntire, Parry regards Estonian contemporary classical composer Arvo Pärt as a model for his "use of space and quietude." These are hallmarks of minimalism, along with other elements such as repetition.

"I find minimalism sometimes can be kind of irritating," Parry says. He finds Pärt's material "isn't trying to prove a point by being [minimalist]. It's just what happens. Obviously he's making decisions, too, but it just sounds natural."

By contrast, Parry says he sometimes struggles with, for example, Philip Glass's music because it sounds "mechanical, the heavy-handed repetitiousness of that kind of minimalism." Approaching his mid-70s, Pärt has composed numerous choral, ensemble, symphonic and solo works over the past four decades, focusing on liturgical and sacred music. Parry names Pärt's Te Deum as a personal favourite, adding: "Fratres is kind of a classic."

Arvo Pärt's presence is felt on the first and last tracks of As Seen Through Windows. On "Stripes," which Parry co-wrote with Pietro Amato, it's the horns coming in close, loud and immediate with their distortion and dissonance. On "Air Lines/Land Lines," the final of the album's nine tracks, it's Neufeld's short, agile melody on violin that becomes the spine of the song. The melody's repeated---returns---at increasingly longer intervals, but never disappears.

Would a choir or solo voice ever appear on a Bell Orchestre album? "We're definitely moving towards using vocal elements, not song lyrics though," Parry says.

For now, the band has a series of Canadian festival dates this summer. By its nature, this is a band that improvises on stage, and in studio, too. "We record everything we do," says Parry. "Sometimes we'll just play for an hour straight."

With the volume cranked, no doubt, because that's how you hear the good ideas.

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