Release Date: Mar 10, 2009
Record label: Arts & Crafts
Genre(s): Rock, Experimental
The second helping from Montreal's Bell Orchestre holds true to the Canadian instrumentalists' penchant for melodic/atonal slabs of cinematic chamber rock, but this time around they've reigned in the jerky, less-developed aspects of their work, allowing for a smooth, though still volatile blend of post-punk, classical crossover, and straight-up experimental rock. As Seen Through Windows employs much of the same instrumentation as 2005's Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light (strings, brass, drums, guitar, keyboards, bass), but where their debut relied on visceral live performance to paint its audio images, Windows bends each instrument to its will, distressing, texturizing, and squeezing out every sonic option using both organic and electronic means. From the muted, warmly distorted horns that serve as opener "Stripes," the spine to the manic "Gaze," which explodes out like an amplifier crash into a late-'70s cop drama theme, to the My Morning Jacket-inspired closer "Air Lines/Land Lines," the Bell Orchestre imbue each track with both dexterity and playfulness, rarely stopping long enough to commit wholeheartedly to one or the other -- "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball" may lean a little too hard on distorted drums, but it goes from Battles-esque math-jam to triumphant and majestic in just under three minutes.
Bell Orchestre are an interesting, if underrated, little package. Typically marketed as the spin-off project of Arcade Fire members Richard Reed Parry and Sarah Neufeld, it's evident to pretty much everyone that's seen their live show over the last few years that they're a damn sight more than just a sideshow. Even so, the Montreal connection hasn't done them any harm in getting their experimental neo-classical compositions out into the wider world.
Arcade Fire offshoot steps into their own spotlight with their second release Hailed as a minor triumph in post-rock imagination for its deft amalgamation of classical minimalism and indie rock sweat on 2005’s Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light, Bell Orchestre undeniably cleared their first hurdle of crawling out of the spotlight fixed upon its sister group, Arcade Fire. But four years later, the “post-rock” tag doesn’t seem like a very fitting description for the group, as it's hardly iconoclastic enough to be “post-” anything, and there’s little in the band's sound that would mark it as belonging anywhere on the “rock” spectrum, either. Free of those markers, Bell Orchestre has made As Seen Through Windows, an album that proves that this group is much more than a rock band that happens to play instrumental music.
Bell Orchestre released their debut full-length, Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light, in 2005, which was both good and bad timing. At the time, Montreal's music scene was holding Stateside listeners in thrall, with legions of talented and energetic multi-instrumentalists crafting classically trained bombast. Bell Orchestre's more abstract Recording a Tape, an entirely instrumental work, received a deservedly high profile but was perhaps unjustly viewed through the same lens.
The Montreal sextet Bell Orchestre is a group you may have heard of but never actually heard. That’s because they released a debut of attractive but instrumental pieces somewhere between classical and rock (2005’s Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light), but it’s also because two of the six are full-time members of another Montreal group, Arcade Fire. (Bell Orchestre is led by Richard Reed Parry, Arcade Fire’s double bassist, who also plays some other instruments.) That last bit may help explain why a sophomore album’s been a while coming, because these musicians are pretty busy with their other job.
If you know who the six-piece instrumental ensemble Bell Orchestre are, you probably know that they involve members of Arcade Fire, because every banner ad and artist profile pounds the fact into your head mercilessly. They also recorded their debut album (Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light, 2005) in the same time and place as Funeral, an album that time has been kinder to. But it’s a bit unfair to compare one historic-in-the-making chamber pop masterpiece to Orchestre, a nut that is inherently much tougher to crack.