Vancouver six-piece the Belle Game is a band with a bit of buzz in the lead up to the release of their full-length debut, Ritual Tradition Habit. They’ve opened up for the ubiquitous Gotye and Polaris Prize-winners Karkwa. Current drummer Rob Chursinoff comes from Tegan and Sara. They recorded a couple of EPs, one of which was produced by a guy who fiddled the knobs for the New Pornographers, and another guy who is actually in the New Pornographers. They’ve been listed as one of the best bands in Vancouver by a local alt-weekly. They also received a fan favorite award in a local radio station contest. So, yes, there’s a lot going on with the Belle Game – not to be confused with Montreal’s Bell Orchestre – and you get the sense that people are starting to talk about these guys on the West Coast in the same way the New Pornographers got talked about a decade ago in Vancouver, or Broken Social Scene got talked about in Toronto 10 years back, or the Arcade Fire in Montreal got tongues a wagging just after releasing Funeral. In fact, there’s been some level of build up for this debut full-length release. Ritual Tradition Habit was supposed to come out in October 2012, but got delayed for vague reasons involving an international partnership. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that noted UK label Bella Union is handling a single from the record, but who knows? In any event, it seems that we may be at a tipping point when it comes to the Belle Game, that this could be a band on the brink, and, if Ritual Tradition Habit is any indication, there’s a reason for that. This band is pretty good, simply put.
Ritual Tradition Habit is described as orchestrated dark pop, but there are moments of brightness that peek out from the clouds. The sound is very baroque and retro indie in the way that Best Coast and Tennis recall the sounds of ‘60s girl groups to a degree. (And do I detect a slight hint of Beach House on the album, too?) But there’s also the presence of an occasional horn section, which may earn the group comparisons to Broken Social Scene. In a sense, Ritual Tradition Habit feels very Canadian indie with touches of something far more wide reaching than that. And, overall, it’s a great album with a bevy of tracks that could find themselves onto any discerning music fan’s playlist. Aside from the instrumentation touches that make this a grandiose band, there’s also a hint of rugged country licking around the edges. It’s surprising that a band that’s only been around since 2009 could be as ambitious as the Belle Game is here.
Carrying the group through this vast and rugged terrain is the utterly appealing voice of Andrea Lo, who careens her way through these songs with a sultry and seductive voice that is more than a little reminiscent of a less Anglo-centric Siouxie Sioux. Lo navigates her way through a terrain that is abstract, and yet paradoxically concrete in a human, sexy way. Haunted by a gauze of reverb that makes her hard to make out at times, Lo sings of longing and deep desire: “Undid our bracelets, gleaming and faceless / Wasted you’re beaming, you’d give every reason,” she sensually croons on “Wait Up For You”. “Raise up our voice, not far from here / Strip away the noise until your skin is bare / I’d give it up for you,” she sings on “Wasted Light”.
For all of the longing present on Ritual Tradition Habit, the title of which takes its name from interstitial short songs that punctuate the album, the songwriting is usually crystal clear. “River” opens up with chiming guitars that are vaguely reminiscent of the Tennis debut. “Wait Up For You” has that sticks-on-sticks drum sound that marked some of the material on the first Local Natives album. “In Secrets”, with cold synth sounds muscling there way against a bracing horn line, could have easily nestled its way into You Forgot It in People, before the song gives way into a country-ish jaunt. “Keeps Me Up at Night” could be a candidate for a single, and sounds a little like a harder-edged New Pornographers song in some respects. And “Little Wars (Causing You Trouble)”, with its triumphant trumpets during its chorus, again could easily be something that was ripped from Broken Social Scene’s more pop-inspired moments. However, some of those interstitial moments are a cause for concern: “Habit” which ends the album and recycles the lyrics from “Wait Up For You”, sounds a little half-baked and under-formed, and ends the record on a sour note.
As well, if there’s anything less than remarkable about this debut, it is that the parts do feel greater than the whole. There are some brilliant songs that are so brilliant, they make the other material that’s a bit more sub-par, particularly in the album’s mid-section, stick out like a sore thumb. This long player proves that the Belle Game is still working at their, well, game. However, it is a debut that definitely makes a statement and is largely unforgettable, when it is firing on all cylinders. One gets the sense we’re going to be hearing a lot from the Belle Game in the future, based on what they’ve committed to tape with Ritual Tradition Habit, an album that was well worth waiting for despite its delay in getting here. Unlike many bands that are hyped and only go nowhere from there, the Belle Game has the chops and muscle in its music to make it something to revel in and be enamoured with, and the sense that these guys are a contender is only amplified with repeated spins of the album, as the knottiness presented within works out and one gets a better handle on the twists and turns in the band’s repertoire. So definitely keep an eye on and an ear out for the Belle Game. They have something startling to offer up, even as they are still fumbling their way towards complete and utter sonic ecstasy. There’s some really awesome stuff to be had on Ritual Tradition Habit, and if there’s a little bit of filler, well, I suppose every debut can’t quite be a Funeral or a Mass Romantic. Still, this is likely on par with a Feel Good Lost, so let that be a quiet amount of praise for a band that is poised to go serious places—perhaps, who knows?—on their follow-up from this.