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. But a new Bell Orchestre album is welcome, despite the delay.
The group’s been in residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts, a resume highlight that seems to indicate a certain seriousness of purpose here. And the band’s music affords such an approach — serious without being dour, it shares much of modern classical’s experimentation, much of its disrespect for boundaries. At the same time, this group does occasionally use percussion as a rhythm-driver (not just as a timbre of its own), and in this they slide closer to groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the instrumental rock category. When they do this, they produce some of the most compelling material on the album. Bucephalus Bouncing Ball”, a cover of an Aphex Twin song from the 1997 Come to Daddy EP, has the ticking percussion of the original, but retains a classy sheen of lush romanticism. A trumpet fanfare provides an emphatic conclusion.
As classical music, Bell Orchestre’s pieces sometimes sound a little thin. Maybe this is because they occupy an awkward middle ground where they’re interested in exploring the boundaries of form and timbre, but are constrained by rock’s essentially traditional tonalities and sensibilities. At times, the group’s arrangements seem all high and low, missing a vital middle range. When it’s filled in by the unexpected crash of a distorted guitar, the hole in the rest of the material is only compounded.
Still, the best material on As Seen Through Windows combines this full timbre with a floating, minimal beauty. The title track, “As Seen Through Windows”, slowly ramps up from sparse synth/brass to a soaring conclusion that resonates over vocal “ah”s. The ending of “Elephant” is likewise breathtakingly beautiful. Bell Orchestre cite Arvo Pärt and Lee “Scratch” Perry as influences, and the former at least informs some of the minimal, mathematical pieces on As Seen Through Windows. But it’s less conceptual than programmatic in the end, which makes it quite easy to relate to Bell Orchestra’s music. “Icicles/Bicycles” has the frosty beauty of a desolate, wind-blown tundra — listening to it is almost as potent a journey as Smetana’s “Die Moldau”.
As on their previous album, Bell Orchestre’s music is essentially cinematic. Though it has features of minimalism and occasionally seems completely rootless, the group’s too impatient, too modern to spin meaning out of extended repetition. Their music’s evocative and romantic, casually taking advantage of modern tools in the service of the creation of their potent soundscapes. So As Seen Through Windows will likely continue to solidify Bell Orchestre’s reputation for making interesting and occasionally challenging instrumental music that not enough people have heard. It shouldn’t be too hard to change the last part.