Published Jan 01, 2006Ah, to dream the impossible dream. To capture the elusive, to illustrate the imaginary, to touch the intangible. Or, in the case of Montreal ensemble Bell Orchestre's new album, Recording A Tape the Colour of the Light. The cryptic title speaks of articulating the visual in a sonic medium, which has been the impetus for the band since they formed to accompany choreography at Concordia University, where they were students of electro-acoustic music.
That was back in 1999, when Bell Orchestre was simply a duo of bassist Richard Reed Parry and violinist Sarah Neufeld. That slowly evolved into the current line-up with drummer Stefan Schneider and horn players Kaveh Nabatian and Pietro Amato, a line-up that moved out of the theatrical world and started playing rock venues in 2002. A year later, both Parry and Neufeld found themselves part of the current Arcade Fire line-up, a day job that delayed the release of Recording A Tape by a year. Yet that association has also made them full-time musicians, and attracted many ears to what might otherwise be unfairly seen as yet another post-Constellation ,chamber-rock ensemble from Montreal.
Recording A Tape was made at the same time as Arcade Fire's Funeral, in the same studio. Like Funeral's opening track, "Tunnels," Bell Orchestre also has an underground motif, only theirs is quite literal. There are four interludes titled "Recording A Tunnel" that run as a thread through the album, all of them recorded underneath the Lachine Canal. "It's at the bottom of St. Remi Street near my old place," explains Parry. "I used to spend a lot of time in there. It was physically beautiful and cars there would sound like this insane, bizarre ocean. We'd record there in the middle of the night, and a couple of times in extreme cold. Ideas would start to emerge. Pietro and Kaveh would play and I'd record them for a long time, then go back and chop these things apart."
The tunnel works as more than just audio ambience, however. "It's a loose concept that I hoped would bind the album together in an imaginary physical way," says Parry. The album was finished during the band's month-long residency at the Banff Centre of the Arts in February, with final touches added during mastering. "It's this loose idea of having these places and ideas and feelings colliding, but somehow creating one environment, that there's this through line that's underneath it. To physically be able to do that, recording in a bunch of studios and in one tunnel, seemed like a lovely idea, process-wise. Though most people won't realise that, because we forgot the recording credits in the liner notes."
Though Bell Orchestre do delve into the esoteric, they're just as enamoured with the ecstatic. There are more than enough gut-punching moments that soar with swelling slide guitars, syncopated hand clapping choruses, and pulsing violin parts pushing long tone melodies from the horn section all of which has won over rock audiences just as easily as the chamber music crowd. Says Parry, "I want to make music that really surprises people but delights them, that pulls the rug out from under their feet in a way that they actually care about. I want to play in nursing homes and jails, as well as indie rock shows, and stick our finger up the classical music arse and wiggle it around a little bit."