Bell Orchestre Reboot Their Avant-Garde Explorations on 'House Music'
Published Mar 16, 2021In many ways, House Music feels like a Bell Orchestre reboot. Having started informally in the early '00s as a loose group of musicians who occasionally provided score for various friends' art projects, it wasn't until 2003 when they had reached a point of cohesion they undertook the recording of their first album. But then something quite momentous happened. That something was, of course, Arcade Fire. And since that quickly ascending project shared Richard Reed Parry and Sarah Neufeld with Bell Orchestre, the band was more or less put on pause.
The 2003 debut, Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light, was finally released in 2005 by Rough Trade. Though it and their John McEntire-produced follow up As Seen Through Windows in 2009 were both fairly well-received, the group's profile benefited and suffered critical qualifications as either being a postscript to Arcade Fire or junior partners in Montreal's burgeoning post-rock scene featuring groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Silver Mt. Zion at the peak of their powers.
After a little more than a decade apart, with members Pietro Amato and Stefan Schneider concentrating on the Luyas and Michael Feuerstack releasing a steady flow of albums as Snailhouse and eventually under his own name, they reconvened for a two-week getaway at Neufeld's home in Vermont. What is now House Music emerged from improvised group sessions that were recorded live and edited into one continuous piece of music split into 10 movements.
The musical catalyst for the project is a rhythmic loop that Parry brought with him and plays on upright bass in the throat-clearing "I: Opening," carrying through to "II: House," eventually reappearing like a touchstone in later sections. Neither exactly funky nor mechanical, the loop still calls to mind the pulse that runs through Miles Davis's Bitches Brew and the motorik beat that runs through the Krautrock of the '70s, enhanced by Schneider's inventive drumming. The space within the house is conveyed by Feuerstack's drifting pedal steel and Amato's French horn alongside Kaveh Nabatian's trumpet.
Neufeld's violin eventually takes the lead with a slashing middle-European meets Quebec folklorique intro to "III: Dark Steel." She eventually sinks back into a wash of sounds generated by keyboards and electronics that mutate and enfold the organic sounds, setting up for "V: Movement," the album's centrepiece and strongest point. It features a return of the bass loop and the most direct statement of something like a cohesive theme nimbly passed from pedal steel to trumpet to violin and back again. The aftershock of these strong and graceful moments is felt through the next three pieces like ripples from a momentous splash.
The album resolves with something like sunset, dusk, then full dark as the percussive elements fall away and let the remaining instruments flow over each other in long liquid lines. You almost expect crickets after Neufeld's violin slides into silence at the end. It is a masterful experiment, full of rich details delivered by a sextet of artists who are not only top-flight players but excellent listeners and re-listeners. (Erased Tapes)