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Bell Orchestre at La Tulipe, April 19

Posted by Greg / April 21, 2009


There's a famous saying that goes, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." This is the single most discouraging thing a music journalist can hear, and accordingly something I ignore most of the time. I enjoy talking about music. But Sunday night's Bell Orchestre concert was a reminder that music is a language unto itself.

There is hardly any lexicon for describing what Bell Orchestre does. Technically this problem applies to all music, but it seems all the more pressing when I try describing something with such otherworldly sounds and atypical song structures. Most people's attempts, including those of the band themselves, use a collage of artsy words - dreamy, airy, warm, wavy, swirly, spacy, ethereal, etc. This gets the point across, but the fact is, Bell Orchestre are bigger than "wavy." The real thrill of Sunday's show was experiencing something completely unique to the performers - entering a whole world they created right before our eyes and ears.

Bell Orchestre are also bigger than a side project, even though we often talk about them with reference to the members' other bands. Those bands are impossible to ignore on account of their greatness (Arcade Fire, The Luyas, Torngat, Snailhouse), but nothing about Bell Orchestre feels like an afterthought or a second job. To the contrary, on Sunday night they sounded like six prodigious musicians operating completely within their element, free to embrace their full creativity and talent, making something far bigger than the sum of its parts.

The final product was sublime. Over the course of the show, they broke every rule imaginable but still produced music that was eminently listenable. Richard Reed Parry played his double bass intermittently like a string instrument and a drum; he also added echo effects, creating droning overtones and intricate layers over repeated phrases. Kaveh Nabatian switched between his trumpet and a table full of electronic synths and toys, at one point tuning into talk radio and mixing the voices through a pitch modulator. While lesser bands might do such things as schtick, these guys kept everything supremely musical, showing that real musicians can make beautiful sounds no matter what you put in their hands.


It helped, too, that they maintained such a high level of energy onstage. Their new album, As Seen Though Windows, is an exciting listen all the way through, but it doesn't begin to capture the intensity of Sunday's performance. Their live sound is just huge, all-consuming; they would move from loud and rowdy to quiet as midnight in one song, always filling the room and keeping all eyes transfixed on the stage. Some of their more recognizable songs, like "Elephants" and "Stripes," seemed familiar but foreign, completely transformed (in a good way) by the live context.

The band members were also endearing, acting very pleased with the audience's reception and genuinely happy to be sharing their craft. They came back for two encores, when their looks of surprise at the amount of cheering and stomping gave me the impression they were accustomed to playing one at best. Richard Reed Parry also told us that we were better dressed than the Ottawa audience then immediately backpedaled when he remembered CBC was taping the show. There were, in fact, more dresses and ties than at your average Montreal indie show, and everyone looked pretty swanky against La Tulipe's beautiful art deco decor. This seemed like as good a metaphor for Bell Orchestre's sound as any. Theirs is classical music for a generation raised on Coca-Cola but thirsty for Champagne.

But there I go trying to describe something that I claimed was beyond words. I very highly suggest looking for this concert on CBC, whenever it pops up, and giving it a real listen. If my review can direct you to their music, then I'll consider it a success.

Group photo via the band's website
Photo of Richard Reed Parry via sfllaw's flickr page



Jer / April 21, 2009 at 12:36 pm
Damn. I'm mad I missed this show. But thanks for describing the undescribable. I've been trying to tell people for weeks now about the new album, though I'm never quite sure how to describe it.

Welcome to poutine-land.
G / April 23, 2009 at 05:05 am
I could have sworn that talking about music was more like farting about re fried beans. Maybe that's just cuz my vocals sound like someone farted in your ear.

Nice post Greg... keep it up.
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