Belle musique

Bell Orchestre’s atmospheric rock recalls chaos and philharmonics

This six-piece instrumental group verges on post-rock, creating an orchestra of their own.
This six-piece instrumental group verges on post-rock, creating an orchestra of their own.
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Being the odd band out at rock shows gives Bell Orchestre a strange appeal. The six-piece instrumental group from Montreal is described as post-rock and 20th century classical, and more recently, as imagistic. Their sophomore album As Seen Through Windows is atmospheric, weaving harmonies like the intersections of high winds and cold fronts. Strings and brass hold the album together, elevating them to an altogether different altitude from their sister band Arcade Fire, whom they share three members with.

This most recent record dropped in early March and was recorded by John McEntire in his studio in Chicago. Most of the record was laid out in those sessions, and then Bell Orchestre spent a year tweaking the record in their own studios in Montreal. Mike Feuerstack, who plays lap steel guitar, said McEntire was like a band member himself.

“We recorded with John McEntire, we all really look up to and admire him. It was almost like having another member there with us while we worked. Besides that we actually had a new member me on the lap steel guitar—me. I played on the first record but I wasn’t officially part of the group until this record. There’s also Colin Stepson who plays in our live band now who’s basically an honourary member.”

The band has evolved in more than its member list, which now consists of Richard Parry on bass, Sarah Neufeld on violin, Pietro Amato on French horn, Stefan Schneider on drums and percussion, Kevah Nabatian on trumpet and Feuerstack. Bell Orchestre has developed a sound to fit its story. The mythic ambience of the music is the perfect soundtrack to their kitsch-but-genuine roots. The group began as responsive art, working directly with contemporary dance, improvising a soundtrack to the choreography and taking cues from the performers. Eventually Bell Orchestre members decided to take a more proactive role, sick of subservience to time and tempo constraints. Still, Feuerstack said, some of the original method remains.

“It’s a big part of how we make songs,” he said. “We get together, improvise, record things, we find things and recreate them or sometimes they’re so good we don’t need to record. Sometimes they live on, keep recurring and then we structure them into compositions.”

The music is original but speaks to a larger reality than the experience of its members. Although they’re no longer taking cues from the turns of dancers, they’re interpreting grander movements. “I think there was sort of an imagistic inspiration in the weather system and its changing. Like storms and the way weather systems work and the way formations meet with other formations. We feel that the album works in that way. It’s sort of a gradually shifting cloud mass. That’s one image that was in our minds,” Feuerstack said.

In its impressionistic interpretation of higher powers, As Seen Through Windows creates an encompassing narrative of its own. Tracks such as the nine-minute long “Elephants” chronicles a journey, driven by determined horns that soldier through an exploration of open spaces and skies. Violin provides a strong voice in which sounds oscillate from inquisitive to almost belligerent, adding a dimension of personification to the noise.

The expanse of pushing outside the ranges of comfort is a recurring theme, challenging the listener to mentally exit the confines of the everyday without engaging in any threatening tone. The track “The Gaze” sounds a musical journal of a long travel, charting the relationship between humanity and nature. Sometimes highly stylized with clear affectation, sometimes providing imagistic interpretation of the natural world, Bell Orchestre marches into what sounds like chaotic conflict between personality and the elements while maintaining a pleasant and listenable tone.

“Chaos has always been part of the process for us. It’s even crazier now because of so many people involved,” Feuerstack said.

With so many people involved, scheduling has been difficult, he said. But collaboration between artists once they’re all together in the same room comes naturally. “For lots of bands it’s pulling teeth but for us it’s a big collaboration.” The spirit of collaboration presents itself on many fronts—between the main artists from an array of projects and between people and precipitation.

In late February, Bell Orchestre played in New York with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. The stage was shared between the Philharmonic, Bell Orchestre and The Clogs, a band described as a post-rock ensemble merging Western improvisation with the folk aesthetic of the Indian and Jewish diaspora.

“I thought it was just exciting to sit on the stage and listen to the orchestra. We had a hand in choosing the program that they played from. You don’t usually get to choose what the orchestra plays. We just got to sit right on the stage and listen to them play. It was pretty inspiring when it was time for us to do our stuff,” Feuerstack said.

“Usually we’re the odd ones out at a rock show, we have an exotic appeal so we come in a bit cockier but with the orchestra the dynamic was different. It more of a pristine environment, with everyone listening.”

As an instrumental post-rock band that is often described as classical, playing with a classical orchestra was a humbling experience, Feuerstack said, adding that the way bands are labelled is rarely accurate.

“I don’t think it hurts anybody’s feelings, but it’s not really accurate either,” he said. “Everyone in the band has different inspirations. We all listen to different things. I don’t think classical is any more of an influence.”

When asked if they’d use other art mediums as influential tools in the future, Feuerstack said Bell Orchestre is open to the idea.

“There’s talk of maybe doing a film or soundtrack down the line, if there’s something that comes along that interests all of us.”

The wide-open attitude bodes well. Although Bell Orchestre may have outgrown the role of subordinate backup music, they are good stewards for the sonic response to other entities. Reactive but not derivative, Bell Orchestre’s reverse pathetic fallacy will restructure the tale of elements you forgot existed in the first place.

Bell Orchestre play Saturday, April 4 at Sydenham Street United Church. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance and available at Destinations, The Grad Club and online at maplemusic.com.

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