Album Review: Bell Orchestre – As Seen Through Windows

If there’s room in the musical cosmos for another classically inclined, genre-welding Canadian group, then Bell Orchestre is in luck – their place in the galaxy is safe. Including full and part-time members of the popular Canadian art rock outfit Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre takes the “rock” in “art rock” and replaces it with impressively constructed compositions that encompass chamber music, modern orchestral pieces, ambient sojourns, and experimental rhythmic music. Their latest release, As Seen Through Windows (CDMP3), is an improvisational, open ended experience tempered by the band’s unique sonic sensibilities.

The expansive opener “Air Lines/Land Lines” is a constantly changing mass of pinging bells, fanciful trumpets, and moody strings that will test the limits of any wayward hipsters who might think this disc to be Arcade Fire Part 2. Eventually, the track does delve into the signature Canadian indie-pop well, with a segment that pits a drumset’s rolling rock rhythms against a dreamy swath af echoing horns and seductive strings. Overall, such moments are fleeting on this release.

Their brilliant rendition of Aphex Twin’s mangled electronic masterpiece “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” has garnered this album plenty of attention, all of which is deserved. Hopefully those in search of the next cool Arts and Crafts thing to download won’t dismiss As Seen Through Windows, because it is a challenging album that needs to be heard, especially by those who support their other project. It would be a shame if this record falls through the significant crack between pure classical music and the orchestral post-rock that denotes the border of what rock fans will tolerate.

It’s certainly unwieldy enough to do just that. This album is like a giant styrofoam sphere with sharp adjectives jammed into and protruding from its curves, and no single song is easily defineable. Distorted drums and fuzzy bass interject themselves at the most unexpected points, turning dramatic, highly visual string sections into rolling boulders of sound bent on calamity. “Elephants” cycles through multiple sections such as this, before coming to rest on a gentle figure of plucked strings and somber horns. “Icicles/Bicycles” visits enough sonic terrain to make even the most attentive listener quizically shuffle in their seat, chauffering the ears from glacial soundscapes to triumphant crescendos and back again.

The quick trio of tunes that close out the album are a bite-sized synopsis of the band. “Stripes” juxtaposes repetitive, unearthly movements of minimalism against an insistent trumpet. “The Gaze,” the most rhythmically simple track on the disc, charges out of the gate with the same energetic, noisy abandon inherent to the performers’ other lives, and “Water/Light/Shifts” brings the mood down with sounds that readily evoke the images manifested by the song’s title.

Some listeners will find very quickly that their musical tastes aren’t quite as diverse as they envision them to be. Others will embrace the album’s indulgent fanfare and cinematic playlist as a welcome departure from the relative structure of the genre. Personally, I have trouble ignoring music that is as worthy of serious study, transcription and sheet music as it is conducive to real world situations. As Seen Through Windows would fit equally well in a music appreciation class or a long drive through the country. It’s also a potent example of a particular element and style that informs the growing orchestral pop genre as a whole.

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