Album Appreciation: House Music by Bell Orchestre

Every so often an album comes along which I consider to be an ‘absolute gem’. The usual criteria for this is that it exceptionally good, has seemingly come from nowhere, does not really cleave to any particular genre, and very often performed by musicians who you know from other (rather different) bands. This latter point is of particular note, because music fans often expect the subjects of their fandom to be musically rather one-dimensional, as if they could not themselves be fans of other types of music.

For me this album by Bell Orchestre fulfils all these criteria, while also scoring high elsewhere too. It is undoubtedly an exceptional album and, while this is the third release under this name, it is the first for twelve years. As I will no doubt go on to say later, this album is unclassifiable such are its many and varied influences; and, finally, it involves two members of the band Arcade Fire who, I must admit, I kind of lost touch with after very much enjoying their debut album ‘Funeral’ back in 2003… which, coincidentally, was when the first Bell Orchestre album came out.

Now to the title: those expecting ‘House Music’ to be something of a Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley revival album are in for something of a disappointment. Rather this is because is was recorded in the rural Vermont house of band (and Arcade Fire) member Sarah Neufeld; with each instrument, or group of instruments occupying a different room. This, and the fact the who thing was recorded in one take, only adds to its ‘absolute gem’ status…

With ‘Opening’ the album starts off like a couple of jets taking off before settling into the more laid back atmosphere of ‘House’. Here you get to feel the general ambience of your surroundings and tune into the ‘short harmonic loop’ that forms the centre of this work. As the various instruments fall in and out of the mix you really begin to get the feeling that here is a group of musicians who are very invested in this project, and you can certainly sense the immediacy of the playing as you get more deeply into the set.

You are then guided through ten movements of beautiful and well executed music whose quality never once dips. In the third movement, ‘Dark Steel’, you very much get the sense of a building momentum as the collective really get into the groove… things become more intense and dark as we move into ‘What You’re Thinking’… where I am here struck by how you never really know what’s coming next… which instrument is going to come out of which speaker, or when – for instance – the groove suddenly changes: it all, somehow, feels very organic and right.

Segueing into ‘Movement’ you find yourself in the midst of such a beguiling beat which then has an absolute tune laid on top of it… the sort that you might find in a 70s TV series set in the French Riviera. The music is warm with the redolence of a gentle breeze as you bring in the sophistication and feel yourself moving towards something of a climax…

After that ‘All The Time’ feels more delicate and fragile before the bass slides in to add more substance… at this point I thought that I became more aware of the improvisational nature of the music as the band seem to take stock as they move towards something that feels like a definite end.

Certainly ‘Colour Fields’ starts off in a new direction… there is a more experimental feel now, but still with that harmonic loop very evident and setting the tone. Once the percussion strikes up, however, the music lifts off again and we are once more in the middle of something that is very lush and verdant.

Then, as we move into ‘Making Time’, the spaces open up a little and the is something of a more stripped back vibe which, again, takes you somewhere different… the track gradually becomes more fragmented, though never falling on the wrong side of chaos before settling into something more chilled. This continues with ‘Nature That’s It That’s All.’ which empties out almost to a single drone… a moment of reflection before the cycle ends with ‘Closing’, which certainly does have an air of finality about it. Things are almost at a standstill now as we are eased gently back into the temporal world again. Just a lovely transition.

Like the Floating Points/ Pharaoh Sanders album that I wrote about recently, this is a remarkable and unique piece of music that is also to be listened to in one sitting. In a world where attention spans are expected to be much shorter, it is reassuring that such aural art continues to be recorded and released because it provides an opportunity to withdraw from, and reflect upon, the world in which we live… a place which seems every less peaceful with ever more stimulus. Indeed, it seems to be no accident that some of the best music I listen to these days comes from musicians who take themselves away from such milieux and just play… and in doing just that Bell Orchestre have produced an absolute gem!

‘House Music’ is out now on Erased Tapes.



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