Story by Matt RichterInadvertently, I made the mistake of reading up on this act before seeing a live performance; a mistake for me at least, one that can manifest subconscious preconceptions. In one review I read, a critic noted that their music sounds like a film score. In another, their act is described as sharing that special rapture inherent in classical music. I admit, sitting paralyzed in a row near the back and nearer the faint red glow from an overhead exit light casting barely enough luminescence to keep my frantic scribbles legible as I try miserably to capture in words the orchestral sound traversing my inner ear, I run through these verbal tags, trying to see the "match" of the performance with these descriptions. However, the only observation commonly coined by critics that fit the musical fanfare before that Sunday night crowd and stuck with me throughout the show is "unique."
Photos by Matt Schwenke
Shrugging off any labels, Montreal-born Bell Orchestre (French pronunciation or-kest) bucks conventional genres with pure musicality. Now in its sixth year, the six-strong instrumental ensemble began as a project producing scores for dance productions. Formed by Indie-rock notables and Arcade Fire members Sarah Neufeld (violin) and Richard Parry (upright bassist, multi-instrumentalist), Bell Orchestre quickly took on a life of its own. A long-coming debut album Recording a tape in the Colour of the Light (Rough Trade Records, label to Arcade Fire and the Strokes), completed in 2003, wasn't released stateside until 2005. The release didn't need any added dramatic anticipation; it was quickly lauded as an instrumental achievement and deserves every inch of accolades. Stepping off a swing through the Midwest on their latest tour, and onto the Pabst Theatre's ornate stage, the band entranced Milwaukeeans with a new flavor Sunday, and every ear-turned audience member that night walked away not full and content, but with pangs of hunger for more of the auditory spectacle still lingering on their palates.
Few contemporary acts privy to Pabsts' lush digs live up to the plush surroundings, Bell Orchestre being an undeniable exception. Clad in all white, giving each player an eerie glow against the blue-washed stage, the band pushes an Indie-rock-infused instrumental sound layered with Latin and jazz influences. Parry fingers a tight bass line, then quickly draws a bow from behind his back like a small sword to produce a rapid succession of low tones that complement the complex rhythms laid down by drummer Stefan Schneider. Pietro Amato, French horn, and Kaveh Nabatian, trumpet, conjure lively brass over Parry's bass, intertwining long notes with Neufeld's at once delicate, aggressive and beautiful violin play. Together, the six serve up the sound equivalent of several orchestras with a rock band thrown in for bitterness, with slavish timing and a casual look like they've played on this playground a thousand times before.
Bell Orchestre's creativity doesn't stop at their sound; it drips into their performance as well. Mid-show, Schneider abandons his drum set and takes a seat center stage between Parry and Neufeld, where he brandishes a typewriter and, adding to Parry's bass line, produces a beat with each keystroke, occasionally broken by the clank-ring sound of a new line. As the song ends, Schneider rips the page from the machine, crumples it in his fist and throws it aside.
To hear their sound begs the term "refreshing," but to witness their creative explosion live demands a different description. Bell Orchestre stands out not only on musical talent, but on erasing genre barriers with a single, melodic breath.
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