The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, June 25, 2007
BELL ORCHESTRE

Watching this week’s chapter in the BBC2 series Seven Ages Of Rock, which concerned itself with the rise and collapse of “alternative” rock, or college rock, in the America of Reagan and the first Bush – a “morning in America” which seemed to have omitted the letter “u” somewhere along the way (“Something In The Way” indeed) – with a particular focus on REM and, especially, Nirvana, brought it home (again) how vital it was for a new and distinct community to set itself up in the face of a society which had no time or wish for it, and how easy it was for the same community to lose its force and purpose when commercial success beckoned, since all that the original society had to do was jump on it when the breakthrough came and roughly mould it into a new, updated profit template. This had the desired effect of killing the community since it couldn’t go about its business or pleasure in the way originally intended; too many people wanted in, and the originators wanted out. With Cobain, this was demonstrated in painful extremis.

I fervently hope that the same thing doesn’t happen with the Canadian “scene” as it stands now. There are signs of danger. Arcade Fire have, practically by default, become both the REM and the Nirvana de nos jours for those too young to have lived through that era. Will they be allowed to develop and evolve at their own pace, or will the pressure which already seems to be telling prematurely tire them out? Can they escape being pinned down as The Next U2 and remain capable of flying? My optimistic feeling is that they will pursue the REM route of remaining successful while staying patiently uncompromising. The sum of the multiple rainbow coalitions of loves and influences which each member brings to the group is too great to be easily controlled or reined in.

I’m unsure whether Bell Orchestre still exists as a going concern, or whether, by virtue of its main members, bassist and keyboardist Richard Reed Parry and violinist Sarah Neufeld, it has absorbed itself into the Arcade Fire fabric. They were – or are – an instrumental collective, and their 2005 album Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light was assembled from two years of recordings but retains a sense of spontaneous discovery and interaction. The CD package comes decorated like a particularly florid da Vinci workbook; hopeful sketches of Doric columns alternate with maps, compasses and darkly red drawings of reclaimed wilderness. There is a typewriter which in one panel displays the words THANK YOU and looks like a modified cash register. There is a feeling of the sacred (“and we all clapped and whistled”) with multiple thanks (“thank you, thank you, thank you”) and a sense of natural holiness: how many records of this age could carry dedications to “BELOVED PARENTS” without coming across as cloying?

The record itself is supremely patient in its creativity. Broadly divided between atmospheric, improvised ambient interludes (the “recording a tunnel” sections) and more formal instrumental pieces, but with each still flowing into the other, the slowly accumulating horns sounding like ships in the night, together with the sounds of waves of water, make me wonder whether Björk might have listened to this before, or while, putting together Volta, though Bell Orchestre’s found sounds, while still troubled in several ways, are generally more peaceful, less effusive. The two-part “Les Lumieres” sets out the group’s modus operandi; Pt. 1 begins with a blend of trilling French horn, twinkling, high-register lead guitar, muted trumpet, glockenspiel, courtly violin and a bassline which could have come from an old Drifters record. Eventually these elements coalesce into melody, but soon thundering tympani and a heartbeat rhythm usher in an improvised section, the players’ notes dissolving into pointillistic birdsong. Pt. 2 begins with a vibrant gypsy dance, led by Neufeld’s frenetic violin (and reminding me greatly of East Of Eden); this too settles into a comfortable post-rock sprint, punctuated by occasional explosions of freeform brass, before “Sir” Mike Feverstock (who is also credited with “soaring flourishes at live shows”) brings the piece to a satisfactorily quiet resolution with his lap steel.

“THROW IT ON A FIRE” (the title is meaningfully capitalised in the credits, whereas most of the other titles are listed in small print only) is a thrilling reaffirmation and reclamation of living and breathing music, combining flamenco (the thunderous handclaps and footstomps of the opening section underlined but not undermined by an enormous, undulating siren), Arthur Russell’s early ensemble works (horn figures rising graciously on the horizon like a particularly generous early morning sun), Mingus franticity (French horn player Pietro Amato gleefully whooping away like Bob Northern on Liberation Music Orchestra, that earlier example of an even-handed, mutually dependent musical community setting itself up in defiance of a brutalist establishment) and compositional logic (since, at the end, peace once again reigns, the heartbeat rhythm now more serene); they are total masters of the disguised quiet/loud alternating dynamic which the Pixies invented in another connected time.

When we reach pieces like “The Upwards March” and “Nuevo,” it’s clear to see how Bell Orchestre’s ethic feeds directly into Arcade Fire music (Regine duly turns up with her accordion and “enthusiasm” on the latter). The excitable and exciting, sturdy beats which provide the undertow to “The Upwards March”’s steadily escalating anthem seem to be waiting for Win to add his proclamations to them. Like Generation X Northern Soul as scored and conducted by Todd Levin, with its violins-as-guitars bells of liberation, it is both danceable and purposeful, whereas “Nuevo”’s progress is more subdued and subtle, developing into a becoming tango with its skilful unions of melodica, accordion and pizzicato strings, soon joined by bold Victory At Sea brass figures (with a beautiful solo violin line by Neufeld); again strength is gradually built up, and at its end spirits of whistling angels carry it into the heavens.

“Salvatore Amato” I suspect is a tribute to a then-recently departed relative of Pietro’s (and there is another, parallel link with Funeral). Beginning with a solemn organ, it too blossoms into an elegant piece of quasi-orchestral/quasi-post rock music (early Penguin Café Orchestra meeting the Tortoise of “Cliff Dweller Society”), its key minor but hopeful, its restrained poignancy vast; the last word is left to a glockenspiel, patiently ticking away in tandem with the typewriters we hear in the “recording a tape (typewriter duet)” interlude.

Those interludes, if they should be termed as such (since the whole album is a thoroughly integrated, single piece of music), inevitably lead one to speculate on ghosts (if not hauntology, for these are the signals given out by people who want to live); “the bells play the band” sounds like a reclaimed children’s radio soundtrack from the forties with its scratchy clavioline and wind tunnels breathing through the brass players’ mouthpieces – but its sublime bells come from the now, from the tomorrow. In the second “recording a tunnel” segment the harmonic configurations of the brass figures are worthy of William Walton or Walter Piston.

The final “recording a tunnel” section (subtitled “(the invisible bells)”) is immensely moving in the early Gavin Bryars sense (the original 1975 recording of The Sinking Of The Titanic in particular), with its dots of French horns, violins, synthesiser and tolling bells slowly drifting into the ether, still resonating far into outer space, through the cosmos, with huge, cavernous spaces of echo and undefined atmospheric phenomena guiding them both through the tunnel and eventually out of it. Here the music exceeds itself, becomes supernatural in the sense that you feel that it is being created by nature rather than people, an infinite galaxy which seems to take both players and listeners out of themselves – for comparison purposes, I think of Eluvium, that remarkable and I think unprecedented New York duo of musician and poet (Matthew Cooper composes and plays, or at least generates, the layers of music, while Philip Cooper writes unsung poems as accompaniment), whose 2005 album Talk Amongst The Trees is among the most fully realised, yet also the most approachable, works of post-Fennesz guitar music (the simple figures of “Taken” last some seventeen minutes but you want it to go on forever; they seep into the air around you, seemingly distant but actually very touchable for those with sufficient patience to be touched), or Maryann Amacher’s Sound Characters, designed to be listened to in combination with her various artworks but on headphones in the middle of Suffolk sounding like the goodly breath of God.

The music on “(the invisible bells)” seems to fade away forever, but does not signal a farewell; rather, these are signals travelling out, being sent out, through the air, over the water, intended to reach others far away, to find, welcome and embrace lost souls. Following a brief pause, there is one final piece, entitled “(frost),” which demonstrates what happens when the signals reach their destination; a careful, marimba-led rhythm, like a buried calypso, plays while the transmitters from “(the invisible bells)” reach it and low brass play a resolving melody of harmonisation, one soul reaching and connecting with another. Listening to Bell Orchestre I feel humbled, and knowledgeable, too, about how my own life is changing, or reclaiming its original purpose, about the need, the joyous need, to establish these new roots, to form our own blessed and beloved community in the face of a world which otherwise seems not to have changed an atom since the days which gave rise to Murmur and New Day Rising. As the Replacements put it, “Left Of The Dial” – in music, so in politics, so in living…then, now and always.


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