String instruments are signifiers of many things. If a band starts sans-orchestra, strings indicate a major-label budget, a “new direction,” or a prom-dance ballad. If the artist has always leaned toward the concert hall, strings say “fringe,” “difficult,” “political,” or all three. In fact, classical music — its violins, violas, French horns and free rhythms — are much of what pop music has defined itself against. Throwing old-world instrumentation into the mix requires panache to pull off without sacrificing accessibility or credibility. Artists who cross that line risk losing themselves (and their fans) in cross-genre limbo.
And this is precisely Bell Orchestre’s problem. Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light hints at post-rock’s splendor, post-punk’s thrill and film music’s ambiance without committing to any relationship. Two of this Montreal crew’s members hail from the Arcade Fire — Richard Reed Parry (the tall, skinny one) and Sarah Neufeld (the chick who doesn’t sing) both get credit here. But whereas the Arcade Fire dedicated itself to each note, Bell Orchestre vacillates without the umph to push “Les Lumieres Pt. 2” past a fleeting thought. This track, like others, feels tinny, chintzy and a bit gutless — like Godspeed You! Black Emperor for the Splenda generation. Besides the riveting opening bars of “Throw It on a Fire,” the members of Bell Orchestre seek uplift, aggression and the epic when their relatively light instrumentation should have them pulling back, seeking more introverted ways to flesh out chamber music’s secrets in a rock ’n’ roll world.
We’re lucky the quintet’s best moment, “Recording a Tunnel,” appears three times on Recording a Tape. Turning up with various sub-headings, each entry in the series focuses on a single, three-note horn melody played, conveniently, in a tunnel. Indifferent cars pass overhead as horn players Pietro Amato and Kaveh Nabatian bleat mournful and gorgeous. Here, the players use their gifts instead of wasting them by skipping through rock songs without the guitars or post-rock songs without the apocalyptica.
It’s unfair to compare these guys to their day jobs, Arcade Fire or not. But at its best, Recording a Tape still sounds like little more than the product of a few precocious marching-band dropouts, an empty warehouse, and good intentions. The kids just need a bit of focus. The members of Bell Orchestre have the sticks, they just need to know where to start the fire.