Music Reviews
As Seen Through Windows

Bell Orchestre As Seen Through Windows

(Arts & Crafts) Rating - 5/10

If you know who the six-piece instrumental ensemble Bell Orchestre are, you probably know that they involve members of Arcade Fire, because every banner ad and artist profile pounds the fact into your head mercilessly. They also recorded their debut album (Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light, 2005) in the same time and place as Funeral, an album that time has been kinder to. But it’s a bit unfair to compare one historic-in-the-making chamber pop masterpiece to Orchestre, a nut that is inherently much tougher to crack.

As Seen Through Windows, Orchestre’s sophomore followup to Recording, sounds like Tortoise if they were trapped in a room with only baroque-period instruments. It’s a slow-building fire to warm your ears to, and it’s also frustratingly coy. Unlike Arcade Fire, it doesn’t tell a story so much as it paints a picture. The band, though, is so afraid to show this picture, sometimes the listener is forced to guess what it is.

If it wasn’t for the Arcade Fire connection, Bell Orchestre would hardly be considered “popular music” at all. They evoke another post-rock instrumental band, Talkdemonic, in that they are stabbing at subtleties with gut strings. This is a dangerous road to embark on musically, a testament to why there are so few memorable post-rock musicians. I mention Talkdemonic because both they and Bell Orchestre possess the same quality that is their strength as well as their weakness – restraint. As Seen Through Windows is like an existential experience trying desperately to burst out of its thick, rubbery membrane and succumbing to exhaustion just a moment too soon.

I am at a loss to decide when in a regular day this is an appropriate album to listen to. It can’t be fitted into a firm category like “exciting” or “sad”, which balances it precariously in an inconvenient limbo between emotional responses. There is good here, hidden under the slabs of stolid harmony and musical blankness. But getting to it is more than slippery, and repeated listens only reap benefits some of the time. On the title track, for instance, patience reveals a cherubic model of pacing and mood, while revisits to Water/Light/Shifts just reveals how empty a shell the song really is. The Gaze is a fireball of pure space-travel greatness that provides a breath-taking rush after a mostly languid pace, but it’s thrown away all too soon and forgotten.

As Seen Through Windows is an unfortunately accurate title, because the listener is less an involved party as much as a witness, someone gazing at a starscape through a little, round cockpit window. As beautiful as it is, seeing isn’t enough. You want to touch it, taste it, smell it. There’s a whole lot of beauty in As Seen Through Windows, but it isn’t attainable beauty. When the music stops, so does it disappear, leaving you feeling as though you’ve lost something in the process.