Throughout the latest lockdown, South London’s multi-arts megalith The Southbank Centre has been presenting a series of online events as part of their Inside Out festival. Featuring music, comedy and literature from artists as diverse as The London Contemporary Orchestra and Skunk Anansie frontwoman Skin, the series has continued to shine a light for the arts while the house lights remain down.
Tonight’s performance from avant-garde sextet Bell Orchestre is my second foray into the Inside Out programme and while last week’s stunning performance by Black Country, New Road took the inside of the Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall out to the world, today’s show brings the outside in to our living rooms, with the band set up in a secluded woodland clearing in Rivière Perdue, Canada.
The set begins with a disorienting burst of sound and vision, a distorted explosion of noise matched with a chaotic swirl of monochrome which then settles on the six players in their idyllic surroundings. We’re introduced to each musician: Pietro Amato (French horn, keyboards, electronics), Michael Feuerstack (pedal steel guitar, keyboards, vocals), Kaveh Nabatian (trumpet, gongoma, keyboards, vocals), Sarah Neufeld (violin, vocals), Richard Reed Parry (double bass, vocals) and Stefan Schneider (drums) as they set about creating what they describe as an “immersive ecosystem” of sound. The piece titled, ironically given their fresh air location, House Music and due to be released as an album via Erased Tapes later this week, unfolds over the course of 45 minutes, divided more into movements than songs with nary a pause for breath throughout the entire captivating experience.
I must admit to having gone into today’s performance somewhat blind, drawn in by the presence of Neufeld and Reed Parry, who might be more familiar to readers as members of Arcade Fire, and what reading I was able to do beforehand did little to prepare me for the sensory treat with which I was soon to be indulged. Having grown up on a diet of lo-fi indie and three chord punk rock and the inverted snobbery that accompanied it, I lack the technical vocabulary to describe exactly how Bell Orchestre weave such rich soundscapes from their instruments, but I can certainly have a go at expounding upon the feelings that are invoked as I luxuriate in the wide-ranging palate of flavours that this performance serves up.
It’s an astonishing collection of styles: jazz, contemporary classical, post-rock, ambient and electro all blended to silky smooth textures, making my synapses sway and dance; gentle passages of strings, delicate keys and the merest whisper of cymbals lulling me in to beatific reverie before a storm-force blast of horns, a thunderous rumble of toms or lightning crackle of distorted electronics sends a shock up my spine. Alien sounds are coaxed from familiar instrumentation, both through effects pedals and unorthodox technique as Reed Parry beats out a rhythm on the body of his upright bass, or thwacks at its strings with his bow, and the unusual addition of pedal steel to the strings and brass brings an ethereal twinkle that takes us deeper into the otherworldy atmosphere conjured up by the band and their remote location.
The fantastical sounds are matched perfectly by the visuals, directed by trumpeter Kaveh Nabatian, flickering between crisp black and white close ups to hazy overlays which meld the band, their instruments and the majestic nature of the Canadian wilderness; the sun breaking through the swaying foliage of a tree, the wake of a swimmer breast-stroking their way across an otherwise pristine lake. Then, as penultimate track ‘Nature That’s It That’s All’ announces itself, a sudden headrush of colour, a vibrant sunset of blue and orange spilling across the screen in dreamy watercolour blurs that send the viewer reeling before ‘Closing’ lifts us out of the trees to sit us amongst the clouds, looking down on the forest that has kept us spellbound for the past forty-five minutes, before gently placing us back down into reality, blissful and bewildered in equal measure.
The Southbank Centre’s Inside Out season continues until 6th May 2021 – click here for full listings.
Review by Paul Maps