CD Review

Bel Canto - Four Releases

By Marcus Pan

Bel CantoI received four albums by Norwegian group Bel Canto from an associate in Texas this past week and have spun them quite often. Created in 1986 in Tromso, Norway, Bel Canto creates a mood-setting atmospheric sound. Their sound lies somewhere between pop and ethereal, combining sounds typical of The Cure on one side and Enigma on the other. They are well renowned in Europe, but their inroads onto American soil still leaves them somewhere between popular artist and rare find. I would love to see them play for me someday.

The releases that I have from them include their first two full albums - "White-Out Conditions" and "Birds of Passage." These were released in 1987 & 1990 respectively. The next I have is 1996's "Magic Box" as well as their single CD of "Unicorn" (1992). Bel Canto uses a strong combination of tribal drums, computer-synthesized melodies and soundscapes with a healthy dose of acoustic instruments as well. It's a nice, comfortable combination and it's all brought together to support the voice of Anneli Drecker, a woman with a great range and a sublime voice that she seemingly projects from her soul. Accompanying her is Nils Johansen who provides much of the acoustic sounds you are in store for when spinning Bel Canto. With each album they've brought in more people to provide more complicated arrangements that include a plethora of instruments.

White Out ConditionsWhite-Out Conditions (1987 - Nettwerk/Crammed)
Their official debut, W-O C is an eclectic release that strongly shows Bel Canto's talents from the beginning. Helping the original duo of BC here is Geir Jenssen who handled the computer-rendered aspect of W-O C's music. While W-O C is a strong release and a wonderful debut, it's not my favorite of the batch I'm reviewing today. Nonetheless you'll hear how BC began - over the years they've increased the scope of their music and created more difficult and complicated arrangements. W-O C is a very tribal album with strong rhythms, strumming mandolins and string-laced synthesizers designed to give a near-symphonic experience.

Some of the tracks to listen for on this album include "Capio," which contains lyrics half in Italian and half in English. The reason why I enjoy this track so much is the voice - that of Anneli of course. It's high-octave, dream like and very beautiful. The seventh track listed, "Kloeberdanz," is instrumental and begins with a wonderful flute melody by Nils. The tribalistic rhythm and programmed drum tracks that pick up the song following the slow melody are Aboriginal in sound - something you'd hear in the outback of Australia. Or at least that's what I get out of it. White-Out Conditions is a well-done debut. It's not BC's best work, but it does show that they nonetheless starting running with a healthy head start.

Birds of Passage (1990 - Nettwerk)
BoP is a wonderful release. A huge assortment of acoustic and wind instruments were brought in to support the computer synthesis of Nils and vocal incantations of Anneli. Geir is back with some of the keyboards and programming again and many others join the trio in the studio to bring instruments like the flugelhorn, viola, cello, clarinet and more. Live drums were even used. But though all of these instruments and a half dozen more people than W-O C are included here, the sound is still wonderfully arranged while deliciously complicated. It is here that you begin to notice BC's use of more standard instruments and sounds to complement the programmed synthesizer melodies.

Birds of PassageThere are a lot of great tracks here. Trying to pick some of my favorites is difficult. Of course one that must be mentioned is the nominal track, "Birds of Passage," second on the list. Here Anneli's voice is superb and leads you off into the sky. Nils bass lies just under the vocals, holding her up while not becoming too droning nor too loud. It's just enough, so to speak. "Glassmaker" is strong with Arabian influences. If there is any testament to Anneli's true talents as a vocalist, it is herein contained. The drum tracks are grandly complicated and keep the song so alive it enraptures you. Anneli's occasional shrieks on this track are almost orgasmic. The last track I'll mention is the tenth, "Picnic on the Moon," a droning, subliminal piece reminiscent of soundscape artists like Zoar or Mara's Torment. Anneli croons her way into your heart - it's time to get away from it all, take a picnic on the moon. Anneli takes us back to her childhood, but only for a moment. "But then I found this book inside a drawer, A girl treasuring thoughts, Here's what I wrote." The world sucks, this we know - but at least the moon is out of reach for most of the bastards who raped this world. So let's go there.

UnicornUnicorn (1992 - Dali/Chameleon)
This release isn't listed on Bel Canto's website at all. Released around the same time as their "Shimmering, Warm & Bright" album (which I have not heard yet), it is a collection of remixes for their song "Unicorn." The only thing I can figure is maybe they had nothing to do with it really - "Unicorn" is from the SW&B album that came out around the same time as this single. I think that's as far as they were involved in this production - supplying a track with which Steve Forward and Per Martinsen can tinker with.

There are six versions of "Unicorn" here, including "Ride the Unicorn." It's a mesmerizing song. Steve Forward does one of the remixes, a strongly synthesized blend of programmed beats and bass. The original sound of "Unicorn" is left untouched for the most part, Steve adding in more of a rhythmic appeal and mixing it up into a more trip-hop style than it was. Highlight here is "Ride the Unicorn," the third track. A strong, drum-laden backbeat was added to the original song on this track turning "Unicorn" into something akin to a dance club classic.

Magic BoxMagic Box (1996 - Atlantic)
Now we come to my favorite of these four releases from Norway's Bel Canto. Anneli's voice here has matured since their debut with W-O C. It is more human throughout Magic Box - like she's singing for herself rather than you. On the other releases I've listened to over this past week her voice is more angelic, with an immortal quality. But here she comes back to Earth - back to us. Again a number of individuals join Nils and Anneli in the studio to record MB. There are many instruments - strings and synthesizers arranged so they join each other with Arabian influences and tribal rhythm. Trip-hop masterpieces flood this album and with Anneli's voice - I've tranced myself to a few of these tracks.

The album opens with "The Magic Box I," a toy piano playing from a little girl's music box. Anneli asks Mr. Sage over and over again where her dreams have gone and where she can find them. Then you are lead throughout creation looking for her dreams. The next track, "In Zenith," needs to be mentioned for it's awesome string breakdown about halfway through the song. "In Zenith" has a strong Arabian sound to it. Following this, "Free Lunch In the Jungle" provides a funky bass line and is filled with vocal utterings of "Ohs" and "Do do dos." It's a spicy, original mix and was very unexpected following the Arabian sound of the previous track. We're going to jump ahead to track eleven now, "Big Belly Butterflies." This is one of the loveliest songs I have ever heard. The bass slides along with what sounds like a steel guitar (courtesy of B. J. Cole). Anneli rises again to her angelic stature here with gorgeous harmonies and wonderful wordplay in the lyrics; "…inside is solitude, inside this solid tube." I can't listen to this song without closing my eyes. Too strong of a chance the emotional combinations of sound and lyrics might make me cry. And just when you think you will, "Kiss of Spring" begins with a folk sound (guitar? mandolin?) and breaks into a comfortable and much happier groove. A run through a field of blossoms and remembrances of first loves and first kisses. And then we close with the toy piano again, reminding us that no matter how far we fly looking for our dreams and with whatever we use for our transport - music, faith or spirit - you can always come home again.

Contact Information:
URL: http://www.belcanto.no

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