AEM137 Del Bel

Del Bel began in the studio as an outlet for the compositions of Tyler Belluz, a Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist. The talents of Belluz must run deep, since to list them all on the Del Bel press-kit required the liberal adjustment of the page layout. He is the principal compositional force behind the collective, and plays double-bass, electric-bass, drums, guitar, accordion, organ, and, musical saw on the artist’s forthcoming debut, Oneiric. From what I gather, the final instrument on the list is not some sort of saw-toothed synthesizer but a very real and very sharp handsaw played with a bow, much like a violin.

Belluz has the credentials to be a one man band, but he’s also recruited ample assistance since he began work on Oneiric in 2010. Del Bel has evolved into a collective effort, and the album credits reveal-when you make it past the surprise mention of the musical saw-that Belluz is supported by an ensemble of epic scale and experience. To list all the projects in which the collective’s dozen members have been involved would require a veritable retrospective of Toronto indie-rock since the turn of the millennium. Members of the collective hail from Broken Social Scene, Do Make Say Think, Bry Webb Band, Happiness Project, Ohbijou, Flowers of Hell, Sun Parlour Players, and countless other bands that I haven’t bothered to list, but which are probably worthy of mention. The link between Del Bel and these illustrious acts, however, is cemented by more than shared members. Del Bel is a child of the creative orgy that spawned super-groups like Broken Social Scene in the first place. These artists share a collective heritage in an era of free love and free downloads, where a band does not represent an exclusive relationship, and where the amount of projects a respectable musician may be involved in is limited only by the number of accounts he or she can bother to register on Facebook and MySpace. The inherent philosophical framework seems exemplified by the scene in Toronto, although Belluz insists that it’s become a worldwide phenomenon. “I don’t think Toronto has more collectives then other cities,” he explains. “In our case, we don’t want to be confined to playing the same stuff, day in and day out. It’s quite exciting trying to remember the songs in the middle of concerts.”

Del Bel plans to perform with a (marginally) stripped-down ensemble of nine. “__I still have other people that recorded on the album that want to join live” Belluz jokes, “but I think I gotta keep this band smaller than a hockey team.” Already, the collective is so large that transportation to shows requires a caravan of automobiles. Nevertheless, with nearly all nine members involved in three or four additional active projects, I wondered whether logistics might prove problematic. “__I haven’t run into too many problems trying to organize this 9 person band,” Belluz explains, “but by all means, I need to book these people way in advance.” With regard to creative process, Del Bel seems to have happened upon a functional dynamic rare for bands of such size. Belluz oversees the artistic direction of the collective, but encourages other members to contribute to the compositional process, with the observation that, “it would seem a bit controlling to direct someone on how to cry into their instrument for desired effect.” Thus, Del Bel has coalesced into a more permanent fixture, poised to step from the shadow of the prolific resumes of its membership.

Oneiris, a term that signifies a surreal state, is an apt title for the album-slated to be released on Friday, November 11th in CD, vinyl, and mp3 format-which evokes a thick dreamlike atmosphere. Like a dream, its full of unexpected twists and turns. The eleven tracks on the album all sound very different. A-Side “No Reservation” and B-Side “Invisible” give a pretty accurate indication of the vast range of styles represented. Nevertheless, the tracks seem united by a common bond that is difficult to pinpoint.

A significant part of the bond is Lisa Conway, whose dynamic vocals and fresh lyrics mark the Del Bel aesthetic. Belluz describes Conway as a major creative force behind the project, and frames her role in the band as all but crucial. Therefore, I was surprised to learn that Oneiris was initially recorded as an instrumental album. Belluz hints that it took a bit of coercion to get long-term co-collaborator Conway on board with the project at first. “She only quit three-maybe four-times,” he jokes. “Technically the songs were conceived as weird little instrumentals. But I knew in my heart she would be the (only) one to sing on them.” Upon further listens, however, we may notice the mark Conway’s indecision has left on the music. Del Bel seems to draw its unique personality from the uncertain maturation process. To imagine how it might have sounded otherwise would be to imagine Harry Potter without the scar, or to imagine the Canadian topology unmarred by glaciers that carved it’s lakes and mountains. “I still can’t imagine anyone else’s reaction to trying to fit vocals lines to the instrumental tracks, confesses Belluz. Conway’s additions are shaped by the unique demands she faced in fitting vocal parts to compositions that had developed without them. She has taken great care not to intrude upon the music’s instrumental core. The tracks unfold at a leisurely rate, and Oneiris includes several instrumental interludes. For instance,“Invisible” forces the listener to wait nearly a third of the track time for vocals to drop. When they finally do, Conway’s line maintains a tasteful deference to the ensemble, buried behind wispy synths and a persistent piano drone.

In general, Del Bel devotes a lot more attention to instrumental detail than the typical indie band-even the typical twelve member indie band, if such an archetype exists. This comes across not only in the shape of each composition, but also in the intriguing arrangement of acoustic and electric elements. The whispers of keyboards wash over earthy drum grooves and the unpredictable slaps and creaks of a double bass. Ample credit is also owed to Heather Kirby, who mixed the tracks. All tracks on Oneiris suggest a focus on timbre over melody or harmony. “No Reservation” , for instance, builds toward a chorus unusual for its stark lack of harmonic movement, anchored by a memorable riff forcefully delivered in unison by vocals and instruments. The tune evokes the cabaret-jazz of a bygone era, but it does so with deceptive minimalism, capturing the vibe but rejecting the details. I recalled a memorable trumpet solo on the track but upon repeat listens, I suddenly realized that there is no trumpet solo whatsoever. A few growls and single-note burst evoke the sensation as convincingly all the borrowed notes of a Dizzie Gillespie solo. In that respect, Oneiric seems philosophically a closer relative to a film score than any album by the indie-rock collectives from which it draws members. And indeed, Del Bel has contributed to numerous film scores, which is a nice accomplishment if you remember that the group has yet to play its first show or release its first album.

In short, the ingenuity of Del Bel shines through in the grand scale of the vision, and in the tactful precision with which it has been realized. Listeners will be seduced by the top-notch production and arrangement, while the emotional weight of the composition and nuanced musicianship will keep them hooked. This music has a lot of layers, and it’s bound to resonate with most audiences.

No Reservation No Reservation.mp3

Invisible Invisible.mp3