From high church to being high at a club, German producer Hendrik Weber, aka Pantha Du Prince, displayed just about every sound and mood a bell could produce. From a three-tonne carillon of 50 assorted bronze bells to wee little dainty handbells, there wasn’t a precious metal in sight on the Queen Elizabeth Hall that didn’t get some abuse. While Weber spent most of his night twiddling knobs and supplying the synthetic beats for the party, it was left to the five members of The Bell Laboratory to get their bong on.
But it could have so easily gone belly up. The Rough Trade artist summoned fans to the formal Queen Elizabeth Hall with promises of the woozy psychedelic jams on his recent release, Elements Of Light. And at first, it was hilariously underwhelming as all six of the musicians, clad in white with grey industrial blast furnace smocks, slowly trudged onto the stage armed with only two handbells each and some theatrically stark lighting. The peals were singular, slow, alternating and seemingly going nowhere until the polyphonies started and things got fugal fast. Now this was more interesting.
With the sound of a dozen bells cascading off the concrete walls of the hall, the players were passing on the fundamental sounds and timbres of each of the bells to the audience. “Look how we can work together! Or listen to how we sound alone!” the forged friends shouted.
When the formal introductions faded away, it was clearly time to get down to business. Each of the musicians assumed their positions behind the hulking array of bells, cymbals, percussion, or in Weber’s case a tangle of laptops and patch cables, and here’s where the Elements of Light kicked in. Immediately, the startlingly clear and unnervingly true sound of the bells ran up against the computer-processed beats from Weber’s laptop, creating the first shock of the night. It sounded dirty. And wrong. Like someone had farted in a chapel.
But wait – the drummer has picked up his sticks and now his kit is alive with a Tortoise-like shimmering run of cymbals, toms and high hat. Things were getting jazzy, a bit loose, at times tropical when the steel drum emerged, a bit like the sound Can without Holger Czukay’s basslines or like a House track with a better sense of humour. Throw in an insistent triangle and a glockenspiel blurting out blocks of Kraftwerk-style chords, and it all started to sound like Weber had created a club tune with loads of patch samples on his laptop one night, and then said – Eureka! – I’m going to go out and find the instruments that make all of these sounds for real. Or as Canadian master pianist Chilly Gonzales once told musicOMH: “An orchestra is the most expensive synthesizer in the world.”
Unfortunately for Weber, he harnessed that very expensive orchestra of heavy metal in a very limited way. Yes, he made his smoky electronic world seem more human, more shimmering, more real. But it was only to serve the purpose of this straight-jacketed electronica. Not a single solo was let rip, not a single freak out allowed on the carillon, and even the terrificly-loose-limbed, super-in-the-pocket drummer was allowed to throw off Weber’s shackles. They played the album for 45 minutes in a lovely and intoxicating, if fairly note-perfect way, and got the crowd dancing in their seats. But the music just felt too safe to provoke any deeper or wilder interaction with the crowd.
For that, Weber would have needed to take the formula that made Elements of Light such an unusual and exhilarating listen upon its release and pushed the formula into unexplored territories, letting his talented fellow musicians riff it up on their hardware and see where they could all chime in.
However, the night proved a holy entertaining spectacle of bell power that will be a rarity on concert stages due to the logistical and financial improbabilities involved. And as such, it probably took bells of steel from Weber to make this rather absurd and costly stage show a reality in London, as well as giving the crowd a first-rate and pretty damn groovy education in campanology. For that, he deserves a gong.