Elements of Light, Pantha Du Prince's recent album with The Bell Laboratory, worked with a limited sonic palette that was both its unique selling point and its own undoing. The ensemble's mesmeric live show, meanwhile, truly makes sense of what Hendrik Weber and his co-conspirators had aimed to achieve with that record.
A full house of hipsters and older musos awkwardly filled the classy confines of the Queen Elizabeth Hall before the ensemble's performance in London last month, unsure of what to expect. Weber took the stage with his five collaborators, all decked out in aprons and with two bells apiece. Slowly, a hypnotising melody formed as the band members rang in turn. In the dimly-lit hall, this polyphonic melody, broken down into its constituent parts, humbly reminded us of how far music technology has evolved over the last hundred years, imbuing the performance with a mystical atmosphere.
Following this delicate, captivating introduction, the musicians took their places at their instruments. The word "laboratory" is no misnomer; the stage was filled with a variety of wondrous installations, most impressively the three-tonne, 50-bell carillon. It's a wonderfully archaic contraption that looks like an enormous wood and glass museum display cabinet. Soon we were sucked into a whirling flurry of resonating chimes that built slowly into something more measured and cohesive. "Photon" brought the first melodic satisfaction, its discordant carillon melody playing over the drummer's infectious hi-hat rhythms. Weber's snappy beats and warm bass crept up slowly, providing an industrious backbone for the plethora of sounds around him.
A glockenspiel provided yet more rhythmic weight. Violin bows met unseen surfaces and bizarre metal gourds to create dissonant screeches. Slowly but surely, the album's melodic warmth seeped into play, with "Spectral Split" providing an ecstatic crescendo that drew whoops from the crowd, most of whom had long been gently bobbing in their seats. It felt like a sudden explosion of dancing wasn't far off, but what happened instead was a standing ovation.