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Bel Canto


Country of origin:

Norway

Type of music generally:

Earlier work is delightfully ethereal. The band seems now to be doing Europop/dance music. (Neile)

Mix of traditional Nordic music, Arabian/Eastern rhythms and contemporary ambient(?) music. (jbr@casetech.dk)

Classic ethereal pop. (jmgurley@drizzle.com)

Status:

Most recent album, Dorothy's Victory (2002)

See also:

Bel Canto's site

The Ectophiles' Guide's entry for Anneli Drecker

Comparisons:

Cocteau Twins (but a little more pop). (Neile)

Siouxsie and the Banshees, Dead Can Dance. (jbr@casetech.dk)

Covers/own material:

Own

General comments:

For some reason, I always want to use the word "electroacoustic" to describe Bel Canto, though it's rather inaccurate to do so. Bel Canto is a real nifty Norwegian outfit featuring Anneli Drecker on vocals and a rotating cast of others supporting her. The music is synth-driven pop that's both moody and dancey. Really nice stuff. bel canto is great. (clsriram@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)

Bel Canto is an electronic band from Norway. The older records are icy, atmospheric and cool (think a stripped-down, less melodic Depeche Mode, with female vocals). Their latest work is dancier and poppier, which some people like and some people don't. (neal)

Bel Canto is too poppish for my tastes—but I'm hoping it's just their first album. I've heard a couple of tracks from Shimmering, Warm and Bright and they were much more appealing. (Eric_Starker)

Drecker has a great voice. A bit cold sounding, (heck—she *is* Norwegian! ;) but not as floaty as Enya. Certainly less likely to be played in new age bookshops. (nkg@vcn.bc.ca)

as others have said, i can recommend basically all of them. there are only, after all, three other albums...a paltry number by any EWS-ridden ectophile's standards. ;). anyway, the first two, White Out Conditions and Birds of Passage, are very sparse and spartan, electronic and arctic, rather like being in dark, echoing, subterranean caves with drops of water falling from the stalactites into the limpid pools below...and just all-around wonderful. Shimmering, Warm and Bright is very different, a lot more dancey, and much less sparse. plenty of instrumentation filling in what would've been echo-y hollow bits on the other two. i love all of them dearly...much more so, i'm afraid, than magic box. i do like magic box, but it just doesn't have the...the *magic* of the others, for me (groan). still, do be warned that the first three are very different from magic box, so you might want to ease your way in. the only constant is Anneli Drecker's incredible voice. (damon)

I'd never seen them before live and I was not sure how well their recorded stuff would translate live. I needn't have worried. Bel Canto put on a show that exceeded all my expectations. For 40 minutes they transported me to another world, and afterwards I was ravenous for more. If Bel Canto play in your area, DO NOT miss this band! An informal poll of friends who were also there showed that this was indeed the show of the festival. (kamesan@geocities.com)

My favorite Bel Canto song is "Shoulder to the Wheel," which was my first exposure to them and which I heard when I bought Nettwerk's Decadence boxed set. (Riphug@aol.com)

Recommended first album:

Birds of Passage (Neile, jmgurley@drizzle.com, mjmjminla@yahoo.com, neal)

Birds of Passage was a favorable introduction to what Bel Canto is all about, but Shimmering, Warm and Bright takes this band to another level. (kcd@cray.com)

Vickie and I disagree on where to begin with them; she'll say White Out Conditions and I'll say Birds of Passage. So maybe Shimmering, Warm and Bright is the best first album to buy. ;) i like magic box well enough, but prefer the others, pretty much in chronological order. (woj@smoe.org)

Recordings:


White Out Conditions

Release info:

1988—Nettwerk/Capitol/Crammed Discs—W2-51

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Recommended for those who like other Bel Canto. (Neile)

Group members:

Anneli Marian Drecker—vocals, synthesizer
Geir Jenssen—synthesizer, computer programming
Nils Johansen—mandolin, bass, flute, synthesizer, computer programming

Guest artists:

Mark Hollander—woodwinds

Produced by:

Gilles Martin

Comments:

this first record is the most "arctic"—i can almost feel the frostbreath as Anneli Drecker sings. more electro-acoustic and instrumental-oriented than the others. It has some of their best songs: "agassiz," "white out conditions." (woj@smoe.org)

This is a very good collection but I don't like it quite as much as Birds of Passage. (Neile)

The stand-out tune is "Baltic Ice Breaker". It's one of the most depressing tunes ever—eerie music and lyrics. (jmgurley@drizzle.com)

I love the title track...the album is more ethereal than the "accessible" Birds of Passage. (mjmjminla@yahoo.com)

This was the first Bel Canto I got, and I didn't see what the fuss was about. It's kind of neat, though it's very cold and distant. Great music if you want to pretend you are in a submarine, though. (neal)

although i think that white out conditions is fabulous, it just doesn't call out to be put in the cd player as much as their other discs. i like it a lot, but it's very much a snowy outside, abyss kinda album. (clsriram@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)

White Out Conditions is a bit too synthetic-sounding for my tastes. (nkg@vcn.bc.ca)


Birds of Passage

Release info:

1990—Nettwerk/IRS—X2 13031

Availability:

Wide (U.S.)

Ecto priority:

A must have for lovers of ethereal music. (Neile)

Group members:

Anneli Marian Drecker—vocals, synthesizer
Geir Jenssen—synthesizer, computer programming
Nils Johansen—mandolin, bass, flute, synthesizer, computer programming

Guest artists:

Luc Van Lieshout—flugelhorn, trumpet
Michel Delory—guitar, drums
Jeannot Gillis—violin, viola
Claudine Steenackers—cello
Mac Hollander—additional keyboards, percussion, clarinet

Produced by:

Bel Canto, Gilles Martin, & Marc Hollander

Comments:

My favorite Bel Canto CD will probably remain Birds of Passage, which you should all seek out if you haven't yet. (mjmjminla@yahoo.com)

This is my favourite Bel Canto. It is a combination of etherealness and gutsyness. (Neile)

Their most consistently structured album with a mix of synthesizer backwash and pop sensibility. (jmgurley@drizzle.com)

Now I see what the excitement is about! This album is much warmer and very intriguing. A lot of great ambient soundscapes crossed with some classic Dead Can Dance-style singing. (neal)

this is their smoothest, dreamiest, etherealest album. probably my overall favorite for its feel. (woj@smoe.org)

I was listening to the song "Birds of Passage" the other day and thought that Bel Canto sounded a lot like what a techno-ized Jane Siberry might sound like. At least on that song. (JoAnn Whetsell)


Shimmering, Warm & Bright

Release info:

1992—Dali/Crammed Discs/Big World; WEA (Germany)—Dali 61312-2; 9031-76489-2 (France: WE 833)

Availability:

Deleted (U.S. & Europe).

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended for lovers of ethereal music. (Neile)

Must have. (jbr@casetech.dk)

Group members:

Nils Johansen
Anneli M. Drecker

Guest musicians:

Andreas Eriksen—piano, additional percussion
Luc van Lieshout—trumpet, fluegelhorn

Comments:

if you see BEL CANTO'S shimmering warm and bright snatch it up. it is deleted (out of print). *sigh* good album too. (iflin@speakeasy.net)

This has got to be among my favourite albums overall. love it love it love it. (damon)

Mostly English lyrics, but also some German and French. The German song is based on H.C. Andersen's "The Story of a Mother." (jbr@casetech.dk)

Many people don't seem to like this album, at least in comparison to their others. Well, I do. I think "Summer" is a very effective track, and this album is much less mechanical-sounding than their other two in my opinion. (dixon@physics.Berkeley.EDU)

"Waking Will", the 3rd track on the CD, sends shivers up my spine every time I listen to it. Anneli has the most compelling voice I have heard in quite some time. "Le temps Degage" is a very contemplative, yearning piece of work that haunts the consciousness like a bad dream you enjoy having. (kcd@cray.com)

*run* do not walk *NOW* and get shimmering, warm & bright; run over anyone who might get in your way, beg borrow or steal if you must but get that album! honestly i never listen to Birds of Passage or white-out conditions, i just like shimmering warm and bright so much more. the album's title is exactly descriptive of the music; the lyrics are transcendental á la Loreena McKennitt, the songs are trancedancemental (the Beauty & the Beat of Cocteau Twins & Dead Can Dance (or maybe Lush?) respectively), and there's that ineffable Lisa Gerrardishness in there too. (winona@mildh.pair.com)

Tends to delve at points too much into classical noodling. (jmgurley@drizzle.com)

This is a little sweeter than the other two. (Neile)

Birds of Passage was a favorable introduction to what Bel Canto is all about, but shimmering, warm & bright takes this band to another level, much like some ectophiles promised me it would. This is just a *better* effort. The comparisons to the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance are inevitable, but the unique sound of Anneli Drecker and Nils Johansen on this CD make you realize just how futile those comparisons end up being. Don't get me wrong...I'm a big fan of the aforementioned bands and really like what they do. It's just an apples and oranges situation. "Waking Will", the 3rd track on the CD, sends shivers up my spine every time I listen to it. Anneli has the most compelling voice I have heard in quite some time. "Le temps Degage" is a very contemplative, yearning piece of work that haunts the consciousness like a bad dream you enjoy having. The foreign sound is carried forth with the song "die geschichte einer mutter" based on a tale by H.C. Andersen. Fantastic stuff. (kcd@cray.com)

Sometimes the technopop flavor takes the edge off, but it always keeps coming back. (stevev@hexadecimal.uoregon.edu)

until magic box, the most dance-oriented of their albums. slicker, poppier, more upbeat...though still unmistakably them. (woj@smoe.org)


Rumour (single)

Comments:

The first single from magic box is called "Rumour" and the CD single has the album mix and 4 other remixes. It's definitely the most mainstream-sounding thing Bel Canto has ever done, and I'm not too sure that's a good thing (except maybe for sales, and who cares about those??) If it weren't for Anneli's incredibly distinct voice, I never would have guessed that it was Bel Canto. It's a nice little song, but if the rest of the album doesn't vary much from the sound of "Rumour" it will be a huge disappointment for me, after the gloriousness of Shimmering Warm and Bright. (bye@humnet.ucla.edu)

The "Rumour" promo single includes 'Album Edit,' 'Masters at Work 12" Edit,' and 'Abstract Edit.' As much as I love Bel Canto, this one's going to take some time. Except for Anneli's nearly indescribable voice (how can it sound so crystalline-arctic-nordic at the same time it's so exotically, tropically, spicy?) you'd never know who it was. There's a swingy Motown groove to the bassline and a dance beat you've heard a million times. It's a song that would sound perfectly natural coming out of Annie Lennox's mouth; maybe even Alison Moyet's. The extra tracks seem to be alternate recordings, rather than just remixes: The vocals on the '12"' edit are very different. But it's just faster and clubbier; reminiscent of the early-eighties SuperClub sound; ABC or Erasure or even—gasp—The Petshop Boys. At any rate, jury's out till I hear the album. (lissener@wwa.com)


Magic Box

Release info:

1996—Lava Records (distributed by Atlantic)—92617-2

Availability:

Widely available

Ecto priority:

I would give other Bel Canto discs priority (Neile)

Group members:

Anneli Drecker—vocals, keyboards
Nils Johansen—guitar, violin, mandolin, programming
Andreas Eriksen—percussion
Kirsti Nyutstumo—bass

Guest musicians:

B.J. Cole, Chuck Frazier, Jaki Liebezeit, Per Martinsen, Nils Petter Molvar, Fazal Qureshi, Nicholas Stilltoe, Jah Wobble, Elvind Aarseth

Produced by:

Ulf Holand and Bel Canto, except "Bombay" produced by Jah Wobble and "Kiss of Spring" produced by Jah Wobble and Ulf Holand

Comments:

personally, i think Bel Canto hit a home run with magic box. while it is decidedly different than shimmering, warm & bright, it's difficult to dislike anything that comes forth from Anneli Drecker and nils johansen. this CD is more "hip-hop" than anything i have heard from them before and that usually is not an endearing quality to me. i tend to like the dreamy, ethereal sound that shimmering, warm & bright has, not to say that magic box doesn't have those moments. it does. it's just that this album has a very different "feel" than shimmering, warm & bright. and i like it. magic box—perhaps it's a grand slam. It *is* more pop sounding, and i never thought i'd go for that, but they make it work. the more i listen to it, the more i like it. "rumour" is just a fantastic song. anneli sounds great, of course, and the beat definitely gets your blood pumping. i like the whole album, but "rumour" is my favorite track so far. that song alone is worth the price of admission. my humble opinion of course. (kcd@cray.com)

i don't buy the "magic box is more poppy" comparison at all. their sound has gotten progressively "poppier" through time. shimmering, warm and bright, their third, is no less upbeat and catchy than magic box. the difference is that magic box draws on a wider range of influences—including dance and "world" music—to augment bel canto's electronic and (darkly) ethereal history. i like the album too. there are a couple tracks that don't do as much for me, but the majority of the record is quite nice. as i said before, jah wobble fans should check this out—there is a strong similarity between the sound of magic box and the invaders of the heart records. (woj@smoe.org)

I bought this at the same time as Perfume Tree and the two will probably be forever linked in my mind. It doesn't help that the music on both sounds very similar. Definitely a departure for Bel Canto, and I wasn't sure I liked it at first, but a few of the songs have really grown on me. (jjhanson@att.net)

i am still lukewarm about it...kinda bland. (iflin@speakeasy.net)

OK, so this is a bit of a departure away from more rhythmic, sparser, eerie portrayals (esp. my favorite, Birds of Passage and close second, White Out Conditions—even more stark) and into a more dance-beat, open, upbeat, fuller sound. But I like it a lot. I think they mix it up quite well, still turn a fancy phrase, and hey, in my book Magic Box is much more memorable and impression-leaving than Shimmering Warm & Bright was. So I say "tay" to the naysayers. This one is definitely ecto-camp and worth a listen (esp. since the music clubs are selling it). (mjmjminla@yahoo.com)

I've taken a lot of time to chew on this one, because shimmering, warm & bright is an alternate member of my LifeTimeTop10, and I'd so much wanted to love this album; I've anticipated few records as I have Magic Box. But I finally have to bite the bullet and say that I'm saddened by the direction Bel Canto's taken here. I'll admit that if I'd never heard of them and bought this for $5 because it looked interesting, I'd think it quite a find. And I'll admit the appearance of hypocrisy in this review because I've scolded not a few people for "refusing to let Jane Siberry/Kate Bush/Holly Cole/kd lang grow as an artist". But the changes in Bel Canto's style that Magic Box exhibits really don't feel like artistic growth to me. On their earlier albums, they were inventing things. They followed no rules and built their own bridges. Of course there were shades and echoes of modern pop; they certainly didn't exist outside that context. But they circled it, nipping at its heels, not so much scurrying a bit ahead of it as shimmering a little above. With Magic Box they've plunged headlong into the fray, vying for king of the same mountain as every other EuroPop dance band. I'll play 'FreeLunch in the Jungle' and 'Bombay' a lot, but I think I'll rarely return to the rest of it. Especially 'Didn't You Know It?'—what a terrible song—and 'Rumour'—I've heard this a thousand times. (lissener@wwa.com)

my first impression was somewhat on the negative side—too dancey, lacking in some quality they used to have (and i include shimmering, warm & bright in that, *most* definitely; it may have been more dancey than the first two, but i absolutely adore it). however, as with many things, it's grown on me after a couple of days of listening, and i must say i do like it quite a lot. especially "paradise" and "rumour". and probably "big belly butterflies" and "in zenith" too :) overall, i still like birds of passage and shimmering, warm & bright better, but that doesn't stop me from appreciating their latest effort. "freelunch in the jungle" does bug me though, with the too-rappish beat and annoying male voice going on and on in the background.... (damon)

the new bel canto is really exceedingly strange, and different from their old stuff. much poppier. i thought i hated it at first. i really hated the first single, "rumour". but the album has really grown on me. (clsriram@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)

After the first track I thought: Oh God, what's this? Fortunately the track is short and the rest of the album was as expected. I don't know the other Bel Canto albums, so I'm unprejudiced, and I loved the album from the first (OK, the second) moment. It reminds me very much of Martha and the Muffins and partly of Sunday All Over The World (the Toyah/Fripp thing). I won't call it dancefloor and I don't think that it's commercial. It's just intelligent and ambitious pop music. (Dirk.Kastens@rz.Uni-Osnabrueck.DE)

Just listening to this one about the fourth time after checking it out from the library. Though it didn't immediately grab me, now I'm really liking it. (rholmes@cs.stanford.edu)


Images

Released as Rush in Norway.

Release info:

1998—Norway

Availability:

Available in Europe—watch out for the title change. Will soon be released in the U.S.

Ecto priority:

For those who like dance music

Comments:

This one is definitely more like *dance music* than anything I've heard by them—even more than Magic Box. The track called "Hearts Unite" is very disco/Madonna/Travolta-ish. But if you're a diehard Bel Canto fan (as I am), you'll love it—it's excellent! (Riphug@aol.com)

Those who didn't like Magic Box because it was too electronic will be disappointed again. Anneli Drecker and Nils Johansen consequently continue their journey into cyberspace. The cover looks as cold as the music sounds: portraits of Anneli and Lars dressed in white and styled like androids, everything tinted in pale colors. The album starts very commercial and lifeless but turns better to the end. After the first listen I couldn't discover any outstanding song like "Rumour" or "Bombay" from Magic Box. My first impression is, that Images isn't bad, but after Magic Box I expected more. The new one is too straightforward. (Dirk.Kastens@rz.Uni-Osnabrueck.DE)

Bel Canto's last album, Magic Box, was simply dreadful. They had jettisoned their trademark delicacy for a homogenous dance-pop sound, complete with one song that featured a guest rapper. The mysterious world-beat aspects of their music were subsumed in familiar, mainstream sounds. The best songs were poor imitations of their past successes. Worst of all, singer Anneli Drecker seemed intent on casting herself as a more accessible Björk. Her precious lyrics were replaced by deliberate eccentricities and malapropisms that smacked of effort. My guess is that after moving from label to label, Magic Box was a conscious attempt to make their songs more palatable to a wider audience. To tell the truth, I had just about given up on them. But thanks to the Internet, I sampled some tracks of their 1998 CD Images, only available in Europe, and on the strength of those sound bytes, ordered the CD. Images picks up where 1993's Shimmering, Warm and Bright left off. There are the majestic and glacial medieval-electronic pieces Bel Canto are great at creating. In "Verena," against techno sound effects and Nils Johansen's brittle guitar figures, Drecker scats and skitters like Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) in impossibly high, wordless sighs. The short "Nornagest" features a choir of Dreckers that swell like a heavenly host. It's Enya with cojones. And "Here, in Shadow" Johansen constructs an ambient platform for Drecker's Oriental warblings—it's Lisa Gerrard meets William Orbit. Songs with lyrics, like the title track, "Rush," "Idly I De-ice," and "Heaven" are a return to Drecker's fairytale themes. Images also continues in the dance-pop, post-Björk mode, with greater success. The melodies don't lose the ethereal aesthetic that distinguishes Bel Canto from similar acts, and the sound effects are updated and more connected to current electronica sounds. "All I Want To Do" is swoony like the most poppy Cocteau Twins song; "Space Junk" and "The Dinosaur-Slipper Man" have a nice, polite take on synth-funk, typical of the late '80s New Wave bands. This restores Bel Canto as one of the top ethereal-pop acts. (cgidney@nas.edu)


Dorothy's Victory

Release info:

2002—EMI (Norway)—7243 5 38974 2 0

Availability:

Europe

Ecto priority:

For hard-core Bel Canto fans or those who like Europop

Group members:

Anneli Drecker—vocals, piano, keyboards
Nils Johansen—guitars, programming, stick bass, bass, additional programming, violin

Guest artists:

Note: credits very hard to read

Torbjørn Brundtland—keyboards, programming, piano
Andreas Eriksen—percussion
Peter Baden—drums
Thomas Tofte—bass
Henning Leh—additional guitars
Vidar Ersefjord, Bjørn Fløvstad, Espen Berg—keyboards and additional instruments
Stéfan Kvarnstrom—drums, detuned Swedish piano, rhythm programming
Sindre Hotvedt—string programming
Espen Grjotheim—backing vocals
Jonny Sjo—bass
Karl Ollif Wennerberg—drums
The Feverish Fumbling Fingers Team—additional programming
Gaute Barlindhaug—additional programming, re-reversed piano, keyboards
Richard Lowe—additional keyboards

Produced by:

Various tracks produced and co-produced by Espen Berg, Anneli Drecker, Nils Johansen, The Feverish Fumbling Fingers Team,Torbjørn Brundtland, Richard Lowe

Comments:

I keep hoping for something like their early days—and I got it, but only for two tracks: "Dorothy's Victory" and "Im Best'n Beihs" (which not coincidentally are the tracks with the fewest instruments on the album. The rest of it is forgettable Europop to my ears. These two tracks are lovely, though, and remind me of why I used to love this band. (Neile)

Blend Abba-like melodies, Hooverphonic-style electronica, a dash of 4AD sensibility, a smidgen of Björk and you have Norway's Bel Canto. The lead singer, Anneli Drecker, has a gorgeous voice, the equal of Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins, and when multi-tracked, conjures up a glacial beauty. Her compatriot, multi-instrumentalist Nils Johansen, has a penchant for mixing pure popcraft with electronic and ambient textures. The results are mixed. For one, Drecker's lyrical skills don't quite match the grandeur of her voice; this is most noticeable in the radio-friendly songs. "Feels Like I'm Already Flying," and "You Rock My World Tonight" are bits of fluff that could be sung by anyone, anywhere; and the backing tracks are firmly targeted on the top 40. The best of these pop songs are the collaborations with Rokysopp, such as "Foolish Ship" and "Night Lady," which have enough unusual twists built into their structure to avoid blandness. The album gets much better as the mainstream tendencies fall away, revealing more distinctive—and Bel Canto-like—material. "Tree" is partially sung in French, and has the same feel as Massive Attack's collaborations with Fraser. "Happy Times Fly Fast!" places Drecker's trademark folktale retellings (this one a Japanese tale) into slick, techno dreampop. "Im Best an Beihs" is a wordless Artic hymn wedded to an Aphex Twin-inspired ambient piece, while the closing "Ladonia" starts off with medieval-trance sounds before becoming a modern Hooked-On-Classics piece (complete with discobeats) and Drecker's operatic warbling in German. (ethereal_lad@livejournal.com)


Further info:

They have tracks on the third heavenly voices cd, in the Nettwerk boxed set, and the winter fire and snow compilation.


Thanks to Neal Copperman and Jens P. Tagore Brage for work on this entry.

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