Pantha du Prince with the Bell Laboratory, ‘Elements of Light’ (Rough Trade)
Release Date: January 15, 2013
Label: Rough Trade
House music is a spiritual thing, as they say, and for Pantha du Prince, that spirit has long manifested itself as a fascination with church bells. Over beats and bass lines borrowed from Chicago’s house tradition, the Berlin-based musician has (w)rung out a sound appropriate for Easter Sunday. There’s a whole subset of German electronic dance music that takes this tack: Bell tones (both sampled and synthesized) were an early hallmark of Hamburg’s Dial Recordings, where Pantha (Hendrik Weber) put out his first records alongside overtone-besotted peers like Lawrence, Carsten Jost, and Pawel. “For a long time, we were totally into who had the better bells,” Weber confessed shortly before the release of 2010’s Black Noise.
Now, with his new project, there’s no doubt whose bronze takes the gold. Elements of Light is based on the sounds of the carillon, a massive, keyboard-driven array of tuned bells (performed here by the Norwegian carillonist Vegar Sandholt) whose design dates back to the Middle Ages. Even for listeners in the New World, it’s impossible not to find nostalgia in its aching chimes, which strike deep inside the cultural unconscious. On a purely sensuous level, its mellifluous richness gives the music the shimmering quality of a desert mirage. An ensemble called the Bell Laboratory contributes additional mallet instruments (tubular bells, marimba, xylophone, chimes, cymbals, etc.) that add depth to the sound field, breaking down bold, consonant tones into fine, deliciously detuned subdivisions that wash over you in waves.
For all its sonic grandeur, though, this is a modest album — just five tracks, arranged so they play out like a single, 44-minute composition. The musical ideas here will be readily familiar to anyone who has heard Pantha du Prince’s work before: Inspired by Steve Reich and Philip Glass, he layers simple, repetitive melodic phrases into elegant counterpoints. His approach to composition isn’t particularly complex, neither melodically nor rhythmically, but he makes the most of his dynamics, moving imperceptibly from beatless shimmer to tribal drum circle. The 12-minute “Particle” sounds like Ricardo Villalobos backed by LCD Soundsystem’s rhythm section, while the 17-minute “Spectral Split” pairs demure bass synthesizer with Gamelan-caliber background dissonance.
Despite the quasi-scientific song titles — “Wave,” “Particle,” “Photon,” “Spectral Split,” “Quantum” — Elements of Light is ultimately less about analysis than pure, unfettered emotion. Weber’s bells ring out a deep-seated sense of longing that should resonate even with listeners who have never set foot in a European church square; he weds sacred tones with urban rhythms to create an entirely different kind of mass appeal.