Vancouver’s own self-described “dark pop” band The Belle Game’s first full-length album, Ritual Tradition Habit, couldn’t come soon enough. After making a name for themselves by stealing the spotlight at various music festivals across Canada, and releasing a number of well-received short EPs, their full, mature, orchestral sound just begged for a little room to grow. It’s hard to digest music like The Belle Game’s in small doses. Imagine sitting down for a twelve-course Polish Christmas dinner and only getting to sample the first five dishes. I mean, sure, those dumplings were delicious, but where is the herring!?
And it’s about time that Ritual Tradition Habit is here, because The Belle Game’s music is thick, rich, and all-encompassing. The group, fronted by the formidable vocalist Andrea Lo, warps reverb-drenched guitar and keyboards over beguiling pop hooks, all but hiding the hearts of the songs in a cage of musical muscle, guts, and nerves. Where most pop music relies on crisp, clear notes to really make the hooks land, Alex Nanji (lead guitarist), and Katrina Jones (keyboardist), rely on the attentiveness of the listeners to fully appreciate and devour their interconnecting musical harmonies. It’s a risky tactic, and it pays off. Album highlight “Wait up for You,” begins with an easily discernible guitar hook but, by halfway through, it is clouded in a wall of beautiful distortion, despite still being stuck in your ear.
The not-so-secret weapon of the band, sometimes standing in front of the music, sometimes shouting through it, is Andrea Lo. The woman’s got strong enough vocal pipes that not even accident-prone Enbridge oil could leak through them. It’s refreshing to hear such a vocal force in independent pop, where there can often be more of an emphasis on hushed or muted vocals. Lo confidently joins the likes of Niko Case, Kathleen Edwards, and Emily Haines on the list of powerhouse Canadian frontwomen. This being said, she’s also not afraid to distort her voice by running it through an oscillator or thickening it with distortion.
The reason that this music works so well is because The Belle Game takes the best parts of pop and tricks you into forgetting that they’re there. Many of the choruses rely on repetition of simple, universal phrases, that, when combined with the right hook, Lo’s transfixing voice, and the odd trumpet (my personal favourite inclusion), land with a deep emotional resonance. The lyrics are pop in the truest use of the word, in that they fixate on the very relatable, the very felt, the very “popular.” Lo sings about self-doubt, human vices, hopeless love, forgiveness: all those topics that you might admit were front and center in your own high-school diary if you only had the cojones that The Belle Game do.