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Rockfort: Your French Releases Roundup For May & June
David McKenna , June 12th, 2018 07:29

A mournful au revoir to our beloved Le Vasco, and a joyful bonjour to new music from Philippe Petit, Sourdure, Witxes and more

This column begins with a goodbye to the sadly underappreciated and possibly misunderstood Le Vasco, who I once watched four times in the same week. Though I hadn’t managed to catch them in recent years, the earlier live shows I saw never failed to leave me exhilarated, grinning like an idiot, and their debut was one of my favourites of last year.

In the mix, as well as the post-classical, jazz, noise etc releases reviewed below, you’ll also find music from the revived Melody’s Echo Chamber (full Quietus review on the way), cosmic synths from Jonathan Fitoussi & Clemens Hourrière’s second album together ‘Espaces Timbrés’ and something from the debut EP by trio Mercuriale, released back in February via the ‘alternative jazz’ label Grolektif. Amusez-vous bien!

Le Vasco - Feu Tempête (Nowadays)

Slimmed down to a three-piece before finally bowing out - I have no idea why this, Le Vasco’s second ‘proper’ album, is their last but the fact of having been so undervalued in their home country can’t have helped. According to their Facebook page, Feu Tempête is a vision of the future in which the world has entered “a new ice age”. The two solutions are to live together in “hyper-concentrated” cities or in “small, self-sufficient communities in the countryside. But the fact of living on top of each other makes everyone a little depressed.”

Feu Tempête does sound like a slate being wiped clean, and also a little depressed, trading the lustre and lushness of La Transe Des Oiseaux for a kind of freeze-dried snap. And it’s fascinating, this cold, contorted R&B laced with sad android harmonies. On several occasions you’re hit by a sense of finality, as with the chorus on ‘Poudre Magique’: “Oublie-moi, mon visage” (“forget about me, my face”). The intro to ‘Menthol’ is unexpectedly moving, Louise Calzada drifting, weightless in some antechamber of the afterlife and repeating “je ne t’entends plus rien” (“I can’t hear anything anymore”). The “rien” is pitched up or down and delayed so that it seems to bounce away from her into oblivion.

If this is Le Vasco stripped down to their essence, then they were essentially a pretty strange group. I’m going to miss them.

Philippe Petit & Friends - On Top… (Aagoo)

Judging by his bandcamp profile, Petit still considers himself to be a “musical travel agent” rather than a simple ‘musician’. When I interviewed him years ago, he explained this as meaning that he likes to take listeners on a journey, but on an album like On Top… this can also be seen an approach to collaboration and the new vistas it opens up. The album title, meanwhile, apparently refers to the choice of collaborators, folks that Petit feels are on top of their game. The cast over the nine tracks includes Lydia Lunch, Jad Fair, trumpet player Andy Diagram and Oxbow vocalist Eugene S Robinson.

Robinson helps kick off the album in rollicking fashion on ‘The Hammer + The Compliant Man’. The track has already appeared in instrumental form as ‘Buzz… Buzz…’ on previous album Buzzing but not hung up on hip, but Robinson takes it up another notch, adding a rocky swagger to its grimy thump. In his choice of vocalists generally, Petit favours unusual grains, odd phrasing, jabbering, howling, whispering. Instrumentally it’s just as vivid.

On Top…’s pinnacle, clearly conceived as such, are the 13-plus sunstricken minutes of final track ‘On top of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacàn’, Kammerflimmer Kollektief’s Heike Aumüller on a vision quest, her voice sometimes penetrating and other times dissolving into the thick vapour of e-bowed guitar, cello and Petit’s electronics. On Top… leaves you way up and way out.

Palm Unit - Hommage à Jef Gilson (Super-Sonic Jazz)

Jef Gilson’s is a name that has been working its way up through the floorboards since the turn of the decade, but his death in 2012 means he never got to reap the rewards of this flourishing interest. Gilson (real name Jean-François Quiévreux) was a pianist, label manager, record shop owner, critic and much more, and a highly regarded figure both among French musicians and visiting Americans.

Palm Unit, the trio of Philippe Garcia (drums), Lionel Martin (saxophone) and Fred Escoffier (keyboard), have a direct line to their inspiration on this album through guest Del Rabenja, who plays a valiha – a unique, tube-shaped zither-type instrument from Madagascar – and who recorded with Gilson several times in 70s. But otherwise they’re happy to take Gilson on their own way, pulling him into through their own low-lit world. Their ‘Mode De Fa’ brings the tune’s bright bounce down to moody simmer.

Hommage à Jef Gilson also sounds fantastically unfussy and fuzzy, letting the room add its own voice, and Rabenja eases into the picture on tracks like ‘Valiha Del’ with deceptive ease.

Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch - Époques (Fat Cat/130701)

There’s a danger with music in the ‘post-classical’ arena of it falling into wan, watercolour prettiness - gliding past on a ‘Peaceful Piano’ playlist, neither sufficiently insubstantial to haunt you nor punchy enough to leave a mark. Fortunately the second album from composer and pianist Levienaise-Farrouch – who has also worked on soundtracks and commissions for HBO, The V&A, BBC Radio 4 and the Proms – on Fat Cat’s 130701 imprint, while featuring its share of perfectly pleasant piano, avoids the trap. It also easily betters predecessor Like Water Through Sand through more complex layering of acoustic instrumentation and electronics (the opening of ‘The Only Water is underpinned by the sounds of ghost trains passing in the night) and a greater willingness to unsettle. ‘Fracture Points’ begins with a deliberately stumbling figure and later introduces strings, high whistling drones and a more strident, even ominous layer of piano. ‘Ultramarine’ similarly becomes more compelling as it progresses, leading you from shallows into deeper, darker water.

One composition is called ‘A Trace of Salt’, which sums up precisely what’s frequently lacking in this area, that little extra kick of flavour. On Époques, Levienaise-Farrouch gets the seasoning spot on.

Sourdure - L’Esprōva (Les Disques du Festival Permanent)
& Èlg - Vu Du Dôme (Editions Gravats)

Ernest Bergez and Laurent Gérard are hardly first-timers in this column but when they keep releasing albums of this quality it’s hard to justify excluding them in the name of variety. But I haven’t just lumped them together on account of their consistency - it’s also because Bergez (Sourdure) pops up on Vu Du Dôme, and the pairing works a treat. And because, in their own cock-eyed, brain-stewed ways there’s a concise and poppy quality to these albums, certainly compared to either’s previous long-form releases.

I’ve promised not to talk about gastric juices and the like any more in relation to Èlg, which works out fine as Vu Du Dôme doesn’t bring bodily fluids to mind at all. What it does retain is the exploded song forms, characterful concrète visions and the exploration of the human voice’s many idiosyncrasies. The strobes-in-haze vocals of regular foil Catherine Hershey at the end of ‘Un filtre en or’ make for one of the loveliest moments in French song this year. A little later, on ‘Nouvelle Lune’, a stuttering whisper like dead TV channel hiss rolls straight into the sound of a breaking wave. Like much here, it’s a beautiful surprise.

When we left off with Sourdure he was blasting his epic Mantras against a cliff-face in the French Alps. On L’Esprōva he tackles Occitan folk songs with energy and freedom. It’s best viewed as a sort of gumbo; a tangy, bastard brew that contains elements of various folk musics and instruments, North African sounds, dub and oddball techno. In Bergez’s hands this profusion of elements finds its own harmony – perhaps because the folk melodies provide a sort of guiding thread – without glossing over its hybrid qualities, a new musical creole in the making.

Sister Iodine - Venom
& Trou Aux Rats - Amour & Sepulcre
& Olivier Brisson - Horizon Capiton (Nashazphone)

A great new trio of albums from Cairo-based label Nashazphone, which seems to like doing its French releases in threes. Noise trio Sister Iodine have been in action since the 90s and Venom is their sixth album. You know you’re in for a ride with an opening track called ‘Blaaack’, and Venom doesn’t disappoint in terms of face-peeling intensity and Regan-in-the-Exorcist/Helena Markos-in-Suspiria-style vocals. But there’s also variety and structure, ranging from crackling sheets of noise to the more rigid pounding of ‘Refonder’.

Trou Aux Rats is a new project from Romain Perrot, who is also behind releases by Falot, Free As Dead and Vomir. The name translates as ‘rat hole’ and it does seem to exist in a dingy basement, heavily distorted organ mingling with the damp and mould and scrape of corroded metal. But there’s loveliness peeking through as well, bleached-out melodies that are almost Boards Of Canada-esque.

Lille-based Olivier Brisson’s collages on Horizon Capiton have a similar air of distressed beauty – melancholy piano chords and mournful backwards guitar mingle with unidentifiable ambient noises and pained or unmoored human utterances, while occasionally rickety tunes that could be Tom Waits demos sidle into view.

Witxes - Orients (Consouling Sounds)

Maxime Vavasseur’s latest work under this name (pronounced “witches”) features his most wide-screen slabs of electronics to date. Especially compared to the more varied approaches on his previous two full-length releases, the tracks on his first for Belgian label Consouling Sounds appear to all be formed of the same dense matter.

Vavasseur has spoken of feeling stuck and frustrated during the making of the album, and you can feel the trapped energies on ‘Disruptions’, for example, where a barrage of beats seems to turn around and in on itself in the search for release before coming to a sudden stop. ‘Clairvoyants’ also builds layer upon layer of fizzing synths, power chords and sax to a fever pitch before halting, leaving only the sound of someone panting, out of breath – perhaps it’s sax player Krystian Sarrau.

But Orients is seductive in its stasis as well, an eerily inviting glow emanating from the slowly drifting acid clouds of ‘Destructions’ and ‘Neoruines’.

Rockfort Quietus Mix 12

Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch – ‘The Only Water’ (Fat Cat/130701); Le Vasco – ‘Menthol’ (Nowadays); Philippe Petit & Friends – ‘The Hammer + The Compliant Man’ (Aagoo); Mercuriale – ‘Aelia Laelia Crispis’ (Grolektif); Witxes – ‘Clairvoyants’ (Consouling Sounds); Sister Iodine – ‘IT’ (Nashazphone); Sourdure – ‘Un Jorn d’Aquesta Prima’ (Les Disques du Festival Permanent); Palm Unit – ‘Valiha Del’ (Super-Sonic Jazz); Trou Aux Rats – ‘Amour Et Sepulcure B3’ (Nashazphone); Èlg – ‘Hourra feat Sourdure’ (Editions Gravats); Melody’s Echo Chamber – ‘Desert Horse’ (Domino); Pion – ‘Sympacide’ (Entreprise); Jonathan Fitoussi & Clemens Hourrière – ‘Basalt Columns’ (Versatile)