Rockfort! French Music For October Reviewed By David McKenna

In his latest dispatch from the French fringes, David McKenna looks at Irish and British labels providing great homes for Gallic experimentalists, cosmopolitan pop, abstract rap and the latest avant-folk releases. Homepage photo: Audrey Carmes by Julia Henderson

The autumn and the French rentrée have brought their usual bounty, so much so that I’m grateful in a way that a number of terrific releases have been covered elsewhere on this site – I’m talking about Aho Ssan, Colleen, Simo Cell and Crave. One of these at least is a serious contender for Rockfort’s album of the year. One way I deal with the surfeit of exciting new releases is by hosting a weekly radio show on Resonance FM – you can find all the episodes here and the latest Rockfort mix which, as well as including music from the albums reviewed below, also includes lo-fi electronic pop from EYE; a selection from Fantastic Twins’ Cronenbergian Two Is Not A Number; Sarah Terral (aka Orgue Agnès and Kaumwald’s Clément Vercelletto) with one of the delightfully fuzzy electronic workouts from new album Le Morfil; hyperactive prog from Saddam Webcam – on the same label, Dur Et Doux, as the mighty Poil Ueda, who are themselves on the verge of releasing a second album of the year; mutant dancehall from ace producer Sylvere; one of Antoine Bellanger’s essays for Walkman and ocarina from the album Le Jardin Perdu; and a cut from jazz group Asynchrone’s sharp, inventive collection of Yellow Magic Orchestra/Sakamoto covers, Plastic Bamboo

Irish cassette label Fort Evil Fruit, founded by Paul Condon – erstwhile member of shapeshifting underground folk group United Bible Studies – has of late been providing an outlet for a number of French acts: Delphine Dora’s Rêver L’Imperceptible in 2023, and two more this year in the form of Golem Mecanique’s Satan and Fantôme Josepha’s Dramarama. Karen Jebane has been recording as Golem Mecanique since 2007, expelling a series of albums that dive deep into drone, processed hurdy-gurdy, black metal ambiance and biblical imagery and the classics – Satan has succeeded Abel/Kane and Luciferis, and even more recently there’s been Alecto, one of the three Furies of Greek mythology. Typically, they feature two long tracks and Satan fits that pattern, but really each is a series of movements that have merged into one. ‘The False Prophet’ opens with growling, sustained guitar notes (from compatriot Thomas Bel, who also provides “luciferian groans”) and Jebane’s wordless, reverb-wreathed chanting; there are silences that feel like abyssal depths, noise that colours the air like smoke, scattering light, and moments of tremolo picking that are like Dick Dale in hell. Second track, ‘The Beast From The Sea’, features hurdy-gurdy drone at its most unnerving, inducing a sense of rising dread and moving your guts around with its modulations. Perfect sounds for your next black celebration.

Fantôme Josepha are a duo from Metz and the version of Dramarama on Fort Evil Fruit is an expanded version of a release from last year, with new tracks including ‘Pauvre Courtney Love’ (‘Poor Courtney Love’). In either form, the album can be viewed a selection of penny dreadfuls or short Grand Guignol plays, with the pair – Josépha Mougenot and Arnaud Marcaille – varying the (often rickety) scenery to suit each tale; so a jaunty pre-set rhythm and Bad Seeds-esque organ are matched to suffocated vocals and squiggly lead synth lines on ‘Sturm’ and the influence of post punk electronic pop is felt strongly on ‘Straat’ and ‘Hooligan’ while, on ‘Und So Weiter’, ominous chords and distant screaming eventually subside, leaving just a stately harp. On the other hand, ‘Diary Of A Murder’ and ‘Reggie’ showcase their foggy take on folk balladry, with the latter edging towards 70s prog-folk territory but with the mellifluousness undercut by Mougenot’s deathbed delivery. Rather than transcending their low-rent, lo-fi sound, Fantôme Josepha seem more interested in drawing out the heightened dramatic potential and potency within it.

Meanwhile a UK label with a French-sounding name, Métron, has brought us one of the most exquisite French releases of the year in the shape of Audrey Carmes’ Quelque Chose S’est Dissipé. Carmes herself is based in Paris, where she studied Fine Art. ‘Micro-Macro’, the title of the album’s opener, serves as a mission statement of sorts; this music is pared down and focused on exquisite details but also contains a world of emotion. Carmes’ palette includes a bass guitar, used to generate harmonics and provide a warm bed for many of the tracks, vibraphone, flute and tingling synths, as well as her own voice which draws you in with wordless murmurs and whispered spoken word. It flows seamlessly and seems to be suffused with pale dawn light. You feel like you’re just waking up on a spring morning, still deep in your own body but gradually becoming alert to a world that seems to glisten with possibility. My current highlight is ‘La Fin Du Film’, a gorgeous tune adorned with milky guitar, warm organ and spiralling synth arpeggios, and in which Carmes’ voice is so close you can hear all the mouth’s tiny pops and clicks.

Last year I managed to briefly cover producer and percussionist Sébastien Forrester’s initial forays into folk-based music: on Orpheus Pipes (Object-Oriented Studies) he used his collection of 78 recordings featuring Occitan cabrette and Scottish bagpipes as the basis for gorgeously vaporous new compositions. Stunning as it was on its own terms, it also served a launchpad for Bouôrgxo, a single 23-minute track that finds Forrester and friends playing the traditional instrumentation themselves: Forrester is on synths but also Occitan tambour, Gabriel Delfour on hurdy-gurdy and Gaston Vialard with the cabrette bagpipe. It’s described as “a reverie on Averyon, an homage to the bourrée of the elders,”, Aveyron being the department in the south of France where one side of his family has its roots, and the bourrée being a French double-time dance. You’d be hard-pressed to dance to Bouôrgxo, though, which is where the “reverie” part comes in. On an even grander scale than Orpheus Pipes, southern French folk music is filtered through a fog of memory and electronic processing to produce something akin to a lucid dream. Initially, faraway drones and synths shimmer, until mid-way through there’s a flurry of tambourine, moulded and scrunched metallic percussion and pounding tambour, then a momentary lull before the climb to a final, magnificently swimmy peak, by which point you won’t be dancing but you might perhaps be levitating.

For more hot bagpipe action, you’ll also want to direct your ears towards Lise Barkas & Lisa Käuffert’s Lo Becat. Barkas is the French half of the duo, based in Strasbourg, and plays both the hurdy-gurdy and the French ‘pipes. Like a number of her contemporaries, she blurs the lines between trad and experimental music, cropping up on this album from electronic artist Melcór for example. Käuffert is German, from the small village of Baden-Wurtemberg, but the two have been playing together for a number of years as an improvising duo or with the group L’Ecluse. ‘Lo Becat’ is one long, mesmeric piece spread over two ‘sides’ and based on traditional French song “La Belle Va Au Jardin Des Amours’ and featuring nothing else but the intertwined sounds of the two pipers. It is anything but heavy-going – the lattice-like tones are both earthy and diaphanous; the whole thing positively gleams and sparkles as the pair twist and curl around each other. On the ‘B-side’, the piece temporary evolves into a bourrée before closing with a salvo of undulating drones. Throughout, you can discern (I think) the tapping of feet as the musicians keep time, which is rather charming in itself.

In other French folk news, the ever-essential La Nòvia collective have recently brought us the latest eponymous release from the doomiest of their formations, La Baracande, who focus on songs collected from lacemaker Virginie Granouillet (born 1878 in the Haut-Loire department), who was nicknamed ‘La Baracande’. Its first and final tracks are particularly stunning: ‘Ce Sont Trois Jeunes Garçons’ hoves into view on the back of Guilhem Lacroux’s deliciously twangy rock riff and ringing percussion, ushering in Basile Brémaud’s sonorous vocals and the keening and sawing of violin, hurdy-gurdy and the musette Béchonnet (a bellows-blown bagpipe). At the record’s other end, ‘Qui Veut Entendre L’Histoire’ is a vortex of controlled noise that reaches a furious pitch, Bremaud’s vocals delivered in a ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, chanting-from-a-mountain-top style. Brémaud’s more appeased solo album – called Basile Brémaud Solo, in case there was any doubt – makes for a lovely companion piece.

Another collective worth embracing is L’Engeance, based in Dijon and home to psych-folk quartet La Ruche and Cromorne, among others. On Cromorne’s Live @ Raymond Bar hurdy-gurdy is present again, played by Nicolas Virey – one half of the duo – but its sound here is less abrasive, a rippling, psychedelic stream that flows throughout the nearly 18-minute ‘Comme Dans Les Films’, while Kévin Valentin provides a synth bassline and holds down a rolling drum groove. ‘Le Lieu Est Cool’ is a dreamy, drumless interlude before the drums and a driving, two-note synth kick in for final track ‘Ça Va T’es Jeune’. Addictive stuff wrought with minimal means.

That’s a description that could also apply to Cantenac Dagar – comprised of Aymeric Hainaux and Stéphane Barascud – whose latest release, Aferie, features two slices of absolute filth, captured at a 2018 live show on a Dictaphone. Apparently, the pair tried and failed to reproduce it in the studio, eventually reverting to the original live recording. The title track is around 20 minutes of sludgy, bluesy riffage, pounding beatbox and distorted yelling, and is paired with the shorter ‘Raque’ which picks up the pace a bit and injects a more punky, Cabaret Voltaire-style energy into proceedings. Fittingly, their music was used to soundtrack a riot scene in director Clément Cogitore’s 2022 film Goutte D’Or.

So far this year there have been two new dispatches from the Parisian clique that includes rappers LELEEE, Bleu Nuit and Eryl, all of whom I’ve covered previously, and newer name Sadhana. They tend to appear on each other’s projects and embrace abstract hip hop, exemplified by the likes of MIKE and Earl Sweatshirt, and freeform, ‘prose’ lyrics i.e. lyrics that eschew rhyme and meter. When I reviewed Eryl’s [Sense Of Peace] last year, a reader commented that it was “jazzy like water”, a phrase which has stuck with me since and applies equally to the laid-back, gently disjointed production on his collaboration with Sadhana, Suisei Mushi, with its snatches of Asian pop vocals and acoustic guitars, strings, flutes, harps, and soft-heeled beats; a perfect match for Sadhana’s murmured musings. Highlights include the groggy funk of ‘Pti Cha’ and the skittery, beat for ‘Elevation’ which also features Eryl’s English-language rapping.

The whole gang is on Bleu Nuit’s 222, the follow-up to last year’s L’Enfant Sage and undoubtedly his finest work yet. He hasn’t lost his taste for brevity when it comes to individual tracks, or for vocals that sound as though they have been lifted from old records along with the crackly samples, but this is a more sprawling and diverse project that nevertheless crams its 22 tracks into a satisfying 40 minutes. There are still plenty of quick-fire, deliberately unfinished-sounding moments, where the distinction between an ‘interlude’ and a full track is collapsed – ‘Super Bloody’ is 43 seconds of screams, growls and collapsing breaks, and the album is peppered with sketchy pieces labelled ‘Sans Titre #1’, ‘Sans Titre #2’ (but which don’t appear in numerical order) but he also allows himself and the contributing producers (rather than beatmakers since there’s barely a beat in sight) to expand on their ideas. Bleu Lelee’ is a piece in two sections that features LELEEE in bravura form on the second part, representing ‘la négritude’ and shouting out Alice Coltrane over squiggly, pitched-up vocals, and the tender, maternal tribute ‘Anne-Marie (Nanotte)’, with its chiming guitar sample, is sincerely moving.

The regularly wonderful Carton and Turc Mécanique labels have brought us a new release from duo Balladur, which appeals to me particularly because it speaks to my Italian half as well as my French obsession. Both members have featured in this column previously in different guises – Amédée De Murcia regularly releases mangled electronic fare under the name Somaticae and is half of the terrific Jazzoux with Claire Gapenne aka Terrine (of whom more shortly), while Romain De Ferron also plies his trade with Omertà and put out a lovely solo release, Ravi, in 2022. Through Balladur they channel a love of new wave pop and synth wave but without simply rehashing and pastiching the music of the early 80s. The era acts more as a jumping-off point for the moody ballads and hot/cold grooves of Pourquoi Certains Arbres Sont Si Grands? (‘Why Are Some Trees So Big?). It also feels geographically non-specific – there are lyrics in French, some in Italian (all sung by De Ferron) but there are hints of, say, Japanese pop too. There’s also a discretely surreal quality to the songs that recalls late-period Lucio Battisti: ‘Pranzo Con Noi’ is announced by a repeated, staccato piano note, and its slightly anguished-sounding account of preparations for a meal (“I propose spaghetti with tomato sauce and vanilla ice-cream”) is punctuated by deliberately flatulent blasts of synth brass, before De Ferron starts conversing in Italian with a woman in a manner suggesting dialogue from a language course. Bellissimo.

There’s a similarly cosmopolitan, piquant flavour to Fiesta En El Vacio’s Rosal, with its combo of Castilian flamenco, Venezuelan popular music and minimalist electronic pop. Luna Maria Cedrón is a Franco-Argentinian artist based in Brittany, but who has spent time in Seville studying flamenco. She switches languages across different tracks here too, opting for Italian too on the synth poppy ‘Dimmi’, French for the furtive cold wave of ‘Mettez-Moi Au Travail’ and Spanish on the flamenco-influenced ‘Rosal’, with its chorused guitar arpeggios and stirring, chanted chorus. It’s a wonderfully idiosyncratic, personal statement that subtly but regularly subverts expectations and injects unexpected sonic surprises into the mix, like the crackly vocals and distant dog barks on ‘Grido’ or the steadily mounting sirens of ‘Dimmi’.

So on to Claire Gapenne/Terrine and her latest collection Standing Abs. The blurb on the Bruit Direct label’s website comes courtesy of Huggy Bear/Adulkt Life’s Chris Rowley and in the form of manifesto complete with capitalised words for extra emphasis – “Essential to playing THE MACHINE! at its own game… Terrine’s liberation /mission here, is to tilt and up end rigidity, mix and upset the colours, discombobulate and prank the asserting rhythms…” It does capture the humour and perversity in Terrine’s releases, with their sly titles (and scene in-jokes: ‘Carrageenan Do Dad Jokes’ is presumably a reference to fellow noise/techno artist Matthieu Levet/Carrageenan), and the sense that these tracks are not so much going off the rails as ignoring them altogether. Standing Abs’s sound that’s both exhilarating and absurd, minimal and overabundant: ‘She’s So Kind De Ouf’ is like a steam engine having a nervous breakdown, oil and steam squirting and gushing all over the shop; ‘Blason Will Win An Award This Year’ chugs along on a rhythm built of clicks and plops while small fissures opening up in its surface, before a sticky kick drum arrives; ‘La Nimpro’ winds up the set with meandering piano and even more wayward beats.

Quietus Mix 35

Fantôme Josepha – ‘Reggie’ (Fort Evil Fruit)
Eye – ‘Ti Amo’ (Knekelhuis)
Terrine – ‘Blason Will Win An Award This Year’ (Bruit Direct)
Bleu Nuit – ‘Anne-Marie (Nanotte) (Self-released)
Sarah Terral – ‘Psychopompe’ (three: four records, La République Des Granges)
Fantastic Twins – ‘Twins Can’t Love’ (House Of Slessor)
Sylvere – ‘Bright Clash’ (Monkeytown Records)
Asynchrone – ‘Differencia’ (No Format!)
Saddam Webcam – ‘Le Diable Qui Grogne’ (Dur Et Doux)
Crave – ‘Backdraft’ (Heat Crimes)
Antoine Bellanger – ‘Forêt Forêt’ (Un Je Ne Sais Quoi)
Fiesta En El Vacio – ‘Mettez-Moi Au Travail’ (Teenage Menopause)
Sadhana & Eryl – ‘Lumière Intérieure’ (Self-released)
La Baracande – ‘Ce Sont Trois Jeunes Garçons (La Nóvia)
Audrey Carmes – ‘Tout Est Déja Là’ (Métron Records)

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