Rockfort! French Music For April Reviewed By David McKenna

David McKenna delves into concept albums and meditative music for troubled times, and hails Satan in this month’s Rockfort! Column – the best of the French underground. Portrait of Satan by Lam Son Nguyen

None of us are unaffected by the Covid-19 pandemic – it feels as fruitless to trot out banalities about the situation we’re in as it is to studiously ignore it. The new reality has inevitably seeped into the column.

I’m in the unusual position (for me anyway) of having children around – my niece, who’s seven years old, and nephew, who’s five – while I try to engage with the work I can still do. Taking a break from that can mean teaching a beginner’s French lesson. Sometimes the kids want to know what I’m doing, or what I’m listening to.

Watching the waveforms in Audacity, the free software I use to piece the mix together, seemed to genuinely amuse them. On another occasion, my nephew asked for the headphones while I had the Loup Uberto album on. “What is it?” “Noise, I suppose.” He took them anyway, and the immediacy of his responses were a joy. “It’s going chk-chk-chk-chk… oh now there’s a voice! What language is that?”

I do my more grown-up and long-winded version of that to several releases below. The mix features music from all of those plus a killer new track from producer Crystallmess, percussive fireworks from Jerome Noetinger and Anthony Laguerre’s DnT album, mournful drone from æ ƒ v and a taster of Le Groupe Obscur’s excellent second EP. I’d also like to add a second mention for the Golem Mecanique release that Jennifer Lucy Allan covered in her latest Rum Music column.

Finally, if you’re looking for further listening to keep you occupied, the previous 20 mixes are here.

Laylow – Trinity
(Digital Mundo)

Chatting online recently from their respective lockdown locations, Belgian rap star Hamza and journalist and presenter Mehdi Maïzi were captured sharing their thoughts on the debut album proper (after several mixtapes) from Toulouse-born Laylow. “It’s incredible” says Hamza. For Maïzi it’s “a masterpiece… the imagery is crazy, the production is crazy, the storytelling is crazy.” Laylow may not yet be at the level of French rap aristocracy, but Trinity has been hailed as the most ambitious rap album released so far this year. The reference to “storytelling” is notable – Trinity is a concept album that follows Laylow, as protagonist, through a complex dance with a program called Trinity – a name borrowed from Carrie-Ann Moss’s character in The Matrix – which simulates (or stimulates) emotions. As well as being told through interludes, what’s striking about the story is the way it is echoed by the sounds on the album. The virtual, ‘digital’ world is reflected in extreme autotune tweaking, trap beats, luminous synths, and the glam stomp of ‘Megatron’ (an obvious nod to nod to ‘Black Skinhead’) but also distortion and glitches – like the moment in ‘Dehors Dans La Nuit’ where it sounds like your headphone jack has popped half-way out of the socket. But the album ranges further, with a return to reality signalled by the more old-school sounding ‘…De Batard’, and the suite of robo-ballads that round off the album. On ‘Million Flowerz’, autotune is used to render the vocal even more lachrymose, as though artificially elongating the downward curve of a frown.

Chassol – Ludi

You may be familiar with composer, arranger and keyboard player Christophe Chassol’s work without realising it, thanks to his collaborations with Phoenix, Frank Ocean and Solange, on When I Get Home. That album’s opening track, ‘Things I Imagined’ had his fingerprints all over it, the way in which a short phrase (spoken, sung, or played) is repeated and harmonised (or ‘Chassolised’). He is especially adept at highlighting the musicality in the rhythms and intonation patterns of speech, and likes to fuse these explorations with film to create what he calls ‘ultrascores’. The previous albums have been about places – New Orleans for Nola Chérie, India for Indiamore and Martinique on Big Sun. Although it presents further iterations of a now-familiar approach – also present in work by composers like Reich – Ludi is new in its thematic intricacy. It’s a reflection on game-playing inspired by Herman Hesse’s final novel The Glass Bead Game, also known as Magister Ludi. Set in the future, it follows the ascension of one Joseph Knecht to the position of Magister Ludi, the master of the Glass Bead Game. Many aspects of the game, which appears to be the highest form of culture in the Castalian province, are unclear but it can involve establishing and elaborating on musical themes.

The novel has already proved attractive to other musicians – tenor saxophonist Clifford Joran released Glass Bead Games in 1974, and James Blackshaw was inspired to take the novel’s title for an album in 2009. It’s easy to see why it also appealed to Chassol, resonating with his modus operandi and connecting with ideas about the rules (the second track is called ‘Les Règles’) governing the limits and permutations of particular games. On the two parts of ‘Savana Céline Aya’ we get children playing clapping games, and there’s even a tribute to Tetris. With 30 tracks on the album, as brief as some of them are, there might just be a lesson to be learned about knowing when the game is done. But Ludi is mostly enchanting, skipping breezily from bustling jazz-funk to atmospheric passages recalling Ernest Hood’s recently reissued, ambient-pioneering Neighbourhoods.

Odessey & Oracle – Crocorama
(Dur Et Doux/Another Record/Outré)

Fanny l’Héritier was one of the picks of this column last year with her solo release as Bess Of Bedlam, and here she returns as lead vocalist (and more) of this “psych pop baroque” band, alongside Guillaume Médioni, Roméo Monteiro and Alice Baudoin. They are such fans of Argent, Blunstone and co’s 1968 masterpiece that they retained the misspelling of ‘odyssey’.

There’s a micro-tradition of this stuff in French indie, particularly clustered around the Born Bad label – Dorian Pimpernel, Forever Pavot, some of Julien Gasc’s work. The utterly gorgeous Crocorama more than holds its own in that company. It’s interesting that one of the labels involved in the release is Lyon’s Dur Et Doux, home to prog-jazz-rock groups like Chromb!, PoiL and Ni. Odessey & Oracle make sense in that company, even though their sophistication is worn much more lightly. There’s a lot packed in here – breathy harmonies, glistening harpsichord and a panoply of other instrumentation including pipe organ, oboe, recorder, banjo and trumpet – but tunes like the title track and ‘Chercher Maman’ barely touch the ground, gambolling and pirouetting their way out of the speakers. Crocorama isn’t wedded to late-60s psych pop either – ‘Mascara’ shuffles along exquisitely on a samba rhythm and ‘Les Poupées Mécaniques’ ventures into the realm of Gabriel-era Genesis.

Ghost In The Tapes – Happily Confused (BMM Records)

This fogged up and strung out hip hop is the first fruit of a collaboration between Samy Abboud from French trio M.A Beat and Japanese rapper and producer Genshu Fukaya, plus a suitably global role call of guests – French rappers Les Gars Du Coin, Londoner Joseph Wallace, Queens MCs Jugo and Willfromqnz and Canadian-Japanese singer-songwriter Julia Shorteed. It’s stacked with crunchy breakbeats, rumbling bass and sheets of distorted samples and ambient noise – in the opening moments of ‘Strawberries’ before Fukaya steps up, we get a burst of static, then a low-key, ride-heavy break accompanied by running water, a deeply muffled instrumental line (a trumpet, perhaps) and distortion that’s like a microphone peaking, but it all fits, layered deliciously like mille-feuille. Two-thirds of the way through it essentially turns into a different track when Jugo cuts in. Shortread’s voice makes some ethereal contributions (sucked backwards for the intro to ‘Dazed’), and the free-floating ‘A-Hum’ drops the beats altogether. Happily Confused indeed.

PoulainJar – Dejection
(Balluchon Prod/Gigantonium)
Urs Graf Consort – Uva Ursi
Loup Uberto – Racconto Artigiano
(Three:Four/Le Saule)

Three albums grouped together because they all push out to the limits and beyond of song/ chanson/ canto popolare. For the follow-up to gristly live album Cabaret Sous Mondain En Public, the duo of Léa Monteix and Fabien-Gaston Rimbaud have recorded without any outside contributions and purged almost all residual traces of rock from their sound – in fact only ‘Avoine’, with its delicate folky opening, and ‘Au Blé De Ma Mère’ (like hardcore rave recorded in a well) bear any relation at all to popular music form. Much of Dejection might qualify as performance art and is frequently focused on the shifting interaction between Rimbaud and Monteix as they intone scraps of phrases and dialogue or, as at the climax of ‘Ordre Héros’, unleash a volley of simultaneously terrifying and hilarious, guttural bellows.

Guttural sounds, somewhere between a belch and a giant bullfrog croak, also feature in ‘Cynotaphe’ on Urs Graf Consort’s Uva Ursi. It induced a fit of cackling in my nephew, who demanded to listen to it three or four times in a row. The deliberately exaggerated vocals and freewheeling approach to structure and rhythm chime perfectly with a young child’s mentality. Urs Graf Consort are a collective centred around another duo – Prune Bécheau and Adrien Bardi-Bienenstock – with contributions on this album, on UK ‘experimental song’ label Bison, from a cast of 11 musicians. Together they offer up a series of disjointed, boisterous, heaving and theatrically comical scenes, folding in popular song, jazz, improv, baroque music and a generous serving of Henry Cow-like prog. Ripe and rowdy.

Loup Uberto is a member of trio Bégayer but he’s out on his own with Racconto Artigiano, which takes some of its cues from his Italian heritage – opener ‘Canto A Vatoccu’ is a traditional song from the Umbria region, delivered in Uberto’s throat-savaging style. But more of the album is about his experiments in texture and rhythm, as he overloads mics with feedback from transistor radios, mobile phones and, on the functionally titled but gripping ‘Percussion’, a tambourine. The rustic recording methods connect these pieces with the unadorned North Italian folk.

Sylvain Chauveau – Life Without Machines
(Flau Records)
Christine Ott – Chimères (pour Ondes Martenot)

We’re undoubtedly all in need of some tranquil, meditative listening at the moment. On Life Without Machines, the versatile Chauveau has used American painter Barnett Newman’s Stations Of The Cross series as graphic scores for 14 compositions – plus one extra piece which appears right at the end. Chauveau says this music “mirrors the stone garden of Ryoanji in Kyoto, where there are 15 stones but from any point of view one can only see a maximum of 14 at the same time.” It consists almost entirely of piano, although discreet electronic treatments are used on occasion, such as the discrete manipulation of the decaying vibrations on ‘t s’ and ‘d’ and ‘u’; an unimposing but vaguely unsettling drone underscores ‘nd’. They’re also very short pieces – a figure may be repeated a few times or, as with ‘q’, be over almost as soon as it begins (at least half of it is near-silence). The title refers to a future that Chauveau sees – with some justification – as being devoid of machines; the music here is haunted by their vestiges.

Meanwhile Nahal Recordings, run by Paul Régimbeau (Mondkopf) and Frédéric D. Oberland (from Oiseaux-Tempête), has served up this beauty from multi-instrumentalist Christine Ott. She has previously worked with Tindersticks – on several Claire Denis soundtracks – Yann Tiersen, Dominique A, and with Régimbeau and Oberland on their Foudre! Project. This, though, is her first solo release since 2016’s Tabu. Among the instruments in Ott’s repertoire is the ondes Martenot, the proto-synth invented in France, patented the same year as the theremin, and employed by composers from Olivier Messiaen to Johnny Greenwood. This is the first time Ott has focused an album entirely around the ondes, with Régimbeau and Oberland running the sounds through effects.

The ondes, like the theremin, is renowned for sounding ‘spooky’ of course, but it also produces a vast range of sounds, from bleeps and chirps to warm, enveloping swells. The vastness of space is evoked, inevitably, on swirling tracks like ‘Eclipse’, ‘Sirius’ and ‘Darkstar’ which are epic without being pompous. But ‘Mariposas’ also provides a delicate, pointillist interlude, and ‘Pulsar’ crackles and stutters like a techno track that’s been opened up and left with its guts hanging out.

Satan – Toutes Ces Horreurs (Throatruiner Records)

Alternatively you might be looking for music through which to channel your frustrations, in which how about devoting yourself to Satan? The Grenoble four-piece have been going for ten years now, evolving from shrieking grindcore to a sound they call ‘possessed punk’- a combo of full-throttle aggression, darkly chiming arpeggios and spidery lead lines. Toutes Ces Horreurs means ‘all these horrors’ if you want a further idea of what you’re letting yourself in for. ‘Confiture Pour Cochons’ is an unusual intro which blends a tribal folk sound with free-jazz sax and a spoken-word vocal. Then ‘La Guerre Lente’, with its surging chorus, arrives at a gallop, and the ‘Le Sang Du Poète’ hits at an even more blistering pace. ‘Triste Soeur’ fuses spiralling melodic sections with hypnotic riffing, while ‘Zone D’Inconfort’ clearly wraps hardcore punk in a black metal fog, veering into a blast beat spree midway through, and is finally overwhelmed by the wave of distortion that dominates the next, rather abstract number ‘Peinture Au Plomb’. Instrumental finale ‘Lève-Toi Et Rampe’ is a curious, drumless drone-piece that features absolutely-not-horrible use of didgeridoo. Gets the horns up from me.

Bon Voyage Organisation – La Course
(L’Invitation Musicale)

Album number two from BVO is another excursion into Adrien Durand’s world of lush travelogues and imaginary soundtracks, still underpinned by subtle intimations that all may not be well in paradise – ‘Un Américain à Tanger’s smooth, cosmopolitan vibe is immediately followed by ‘Un Américain En Danger’s suspenseful, chase-themed opening section. Durand assembled his crack musicians (some of whom play with the live band) at the Mélodium studios in the east-Parisian suburb of Montreuil to get the slick, jazz-funk session feel he’s in thrall to, before overdubbing, editing and mixing alone. There’s no room for accidents or appealing blemishes in BVO, but the album’s pristine surfaces – like the resorts and business parks in JG Ballard’s Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes – invite you to look for the darkness beneath. It’s there perhaps in the more ambient passages, the alien pulse that peeks through the slightly artificial sounding wave sounds at the very beginning of ‘Un Américain à Tanger’ or the gathering wind at the end of ‘La Course’, which otherwise has affinities with The Comet Is Coming. Right now the sheer escapism is very welcome too of course, as is a new opportunity to admire Durand’s technical mastery.

Les Marquises – La Battue
(Les Disques Normal)

When I interviewed him in 2014, Jean-Sébastien Nouveau said that “My idea for each album is to create a new world with different aesthetic.” La Battue’s predecessor, A Night Full Of Collapses initially felt too muted and lacking in dynamics – I’ve since come round – but this is in some ways a return to the more rugged, percussive sound of La Pensée Magique, even though its techno leanings are new. Nouveau has taken on vocal duties for the first time – a sort of French-accented Bernard Sumner – and reduced the guest musicians to drummer Rémy Kaprielan and percussionist Jonathan Grandcollot. They provide the momentum in these songs that build on plunking, circular guitar patterns and broad strips of synth. It’s something like electro pop fused with early UK post-rock; ‘Head As A Scree’ and ‘Hosts Are Missing’ in particular hit a sweet spot of grainy atmosphere and propulsive motion.

Quietus Mix 21

Odessey & Oracle – ‘Mascara’ (Dur Et Doux/Another Record/Outré)
Chassol – ‘Mikado Walking’ (Tricatel)
Bon Voyage Organisation – ‘Un Américain En Danger’ (L’Invitation Musicale)
Crystallmess – ‘The Devil Is A Lie!’ (N/A)
Ghost In The Tapes – ‘Strawberries’ (BMM Records)

Laylow – ‘Trinityville’ (Digital Mundo)
Les Marquises – ‘Hosts Are Missing’ (Les Disques Normal)

Laguerre/Noetinger – ‘Masse Le Fer Du Son (Agoo/Rev. Lab)
Satan – ‘La Guerre Lente’ (Throatruiner Records)
Urs Graf Consort – ‘Cynotaphe’ (Bison)
Christine Ott – ‘Mariposa’ (NAHAL Recordings)
Loup Uberto – ‘Il Pecoraro II’ (Three:Four/Le Saule)
Sylvain Chauveau – ‘u’ (Flau Records)
æ ƒ v – ‘Her Dark Light’ (Nostalgie De La Boue)
PoulainJar – ‘Avoine’ (Balluchon Prod/Gigantonium)
Le Groupe Obscur – ‘Fhëmë’ (Midnight Special/Outré)

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