Rockfort! French Music For June Reviewed By David McKenna

In his latest survey of the French fringes, David McKenna reviews left-field rap, folk, “non-jazz” and an album that fuses gabber with dramatic 80s pop. Homepage photo: Ascendant Vierge

A curious feature of the recent French protests against Macron’s pension reforms was the cacophony of pots and pans, traditionally known as a casserolade, that accompanied it. The revival of this form of sonic protest (to borrow the name of an excellent French festival) was dismissed in typically condescending style by Macron, who claimed: “It’s not saucepans that are going to allow France to move forward”.

Meanwhile in the southern French village of Ganges, local authorities cracked down on “portable sound devices” ahead of a demonstration. This only seemed to encourage protesters, with various ministers being treated to tin-pan concerts as they attempted to go about their business. It seems that sound and music, even improvised on kitchenware, can still sometimes perturb the powerful.

Meanwhile the last few months have once again brought an avalanche of superb releases – too many for me to focus on it detail here, sadly. I’ve already written plenty about rap duo Triplego but they’ve been on sterling form this year with the Gibraltar album and the Quand Tu Partiras EP, and drill star Ziak has proved his versatility (the man can ride a 2-step garage beat like a boss) on second album Chrome. In the pop realm, Christine And The Queens has released his most ambitious album yet, the glorious sprawl of Paranoïa, Angels, True Love, and Etienne Daho’s Tirer La Nuit Sur Les Étoiles continues his late-period renaissance.

We’ve also had sublime reissues on the Souffle Continu label, including a 1976 alt folk beauty from Bréton singer, composer and harpist Kristen Noguès, Marc’h Gouez, and underground supergroup Video-Aventures playfully exploratory Musiques Pour Garçons Et Filles from 1979. And the mix below, as well as featuring music from the albums reviewed below, also includes music from fabulous Franco-Italian duo Zohastre (taken from new album Abracadabra), Donna Candy (you can read more about them here, electronic producers I Am A Vowel and E-Unity, more math rock-meets-Colombian currulao from Pixvae’s third album Oi Ve and pastoral industrialists France Sauvage.

In the midst of those aforementioned protests, on the day of a general strike in fact (23 March), leftfield rapper and producer 23wa released his latest album, the riotously inventive Rorschach. On Twitter, he suggested that people should take to the streets rather than listen to the new record – an entirely laudable sentiment – but this release is worthy of attention too. So what do I know about 23wa? Not an awful lot, except that he’s young (possibly still a teenager) and from Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, which isn’t the first, or even the sixth or seventh, place in the country that one would associate with rap. This may be relevant, since 23wa sounds like he makes music in his own bubble, serenely indifferent to prevailing French trends. His previous opus, 2022’s 3, was a glitchy, saturated, bewildering and hilarious sprawl of chopped beats, incongruous samples and fractured structures, both obsessively detailed and delightfully sloppy. Rorschach continues in that vein – the title of ‘Sable Mouvant’ (quicksand or shifting sand) is apt; the rug is constantly being pulled out from beneath you. Sometimes the experience is like skipping rapidly between different stations – half-way through, ‘Keske’ suddenly tumbles its way into a hyperactive drum & bass section – and at others it’s as though you’re hearing several songs simultaneously: ‘Plaine Noire, Siècle Zero’, comes over like 23wa is clashing with a hardcore noise outfit playing in the room next door, the distortion bleeding through the walls. But it also feels more emotionally anchored and expressive than before; 23wa can sound agitated, taking on the ills he sees in the world – railing against incels, for example – but he can also rap in a measured tone close to that of everyday speech, which suits the introspective tone of lyrics like those on the gently chiming ‘Érosion’ (“I become nostalgic for the days when I was nostalgic for the time when I was nostalgic for the days…”). He throws so much at the wall that, inevitably, there are moments that might not stick for you – ‘Rien Que Pour Toi’ is a little too emo-pop for my tastes – but that’s just part of the wild ride.

Ascendant Vierge have inserted themselves forcefully into the lineage of post-punk and electronic duos, the ones with a man on machines and the woman out front: Yazoo, KaS Product, Elli Et Jacno, Miss Kittin & The Hacker. Frenchman Paul Seul is the founder of the Casual Gabberz, and he brings that Parisian twist on hard dance and gabber to his work with Belgian singer and performance artist Mathilde Fernandez. But debut album Une Nouvelle Chance also allows them to explore their love of apocalyptically dramatic 80s pop, from Dead Can Dance and Nina Hagen to Mylène Farmer who, at her peak, released a string of goth-lite electro-pop gems that combined Madonna’s taboo-busting frankness with Kate Bush’s literary and filmic sensibilities. Ascendant Vierge’s take on these influences sacrifices some subtleties, it’s true, but on the plus side they ramp up the energy and the muscularity to a hair-raising degree. ‘Je Suis Un Avion’ and ‘Juvénile’ are like Farmer tracks strapped into jet packs and clad in gleaming body armour, with Fernandez frequently employing her glass-shatteringly operatic vocals more as a weapon than an expressive instrument, while ‘Au Top’ is a furiously entertaining electro-glam stomp, the soundtrack to a spinning class run by cenobites.

Delphine Dora is remarkably prolific and chronicling everything she releases in this column would be a challenge. But this is as good a time as any to check in with the Parisian composer and improviser and take stock of a recent release, the exquisitely gaseous As Above, So Below on Californian label Recital. Warm, gently eddying synth beds, rippling piano, field recordings and vocals hanging in the air like a spectre in the mist – these are all familiar elements of Dora’s sound, but you’re still enchanted anew. This is down to its edgelessness, in terms of both sound and feeling, and its agelessness, tapping deep wells of melancholy and rapture that maintain a fractured link with religious music as well as chanson and lieder (Dora recites poetry by late 18th century German writer Novalis on ‘Cantique Spirituel’).

Lille-based Nicolas Devos and Penelope Michel have also been busy of late with both their Cercueil project and as Puce Moment – the latter named after a 1949 short film my the very recently deceased Kenneth Anger. Cercueil’s Bad Posture EP showcases their – comparatively – poppy and song-based side, even though the four tracks are enveloped by a lustrous fug of synth and guitar, with Michel’s vocals the ghost in the machine. This is dance music too – ‘Suchness’ is driven by a fast, four-to-the-floor kick, handclaps and sawing synth-bass; ‘Bad Posture’’s melody and lyrics nod to Joy Division’s ‘Heart And Soul’ but it glides along on a throbbing sawtooth synth bassline. Cerceuil means ‘coffin’, by the way, so you can definitely file this under ‘death disco’. For Puce Moment, meanwhile, it’s as though Devos and Michel have taken the Cerceuil sound and stretched it out, chewed it up, dissolved it (although, when I interviewed them several years ago, the pair explained that it more often works in the other direction, with Puce Moment functioning as a “laboratory” for Cercueil). Across their two latest EPs, Epic Ellipses and the more recent In Situ, crunchy machine rhythms are haloed by ribbons and clouds of saturated, intensely blissful noise. Michel’s murmurs and banshee wails are even more ethereal here, a series of fleeting afterimages.

The last time this column featured venerable noise trio Sister Iodine (consisting of Lional Fernandez, Nicolas Mazet and Erik Minkinnen), it was for the sprawling, tar-black Venom which, like the latest release Hollozone, was on ace Egyptian label Nashazphone. While hardly representing a retreat or a softening of their aesthetic, this new one is a more succinct and sculpted record. It feels a little less like being flayed and roasted in the fires of eternal damnation and more like a visit to an underexplored off-world territory (perhaps the Hollozone of the title). It’s stealthier, the injections of otherworldly dread and disorientation more insidious and inscrutable. Tracks like ‘Crypt’ are deliberately and strangely muted, like a barely decipherable long-distance broadcast – it opens with a steady but heavy distorted clanging sound, as though from the bell of a drowned church, while sheets of corroded fuzz mingle with faraway, animalistic howls. There’s still noise galore, but the intensity, even the beauty, this time round comes more from the restraint than from shock and awe tactics – although Stephen Bessac of hardcore band Kickback appears on a couple of tracks, including opener ‘Motor Zøne’, to raise hell with his gargoyle growls and screeches.

Sourdurent is an extension, in both name and personnel, of Ernest Bergez’s Sourdure project – itself one of the finest of France’s thriving alternative folk scene. Growing organically out of live performances, Sourdurent calls on the talents of Bégayer’s Loup Uberto, singer and multi-instrumentalist Elisa Trébouville, and bagpipe player and La Nòvia member Jacque Puech. As they strike up on opener ‘Franc De Bruch’, the initial impression is of a more streamlined – even trad – sound, relative to the wild invention and moodswings of 2021’s De Mòrt Viva, until you notice the chugging electronic rhythm underpinning the instrumental curlicues and rousing mass of voices. And, as with the Sourdure releases, the band throw a variety of sources into the pot, blending traditional music from Afghanistan, Tunisia and the Averyron department of southern France with original compositions in Occitan (a language not only particular to that region but also parts of Italy, Monaco and Catalonia), and judicious use of electronics. The authenticity that matters here is that of their collective vision, one that convincingly encompasses stately, swaying pieces like ‘Le Rodet’, lo-fi interludes like ‘Tron De Dieu’ and the delirium-inducing ‘La Dumenchada’ which, with its insistent melody, increasingly frantic percussion and piercing squalls of reeds and strings, is a Dumbo-esque fever-dream in a folk club.

Sourdurent member Elisa Trébouville also features on a recent release on the superb Pagans label, as one half of duo Bourrasque with violin player and vocalist Marthe Tourret. A female duo in this milieu is rare enough to be noteworthy – only La Nòvia’s Violineuses spring to mind – but there are many other qualities to focus on here. United by a mutual appreciation for the music of the highland Massif Central of central-southern France, they have a rare complicity – banjo and violin gel and vocal lines are traded on the long, hypnotic opening medleys. Again, trad instrumentation is combined with subtle electronic touches, like the swells and drones that colour ‘La Fille D’un Boulanger/‫أمين‬ – Amine/ Bourrée À Peyrat‬‬‬‬’, a sequence that perfectly demonstrates the sweetness, power and abrasiveness in their work. Like Sourdure, they’re also come in an expanded format, Boursec, that takes over for three tracks – and which also includes Jacques Puech.

Toulousains Edredon Sensible have come storming back with a second album, Montagne Explosion, that combines some of the best qualities of the ‘new’ UK jazz scene – the danceability and raw energy – with more local flavours and a skewed sense of humour. The power of the twin percussionist/twin saxophonist line-up is immediately apparent again on opener ‘Poulet Gondolé (Chasuble)’ and the intriguingly titled ‘Where Is An Alcool Japonais Qui Aime Se Baigner En Restant À La Même Temperature’: high tempo, high-intensity drum patterns building with hypnotic intensity (is there a kind of Gnawa rhythm driving ‘Poulet…’?), rapid-fire riffs and squealing sax salvos. In this mode they’re thrilling, but they demonstrate a more reflective side, particularly on the turbulently folky ‘Quand Lo Pastour Bai Amouda’, which features a group of female guest vocalists, and wouldn’t be out of place on a Pagans release.

More “non-jazz” (as the album blurb would have it) excellence comes in the form of Parasite Jazz’s self-titled album on new Parisian label Disques de la Spirale. Featuring Tamara Goukassova – a member of splendid indie poppers The Konki Duet in another lifetime – on violin, Alexandre Larcier on tapes and FX and percussionist Théo Delauney, these semi-improvised pieces take a dub-wise approach to sound and juggle with post-punk pop (‘Terciopelo’), scratchy no wave guitar and fake jazz-y synth bass (‘Alarm Twist’), ritualistic medieval music (‘Damn Spring’) and kosmische synths (‘Glissement De Terrain’). This addictively crunchy bag of treats is capped off with a live recording from a festival in Gigors, southeastern France, wherein a heavy, single-note bass groove provides the springboard for a constantly shifting noisescape of violin, keys, squiggly lap steel and crackling, crinkly electronic interventions.

Finally, in a more tranquil, lyrical mode, I’ve been enjoying the new project from Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko which I mention here because it sees him linking up with three Frenchmen: regular collaborator Vincent Ségal, with whom he has already released two albums on No Format including the achingly beautiful Musique De Nuit, saxophonist Émile Parisien and accordionist Vincent Peirani. The latter two, both key figures in the French jazz scene, also work together regularly, so the line-up of Les Égarés is comprised of a duo of duos. Frankly I could listen to Sissoko play classic ring tones on the kora and still be entranced, but there is splendid balance to the sound made by this ensemble, and their ability to synthesise musical currents from Africa, Europe and the Middle East with such elegance and understated intensity is stunning.

Rockfort Quietus Mix 34 – June 2023

Delphine Dora – ‘L’Aube Éternelle’ (Recital)
Sourdure – ‘Petafinats’ (Bongo Joe/Murailles Music)
Bourrasque – ‘Valse D’Amour’ (Pagans)
Donna Candy – ‘H4T’ (Bison)
23wa – ‘Plaine Noire, Siècle Zero’ (AMURCorp)
I Am A Vowel – ‘On Mars’ (Vowel)
Puce Moment – ‘Epecuen’ (Chez Kito Kat)
Ascendant Vierge – ‘Au Top’ (12 Stars)
Sister Iodine – ‘Ma Réponse Est Non’ (Nashazphone)
Parasite Jazz – ‘Alarm Twist’ (Disques de la Spirale)
Pixvae – ‘Vamos A Celebrar’ (Compagnie 4000)
Edredon Sensible – ‘Where Is Un Alcool Japonais Qui Aime Se Baigner En Restant À La Même Température’ (Self-released)
Zohastre – ‘Esplumeor’ (Zamzamrec)
Ballaké Sissoko, Vincent Segal, Emile Parisien, Vincent Peirani – ‘Time Bum’ (No Format)
France Sauvage – ‘Faire Les Dents Repousser’ (In Paradisum/Murailles Music/La République Des Granges)
E-Unity – ‘Nami ft Kamohelo’ (TEMƎT)

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