Rockfort! French Music For February Reviewed By David McKenna

In his latest survey of French releases, David McKenna looks at one of the first great rap releases of the year from Lala &ce, tackles imposing composers and dives into a delightful debut from Franco-Moroccan Hanaa Ouassim. Homepage photo: Hanaa Ouassim by Clara Casero

There are times when writing a French music column, or at least preparing to write one, feels a bit like being a border guard or a Home Office official. I’m frequently looking up artists’ place of birth, checking their histories; the name sounds French but are they perhaps Belgian, Swiss or Québécois? Or maybe they’re from a French overseas territory?

In effect, though, I establish vague rules that I’m only too happy to ignore if it suits me. For groups, I’ve told myself and others that at least half the members should be French – but I might be open to persuasion in exchange for a handful of great tunes. Or: I’m focusing on music from France (not music sung in the French language), so ideally artists I cover should be based in l’Hexagone, part of some putative French ‘scene’… except they don’t really, as I’ve included numerous migrants, exiles, expats.

And what about artists who came, or whose parents came, from former colonies? I describe rapper Lala &ce as Franco-Ivorian and call Hanaa Ouassim (also reviewed here) Franco-Moroccan, but these labels elide diverse histories; Lala &ce was born in Bron, outside Lyon, while Ouassim is from Morocco and only moved to Reims later with her family. She says that she makes music for people “like me, who left the home country.” It’s not for me (or anyone else) to deny someone’s Frenchness, however they experience it, but I’m also wary of flattening out difference and being excessively assimilatory. Ultimately, the goal is to welcome in as much thrilling, challenging and transcendent art as I can without taking the piss.

Some form of filtering is necessary of course – unlike France, or the UK, this column really is full. So in addition to the reviews below, I’ve also provided the usual mix which covers these releases plus essential new music from Drive With A Dead Girl, Tiss, Meel B, Agathe Max (already reviewed on the site here), Helen Island, Lamina, Opéra Mort, Olivier 2Mo, Forever Pavot & XP The Marxman (50% French!), Temple Sun – from the terrific Born Bad compilation of French private press recordings Kiosque D’Orphée – Lès Modernos, Nina Harker and Anne Gillis. There are more tQ words about the last two here

Lala &ce – Solstice
(Columbia France)

While 2023 wasn’t a vintage year for French rap, there were several superb releases that slipped out before the year’s end from Prince Waly, ISHA & Limsa D’Aulnay, Joaqm and prince of the new wave, La Fève, with his lean, trap-based second album 24, and now Franco-Ivorian rapper Lala &ce has laid down an early marker for 2024 with Solstice, which features La Fève on the grinding, lascivious ‘Sexyy Red’. Since her last solo album, 2021’s Everything Tasteful, Lala has continued to demonstrate her range with the summery, dancehall-reggaeton moods of the SunSystem EP, and giving free rein to her experimental tendencies on the immaculate Low Jack collaboration Baiser Mortel. The latter was the soundtrack to a stage show, and the idea of giving an album a narrative backbone obviously appealed because she’s returned to the idea on Solstice. For Basier Mortel she assumed the role of Death traversing the land of the living, and death still seems to be on her mind here as evidenced by the shock ending to the appeased, jazzy final track ‘Soib3 (Outro)’. There are echoes of Laylow’s concept albums Trinity (for the presence of an apparently ‘virtual’ character) and ’L’Étrange Histoire De Mr. Anderson (for the sinister male voice that appears to be leading the dance). I don’t find the plotlines, carried by ‘skits’ that pepper the record, to be as legible here as on those Laylow’s albums – there is undoubtedly a dystopian scenario, and there are suggestions that this might be a kind of inversion of Basier Mortel, a journey through the underworld perhaps. Regardless, the main thing to note is that Solstice is another tour de force, cooked up with fellow Lyonnais Phazz and encompassing the synth-pop of ‘No More Time’, the steel-tipped beats and braggadocio of ‘Licorne’ (“what do you mean I don’t have my gold record/so many hoes in my phone I have to make them a Discord”), the splintered snares and distorted breaks of ‘Apocalypse Sitcom’, sinuous afrobeats on ‘Jalouse’, a pulsating collaboration with Ivorian producer Ste Milano (‘Djinzin’) and the haunting R&B of ‘Déranger’ with its seemingly Burial-inspired intro, all surface crackle and yearning vocal cut ups. Lala’s power is, as ever, in her restraint and subtlety, and the nuances of placement, grain and phrasing, of gasps and sighs, of mumbling, slurring, slipping and skating over the beat, that elevate any production she graces with her presence.

Sébastien Forrester – N​è​plo

Composer and percussionist Sébastien Forrester’s Bou​ô​rgxo, a release consisting of a solitary, near-23-minute piece, was one of 2023’s highlights. His latest, N​è​plo, is another singular (and slightly shorter) work on the same label, Superpang. I love this format, or rather this disregard for standard formats; each release is both a discrete statement and part of a broader trajectory, another step into territory where contemporary composition, improvisation, folk music and electronic production are cross-pollinated, giving rise to arresting hybrid forms. Neplò’s principal theme, played first on a five-octave marimba and then bagpipes (both FM emulations and the real thing, courtesy of Gaston Vialard, who also provides hurdy-gurdy) and finally synth, is apparently derived from the bassline of a medieval Occitan chant, providing a thematic structure and giving rise to the feeling that something very old is stirring. But Neplò is also the product of disparate improvisation sessions and sound collage: drums and percussion that were recorded as Forrester was working on Bou​ô​rgxo have been cut up and assembled into new shapes, while the marimba parts were recorded during a residence in a conservatoire in Toulouse. Neplò means mist or veil, and there’s a haziness to the piece, the sense of a form constituting itself from behind, and out of, the initially chaotic-seeming instrumental layers, but there’s also a sense of purpose, a beautiful precision – in the crispness of the marimba, like spots of spring rain accumulating into rivulets – and the thrilling spacialisation, with thick, electronically treated drum fills tumbling across the stereo field. Roll on the next chapter.

Hanaa Ouassim – La Vie De Star
(Pan European Recording)

Hanaa Ouassim was born in Settat in Morocco, a little way south of Casablanca, but moved to Reims and then Paris. Musically, she has one foot in the music of traditional marriage ceremonies, playing darbuka and bendir drums at weddings from a young age, and another in the Parisian club scene, where she developed her DJing skills. She has also made a name for herself as a collaborator, providing percussion and vocals for the likes of Léonie Pernet (and then being remixed by Acid Arab). Her debut album, La Vie De Star, largely sung in Darija (the Arabic dialect spoken in Morocco) is an enthralling gem, on which chaabi and raï merge with club beats, dancehall, a hip hop influence (such as on ‘AMG Romantique’) and a delicate pop sensibility. One track is called ‘Lanadelrey’, which is an indication of the mood, if not the sound. It’s an album about the glamour of escaping as an antidote to heartache, getting away for a coastal drive in a rented car. There’s a deep melancholy as well as a feeling of renewal. I’m a sucker for burbling, Auto-Tune-d North African melisma anyway (and Ouassim likes to use a vocoder as well); stir in milky keyboard lines, those infectious Maghreb rhythms, the tristesse mingled with transcendence, and there’s no way I can refuse. In context, the Auto-Tune also seems to reflect the glazed emotional state of Ouassim-as-protagonist. There are delightful touches throughout, like the stuttering string parts on ‘Lanadelrey’ and the urgent, heart-piercing flute licks on ‘Million’, while ‘Nmchi B Lil’s euphoric/tragic hook feels like it could keep looping for hours and never outstay its welcome.

David Fenech – Mountains Of Night
(Jelodanti Records)

David Fenech is a guitarist, serial collaborator and fixture of the French underground, not only continuing the legacy of a previous generation of French experimentalists like Pierre Bastien, Jac Berrocal and Ghédalia Tazartès, but actually working with them too. Recent work includes releases from his trio with Berrocal and Vincent Epplay, a duo with Rhys Chatham and an excellent collection of off-kilter Elvis Presley covers recorded with Bastien called Suspicious Moon. He also has a website, David F Presents, where he shares his musical passions and latest discoveries. It has undoubtedly alerted me to numerous French acts that I was previously unaware of, so it’s a pleasure for me to alert you to Fenech’s latest solo work Mountains Of Night. Fenech plays everything himself (the list ranges from guitar and piano to ‘home-made electronics’), and it all feels splendidly intuitive and naturally adventurous. There’s a concrète-inspired delight in juxtaposition and dream/nightmare-like flow of ideas in evidence – ‘Blackburn’ begins with synthetic pulses that sound like an engaged tone on old phones, rubbing up against descending piano notes and maybe two field recordings running simultaneously (there are the sound of children and corvid croaking); ‘Alecto’ pitches backward bells in with gongs, snatches of conversation and sinister organ. Longer compositions like ‘Dome’ and ‘Mountains Of Night’ are in constant movement; the former morphs from a passage of moody guitar and keys into a plaintive ballad (wayward vocalists unknown), then a section featuring a treated recording of ceremonial percussion and mass yelling, and so on. It leaves you feeling both delightfully disorientated and hyper-alert.

Unglee Izi – Musique de l’A.S.M.A_Chronos De Telehor et Space Modulator_Plan I, II, III, IV)

Somewhat mysterious composer (and photographer, writer, designer) Unglee Izi doesn’t do things by halves. The 2019 album Apprentissage & Remplacement featured five tracks of hissing, roaring, rumbling noise that all clocked in at around the 50-minute mark, while his previous on Cairo-based Nashazphone featured to circa-20 min blasted dubscapes. He’s back on the label for the latest in his Musique de l’A.S.M.A series Chronos De Telehor et Space Modulator Plan I, II, III, IV. I’ve tried and failed so far to find out what that A.S.M.A acronym stands for, as it would seem to be the name of his studio as well, but the label told me that no-one knows and they wouldn’t dare ask him! Anyway, this time the work comprises of 70-minute pieces spread across two CDs, each spread across a number of movements. The valleys are deep – there are many moments of near-silence, towards the end of ‘Space Modulator’ there’s just a low hum and what sounds like a big cat grumbling and growling – but the peaks are vertiginous, and both pieces rapidly demand your attention; CD1 soon unleashes streaks of swirling noise, like the howls of dying stars, while listening to CD2’s early salvo of violently undulating chimes, you feel like Alice falling into a black hole. But there’s space in between those huge peaks and hushed spells too, for gorgeous organ swells, flurrying piano and synthesised voices. Unglee Izi’s tremendous appetite for exploring the outer limits of sound is infectious and ultimately inspiring.

Alto Fuero – Live Rec

The debut release from duo Alto Fuero is a live album, compiled from various shows over the past couple of years, including performances at the Sonic Protest Festival in Paris, Lost Music in Italy and venues including Grrrnd Zero near Lyon and Le Confort Moderne in Poitiers. I caught the pair – Victoria Palacios and Loto Retina – playing ‘in the round’ at Cafe OTO in January and can confirm that Live Rec goes some way towards capturing their punky mischief and mesmeric energy. Victoria, the vocalist, employs a pitch shifter to accentuate her unpredictable shifts from squeaky top range to a low, child-stomping-around-pretending-to-be-a-giant voice. It reminds me somewhat of Anne Careil from Rien Virgule, for her use of the effect and the fact that it’s not always clear that she’s singing in an existing language – she’s spoken of employing something resembling Occitan, although there are also traces of Spanish (‘La Bebida’) and French phrases poking through (“Je suis deçu et je te bave dessus” – “I’m disappointed and I drool on you”). I love the way you can hear the audiences’ whoops and applause filtered through her gear on these recordings. Loto supplies the crunching and jittering electronic percussion, flute, the blasts and gusts of filthy noise. There are kicks and bass-y detonations but rarely any recognisable basslines, with the result that the beats sound perpetually suspended in the air. The inspiration of percussion-focused traditional musics is felt, but amid the ping-ponging, spring-loaded beats there’s also room for gorgeous, lysergic drone-folk ballad ‘Manere l’Arbre Soeur’.

Ronce – Crève
(Dawn Records)

At the risk of lumping whispering female French artists together… while Felicia Atkinson expresses ambivalence (at the very least) about comparisons between her work and ASMR – quite understandably, since her work seeks to elicit very different responses from the listener – Ronce, aka artist Zoë Villard, seems less wary of the term: the first track on Crève is called ‘ASMR 3’. Again, though, the intention here isn’t to soothe or create ‘tingles’; the title of the album can be translated as “die” or “drop dead” (to be read as an imperative) – or as ‘la crève’, which is a heavy cold. As with Villard’s previous work, i>Crève deals with emotional violence and trauma, and the whisper, the interior voice – both in English and French – appears in the midst of rugged, blistered field recordings and abrasive noise. On ‘Headshot’, a quiet injunction to “look inside yourself” is sandwiched between what sounds like cars colliding in a high-speed traffic incident. The violence can manifest more subtly too – on ‘Still’, Villard is “sticking my fingers inside open wounds/secretly hoping it will bring me closer to some kind of God”; the sound is layered like scarred and scabbed over human tissue. But there are also flashes of ethereal beauty, such as on the HTRK collaboration ‘Lilac Blue’, with Jonnine Standish’s vocals drifting in from behind a half-open door. And there’s catharsis too, with the thunderously exhilarating pile-ups of ‘Lésions’ coming across like huge releases of psychic tension.

Quietus Mix 36

Drive With A Dead Girl – ‘Memphis Town’ (Self-Released)
Tiss – ‘Know Better’ (Mr Maqs Productions)
Alto Fuero – ‘Alto Fuero (Sped Up)’ (Self-Released)
Lala &ce – ‘Apocalypse Sitcom’ (Columbia France)
Ronce – ‘All Girls Are Special ft Hajj’ (Dawn Records)
Meel B – ‘JZBL’ (Elips)
Hanaa Ouassim – ‘Million’ (Pan European Recording)
Agathe Max – ‘The Water Teaches Me The Flow’ (Self-Released)
Helen Island – ‘Thank You’ (Knekelhuis)
Anne Gillis – ‘Cinolm’ (Art Into Life)
Lamina – ‘Mycelle’ (Wabi-Sabi Tapes)
David Fenech – ‘Blackburn’ (Jelodanti Records)
Opéra Mort – ‘Secrets’ (Editions Gravats)
Nina Harker – ‘Er Zog’ (Aguirre, La République Des Granges & others)
Olivier 2Mo – ‘Browser Jr’ (Self-Released)
Forever Pavot & XP The Marxman – ‘Magnifying Glass’ (Black Milk Music)
Temple Sun – ‘Voyage Sans Retour’ (Born Bad)
Les Modernos – ‘Grisou’ (Bruit Direct)

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