Prog, Pop & Prohibited: Rockfort on Robi & Reissues

In our latest music column de Paris, David McKenna looks forward to some brand new old stuff. But first, a word about Charlie Hebdo

I’m conscious of the sheer number of words already written about the recent killings in Paris but I think it would be odd, in a column that engages with French culture, to ignore what has happened here entirely.

Like many others, in the wake of the initial bewilderment on 7 January I found myself following trails through news sites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook – I was seeking information and confronting my inchoate responses with myriad other standpoints to see what convictions, if any, would survive. Anyone describing some Charlie Hebdo cartoons as racist was frequently accused of being insensitive, possibly attempting to justify murder, and of failing to understand not just the context of the articles but also French culture generally – not just the history of Charlie Hebdo but a far older satirical, radical and anticlerical tradition that many feel is part of their cultural DNA. Now the dust has settled a little but the memory is still fresh, and perhaps we can try a little rapprochement.

I don’t defend all of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, or some of the magazine’s "pseudo-investigations" (to quote former CH employee Olivier Cyran talking about an article on "sexual jihadists in Syria"). Whether you agree with that conclusion or not, I don’t see how it’s in any way a suggestion that those people deserved to killed. My feeling is that denying Charb, Tignous, Cabu, Wolinksi and Honoré any flaws, placing them beyond reproach as icons of free expression, is also to divest them of their humanity.

The discussions that should come next are those more specific to France, such as the difficulty of reconciling liberté and laïcité (secularity) for example, and the balance of social harmony and freedom of speech that applies to all of us. We certainly do not need to call for the death penalty, or scapegoat immigrants and minority religious groups, or fire up the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative; responding on those terms can only ever be a self-fulfilling prophecy, a one-way ticket into the abyss. How these issues will be addressed depends in part on politicians and the mainstream media – predictably, grimly, in the UK it seems the main purpose response to the attacks will be to justify increased surveillance in the name of counterterrorism.

At least the hijacking of ‘Je Suis Charlie’ by an assortment of warlords, tyrants and divide-and-rulers appears (unless this is just my wishful thinking) to have united people in disgust at the opportunism and overwhelming hypocrisy. That hypocrisy is, of course, very much part of the issue at hand. Any calls to exalt ‘Western values’ are fatally undermined by our own governments on a daily basis.

Right, some music now, and I’ve been spending quite a lot of time with La Cavale, the second album from Robi, or Chloé Robineau. Opener ‘L’Éternité’ is a power ballad with the hot air sucked out – the scrunched-up snare on the chorus seems to realise that in another era it could have been a massive, gated-reverb thwack. The rest is even more downbeat. Some of the more obvious post-punk signifiers from 2013’s L’Hiver Et La Joie (down to the cover of Trisomie 21’s ‘Il Se Noie’) have been scrubbed clear to leave a more voluptuous space around the songs. With fellow artist Katel, Robi has aimed for something both more contemporary and ageless. Sometimes the songs seem to stop short just as they’re beginning to cast their spell (keeps you wanting more, I suppose), and there are tantalising hints of something more potent and agitated coming through in two of the closing tracks (‘A Toi’ and ‘La Cavale’) to disturb the black marble surface. But otherwise its cold poise has been perfect for January.

The new year has also brought with it an abundance of appetising reissues. Gonzaï Records, the recently established label wing of the irreverent magazine and website, has a new vinyl edition of the the first and only album by Marie Et Les Garçons, before they became just Les Garçons and went mutant disco. VU-inspired, they were far closer to the New York CBGB’s crowd than UK punk and caught the attention of John Cale, who produced and released them on his own Spy label. The release comes with the bonus of an EP of unreleased tracks, Face Cachée. ‘Deux Sur Banquette’ is a particularly freewheeling take on their Cale-helmed single ‘Re-Bop’.

We can also thank Gonzaï for doing vinyl justice to a much more recent album, Steeple Remove’s Position Normal, which was out digitally at the end of 2014. The Rouen group are due recognition as a link between early Stereolab and the current crop of psychonauts, so their return couldn’t have been better timed. What is perhaps surprising is the unabashed confidence on display – Position Normal might be the best-sounding release in a career spanning nearly 20 years.

I’ve talked about Prohibited Records previously, and this year they’re launching into their 20th anniversary celebrations with two cassette releases: a Rarities and a Curiosities mixtape. The two mixes use tracks from Prohibition and NLF3 plus various offshoots and side projects (F/LOR, Don Nino, Headphone, Mimo The Maker, We:Mantra) and assorted post-rock (in the best sense of the term), hardcore, anti-folk and lo-fi analogue crunch contributed by Herman Dune, Mogwai’s Luke Sutherland, The Berg Sans Nipple, Heliogabale. I’m still digging, but current revelation are Tunal, a defunct side-project from Heliogabale’s Sasha Andres and Philippe Thiphaine, and their wonderful ‘EOB’ from 1998 which, among other things, brings to mind Moonshake and early Laika.

Kas Product are another cult band emerging from the woodwork – recent years have seen them touring again, boosted by the recognition they’ve been getting as coldwave pioneers. They are a duo of singer, guitarist and pianist Mona Soyoc with keyboard player Spatsz (Daniel Favre). Soyoc’s vocals put her in a bracket with other post-punk dramaticians like Siouxsie and Marc Almond, although her own background in jazz was probably equally influential. From the Casio-punk of their first album Try Out in 1982, on 1983’s follow-up By Pass and with great B-sides like ‘Scape’ and ‘Sweet and Sour’, they came to something close to Soft Cell’s This Last Night In Sodom – a handful of speed-freak anthems but overall a mood of overripe luxury, sinister basslines uncurling, lounge music for diseased lizards. Up until now, only their third and final album Ego Eye is yet to be reissued. It’s easy to understand why it’s been overlooked – from 1987, it is brassier, slicker, structurally more sophisticated, and somewhat blander, even with Soyoc’s jagged guitar sometimes perforating the sweeter coating on ‘Peep Freak’. The lounge has introduced happy hour, there are umbrellas and sparklers in all the cocktails. If you succumb to that, though, there’s fun to be had and some standout pop moments on ‘Peep Freak’ and ‘See For Yourself’.

Magma, the titans of French not-prog (because you can profess to not like prog but still like Magma, see also: Van Der Graaf Generator) are well underway with a year-long reissue programme that began in September last year and covers their existing catalogue plus some new material. Magma embarked on their epic journey through the farther reaches of rock, jazz and classical at the end of the 60s. They’ve been increasingly driven, as members (especially bass players) have come and gone, by drummer Christian Vander’s unique vision – a response to both the ideals of the hippy generation and the musical and spiritual avenues opened up by John Coltrane. The music sounds otherworldly, especially as the majority of of their lyrics and titles are in the Kobaïan language – that is, the language spoken by Earth settlers on the planet of Kobaïa, whose ‘origin story’ is the basis of the band’s first album. The non-chronological order of the reissues is throwing up intriguing juxtapositions: in February, we get 1985’s Merci, a soul and pop-influenced outing and probably the band’s least admired, even though it features the pneumatic funk-disco of ‘Do the Music’ and a stirring tribute to Otis Redding called simply ‘Otis’; this month it’s a brand-new release, Slag Tanz, the first recording of a piece already familiar to fans from live shows which showcases a more familiar brand of limber heaviosity.

When I interviewed Vander in 2009, he spoke a lot about John Coltrane (“When John Coltrane left this world, I wanted to follow,” he said; if Coltrane had been the only subject of our conversation, I think Vander would have been happy with that). We did also talk briefly about his meeting with Stella, his wife and a Magma member to this day, who apparently followed Vander around until he agreed to go out with her. When the two met, Stella had no shortage of experience in the music business – she released her first EP at the age of 12 in 1963. Songs like ‘Pourquoi Pas Moi’ and ‘Beatniks D’Occasion’, a 60s hipster equivalent of the Television Personalities’ ‘Part Time Punks’, were smart digs at the prevailing popular culture and still effervescent pop in their own right. Her debut – called, in true pop fashion, Stella – has also just been expanded and reissued, and it’s a joyous package that includes horrorcore classic ‘Si Vous Connaissez Quelque Chose De Pire Qu’Un Vampire Parlez M’En Toujours, Ca Pourrait Peut-Etre Me Faire Sourire’ – ‘If You Know Of Something Worse Than A Vampire Go Ahead And Tell Me About It, It Might Make Me Smile’.

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