Learning French (originally posted 12/2/14)
By ProgBlog, Apr 8 2014 10:08PM
My first venture into definitive French prog was buying Pulsar’s Strands of the Future from Blackshaw’s in Barrow, an almost instantly regrettable act. Forever indisposed to part with cash for some unknown band and unheard album, for some reason that still escapes me, I temporarily parked my reluctance and handed over the £2.75 required to make the album mine. Let me put this into context. I’d seen England live and thought they were brilliant, yet I was unwilling to buy Garden Shed, frequently searching out the sleeve in the racks at Blackshaw’s and turning it over and over again in my hands; I’d heard excerpts from White Noise 2 by David Vorhaus on Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show and saw a demonstration of what appeared to be an electric drainpipe (a ribbon controller) by Vorhaus on the BBC science programme Tomorrow’s World and I quite liked what I’d heard and seen but I still didn’t buy the album; despite being intrigued by the covers of Clearlight Symphony and Clearlight’s Forever Blowing Bubbles and being impressed with the instrumentation and what I’d heard on the radio, I still failed to make a purchase.
Back in 1974, I had actually parted with the princely sum of 59p for a copy of Gong’s Camembert Electrique. I don’t really regard early Gong as being a French band, merely the vehicle that cemented the near continent’s high regard for the Canterbury sound. A Virgin Records marketing idea, it certainly worked on me because I bought this without first hearing it and at the time I didn’t appreciate the relevance of Gong in the Canterbury canon.
The Pulsar album is actually considered to be something of a classic and I now really like it, but at the time I tried to return it to the shop after one listen. There’s a subtle percussive clicking on Windows that I thought could be mistaken for a scratch but my ploy didn’t work. I think I was seduced by the line-up, instrumentation and the track lay-out. The title track takes up the whole of side one and I could see that side two only had three tracks and I do like my prog long-form; I certainly wasn’t over-impressed by the cover artwork and the inside sleeve artwork by drummer Victor Bosch is nightmare-inducing with multiple hints of substance abuse! Recorded in the highly-regarded Aquarius studios in Geneva, produced by ‘the eight members of PULSAR’ and released by Decca, the audio quality is exceptional, especially compared to the sound on their first album, Pollen, which I was given as a birthday present in 2011. The high quality sound is also present on their final album, Halloween, a 2013 Christmas present. Halloween is regarded by the band as the pinnacle of their creativity. I’ve only listened to it a couple of times but that’s enough to challenge the claim that it’s ‘amongst the 10 best symphonic rock albums in the world’.
Strands of the Future catapulted Pulsar to rock stardom in their native France and also in Italy and Germany. They were the highest selling French band after Ange in 1976. Ange are regarded as prog royalty but the two bands have a very disparate sound: Pulsar dreamy and predominantly instrumental; Ange led by the highly expressive vocals of Christian Décamps. I bought my first Ange CD in Auray during a holiday in Brittany in August 2004 (I bought the remastered Tormato at the same time.) It has been said that Ange were influenced by King Crimson and Genesis but there is very little sonically that supports this hypothesis. Ange do have a distinct keyboard sound but it is organ, rather than mellotron; the nuance of Christian Décamps’ vocal delivery is pure theatre rather than just story-telling. Whereas Pulsar vocals were mostly in English, which perhaps surprisingly doesn’t detract from the quality of the music, Ange sing in French. The imagery of Harlequins and the circus troupe on their album sleeves is somehow rather fitting. It seems to me to reflect the melodramatic nature of their music. Of the three Ange albums I now own, I think that Par les fils de Mandarin is probably the best, though Au delà du délire isn’t far behind. Mandarin was released in 1976 and by that time they’d perfected their sound.
Magma is possibly the best known French progressive rock band outside of France. With their stunning musicianship and blend of styles from Wagnerian-operatic to free jazz to chant, they carved their own niche, not only inventing a language, but inventing a new sub-genre, Zeuhl. Magma was another of the bands that I pored over their album covers but never bought the music until much later. Both Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh and Kohntarkosz fascinated me – the instrumentation, the Kobaian language and the massive Magma medallion worn by Christian Vander. This music is difficult to listen to, and I didn’t buy either of the two classic albums until very recently. I chanced upon a cut-price vinyl copy of Attahk from 1978 on Tomato Records (the earlier UK releases were on A&M records) and bought it because I needed some Magma in my collection and thought that it might be slightly more accessible than MKD and Kohntarkosz. Slightly atypical Magma (can there be such a thing?) Attahk is jazzy and even includes gospel, but it is still a challenge!
Minimum Vital took a leaf out of Christian Vander’s book and also use their own language, or at least use vocalisations rather than song words. Rather like Ange and the Décamps brothers, Minimum Vital has two brothers as the core members, Thierry and Jean-Luc Payssan. I bought a second hand copy of Atlas from Beanos in July 2008 for £8 and find the music very uplifting and positive, even though it wasn’t my first choice of Minimum Vital albums. It’s a kind of French neo-prog I suppose, with excellent high-tempo keyboard work and hints of I Can See Your House from Here Camel but it has a little too much of the nonsense vocals and even has some English lyrics.
I eventually took the plunge and bought a download of the Clearlight Symphony which I find very relaxing. I’d class it as similar to Tubular Bells mainly because it’s instrumental music that develops rather than undergoes dramatic changes but I’m quite happy I own a copy now. There are other classic French prog bands, including Atoll, and as I’ve got a couple of trips to the near continent planned for April and May, I think I’ll find time to seek out some record stores...