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"Among all aspects of knowledge, the knowledge of sound is supreme." — Hazrat Inayat Khan

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Osamu Kitajima: “Tengu (A Long-Nosed Goblin)”

From the album Benzaiten (1974)

This highly grooveable hybrid of progressive rock and traditional Japanese music was the first release by multi-instrumentalist Osamu Kitajima (disregarding his 1971 “homage to British pop-psychedelia” under the pseudonym Justin Heathcliff). After followup albums Masterless Samurai (1980) and Dragon King (1981), Kitajima moved decidedly in the direction of new age music.

The album takes its name from Benzaiten, the Japanese name for the Hindu goddess Saraswati, patroness of knowledge, music, arts, and science. It features a cameo by Haruomi Hosono, who would carry on the torch of Japanese avant-pop in projects such as his exquisitely weird 1978 solo album Cochin Moon and the synthesizer-driven juggernaut Yellow Magic Orchestra, of which he was a founding member.

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Played 293 time(s).

February 01, 2013, 2:58pm

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Present: “Ram ram va faire ‘pif paf’”

From the album Le poison qui rend fou (1985)

Beginning in 1969 with the founding of the groundbreaking “concept band” Magma, France and Belgium became the breeding ground for a distinctively continental take on the originally Ango-American phenomenon of progressive rock. Ditching operatic vocals in favor of a primarily instrumental mix and integrating contemporary influences from jazz and metal to contemporary classical, groups such as Univers Zero and Art Zoyd forged a unique sound that is to my ears among the most valuable contributions to the music of the late 20th century.

One of the second-generation manifestations of the Franco-Belgian “avant-prog” movement was Present, a group founded by guitarist Roger Trigaux, in 1979. After contributing to the first two albums of the pioneering chamber rock group Univers Zero, Trigaux broke off in order to pursue a more electrified, guitar-based sound. Present has released 10 albums over three decades of existence and remains active to this day. 

The opening track of the band’s sophomore release, Le poison qui rend fou, shows the group in prime form. While the rhythm section hammers out short, syncopated riffs whose sudden juxtaposition recalls the ostinato patterns of early Stravinsky, Trigaux’s guitar and Alain Rochette’s keyboard unfold a melodic polyphony at once jagged and elegant. The track also features a rare vocal element in the first few minutes, with singer Marie-Anne Pollaris belting out an angular atonal melody over a tripping funk groove. While the band’s hectic interplay at times approaches a state of collective noodling, at their best they display the exhilarating potential of rock-influenced music freed from the shackles of conventional song form.

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Played 193 time(s).

October 29, 2012, 4:47pm

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Univers Zero: “Rouages”

From the album The Hard Quest (1999)

Since the 1970s, the Belgian band Univers Zero has been forging an idiosyncratic synthesis of pseudo-medievalism, dark metal, and 20th- century chamber music. (The band’s homepage bears the motto, “If Stravinsky had a rock band, it would sound like this.”) A vital part of the important and under-appreciated European progressive rock scene, Univers Zero has maintained an unmistakable sound over 35 years of activity and a constantly shifting roster of musicians. 

The band’s first albums, 1313 (originally released as Univers Zero in 1977) and Heresie (1979) were anchored by drummer Daniel Denis and guitarist Roger Trigaux. Their distinctive chamber-rock sound emerged with the addition of Michel Berckmans (oboe and bassoon) and keyboardist Emmanuel Nicaise. Univers Zero made a name for itself in the early 1970s by opening for French prog-juggernaut Magma. Later in the decade they toured with another pioneering group, Art Zoyd, and became active in the “Rock in Opposition" (RIO) movement, a cabal of mutually supportive progressive/experimental bands active from 1978.

Trigaux left the group at the end of the decade in order to start his own band, Present. Univers Zero’s three albums from the 1980s, Ceux de dehors (1981), Uzed (1984), and Heatwave (1987), marked a shift to a darker tone and a heavier reliance on electronic instruments. After Heatwave, Denis left Univers Zero to pursue a solo career and join up with Art Zoyd for a number of releases. With his departure, the band was effectively mothballed. After a 12-year hiatus, Denis and Berckmans brought Univers Zero back to life in 1999, releasing three new albums over the next five years. A live album, a set of archival recordings from the mid-1980s, and a new studio album have appeared since then.

Drawn from The Hard Quest, the album that launched the group’s third incarnation, the song “Rouages” (meaning cogs or wheels) evokes parallels with the jagged chamber works of Stravinsky or Bela Bartok, the gothic cadences of Dead Can Dance, and the imagined medieval music of Moondog.

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Played 495 time(s).

October 25, 2012, 9:19am

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Richard Pinhas: “The Western Wall, Part 2”

From the album: L’Ethique (1982)

Richard Pinhas, the Sorbonne-educated student of philosophical rock star Gilles Deleuze, is best known as the prime mover behind the pioneering instrumental rock band Heldon, featured previously on Acousmata. Pinhas first began releasing records under the name Schizo in 1972. The first Heldon album appeared in 1974, and Pinhas put out his first solo LP in 1977. These projects are all characterized by powerfully evocative instrumental tracks laden with pulsing sequencers and Fripp-esque guitar filigrees. Though heavily influenced by the German Krautrock phenomenon, Pinhas’ music is more dramatic and developmental, and at times approaches the large-scale formal ambitions of progressive rock. Taken together, Pinhas’ albums from the 1970s and early 1980s represent an ambitious attempt to unite the experimental tendencies of rock and electronic music—the guitar and the synthesizer. 

The ensemble Pinhas put together for L’Ethique could be seen as a kind of supergroup of 1970s French avant-rock, featuring three alumni of the legendary “concept band” Magma: Clement Bailly (drums), Patrick Gauthier (synthesizer), and Bernard Paganotti (bass). In “The Western Wall, Part 2,” the group delicately constructs a wall of sound around a single, repeated synthesizer melody, creating a musical mise-en-abyme that summons a mood of epic melancholy.


Played 445 time(s).

September 20, 2012, 9:49am

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Miriodor: “Funambule” (“Tightrope Walker”)

From the album Jongleries Élastiques (1996)

Formed in Quebec City in 1980, Miriodor is a Canadian band that has been based for most of its existence in Montreal.  The group has undergone numerous personnel changes since its first album, Rencontres, released in 1986.  Pascal Globensky (keyboards, acoustic guitar) and Rémi Leclerc (drums) are the only two members to have participated in every Miriodor release.  In 2009, they finished their seventh album, entitled Avanti!.

Miriodor fuses jazz virtuosity and prog-rock ambitiousness with a certain playful and fantastic quality which I hope I will be forgiven for hearing as quintessentially French.  Their music has a polished, MIDI-fied sheen that may be a turnoff for those who didn’t grow up listening to video game music.

This should appeal to fans of previous Acousmata features Hellebore, Magma, and Univers Zero (for whom Miriodor recently opened at the Sonic Circuits festival in Washington DC).


Played 50 time(s).

November 04, 2010, 2:48pm

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Heldon: “Interface (Live at the Palace 1978), Part I” 

From the album Interface (1977)

Founded in 1974 in Paris, Heldon was the brainchild of French guitarist/keyboardist Richard Pinhas.  Pinhas has a remarkable background for a rock musician celebrated as the “father of electronic music in France”:  in the late 60s, before he was known as a musician, he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he received a PhD under the tutelage of the renowned philosopher Gilles Deleuze.  Deleuze, who was deeply interested in music, would later make a guest appearance reading a text on the track “Ouais Marchais mieux qu’en 68 (Le voyageur)” on Heldon’s 1974 debut album Electronique Guérilla.

After completing his doctorate, Pinhas taught for a year at the Sorbonne before abandoning academia and committing himself to his musical projects.  His primary group, Heldon, released seven albums between 1974 and 1979. From 1976 to 1982, Pinhas made an additional five records under his own name.  His music from this period can be described as a stylistic fusion of the developmental, guitar-oriented progressive-rock tendencies (King Crimson being a major influence) with the centripetal, loop-based aesthetic of early electronica (Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk).  This track is much more representative of the former style, including some impressive guitar noodling by Pinhas.

Beyond the substantial influence of his music, Pinhas took an active hand in the progressive music scene in France, for example producing and distributing the music of Métal Urbain, a pioneering French post-punk outfit.  After a musical hiatus during the 1980s, Pinhas returned to action in the 90s, and in the last 20 years he has collaborated with Peter Frohmader, Pascal Comelade, Scanner, and Merzbow, among others.

Returning to his intellectual roots, in 2001 Pinhas published a book on music and philosophy entitled Les larmes de Nietzsche (Nietzsche’s Tears).  I haven’t read it, but it looks like a fascinating work, touching on such figures as Pierre Boulez, Henri Bergson, Robert Fripp, and—of course—Nietzsche himself and his on-again, off-again composer-idol, Richard Wagner.


Played 109 time(s).

September 13, 2010, 3:35pm

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Banco del Mutuo Soccorso: “Cento mani e cento occhi”

From the album Darwin! (1972)

In the dubious estimation of musical common sense, the 1970s are typically represented as years of sorrow, a vast artistic wasteland.  The unfortunately prominent developments of adult contemporary and disco helped stain this decade with the reputation of slick, soulless overproduction. But— aside from the fact that there is a time and place for Giorgio Moroder and yes, even Barry Manilow— beneath the surface, the 1970s is one of the most rich and varied periods in the entire century, spanning everything from the brilliant funk/soul fusion of Curtis Mayfield in the U.S. to the groundbreaking works of “acousmatic music” presented in France by composers such as Francois Bayle and Bernard Parmegiani.

One of the most fascinating phenomena of the decade is the international diffusion of progressive rock, which had been launched by a handful of (mostly) British bands in the late 60s.  Prog rock, with its classical and jazz influences, its sophisticated song structures, and its expansion of the sonic palette beyond the tired, guitar-dominated sound of conventional rock, quickly spread across the European continent, and took on distinctive new forms far removed from its often cloying and affected Anglophone incarnations.

One of the most impressive products of this development was Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (roughly, “Bank of Mutual Aid”), an Italian prog-rock band founded by the brothers Vitorio and Gianni Nocenzi in Rome in 1969.  Their eponymous debut album was released in 1972.  Later that year, Banco recorded what is widely regarded as one of the defining works of the genre, a concept album inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and entitled simply Darwin!

"Cento mani e cento occhi" ("A hundred hands and a hundred eyes") is to my ears the album’s highlight.  At just over five minutes long, the song is quite compact by prog-rock standards, but its modest length compresses a multi-sectional, developmental structure of compelling dynamism, from the pseudo-classical fanfare of the opening to the stripped-down, two-chord intensity of the outro— all of it held together by the powerful operatic vocals of singer Francesco Di Giacomo.


Played 639 time(s).

July 27, 2010, 1:34pm

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