“I wasn’t an expert and I’m still not.”
The eagle-eyed amongst you may notice that my alphabetical order has, embarrassingly, gone somewhat awry already (when I’m still in the Bs!). This mishap – caused by a spreadsheet malfunction – means that Ash-Big (#6) and Bir-Bra (#7) are going to be followed by a set of artists that should have been included earlier.
Even I am not quite OCD enough to go back and reorder the prior posts, so I’m just going to have to grit my teeth and proceed. Still, I’m sure I’ll be able to sort it all out before this blog is eventually published as a lavish coffee-table book/guide to experimental music…
Anyway, this post has taken a substantial amount of time to put together, as four of the five artists involved have a seriously substantial back catalogue.
Il Balletto di Bronzo
Originally named Battitori Selvaggi (‘Wild Beaters’), Neapolitans Marco Cecioni (vocals, guitar), Lino Ajello (guitar), Michele Cupaiuolo (bass) and Giancarlo Stinga (drums) became Il Balletto di Bronzo (‘The Ballet of Bronze’) in 1969.
Although they came to be lauded as one of the pioneers of Italian prog, their 1970 debut Sirio 2222 saw them still rooted in the sounds of the 60s. Although Sirio undoubtedly has its moments, it’s more flower-power psychedelic pop with a dash of blues-rock (e.g. on opener ‘Un Posto‘) than actual prog. ‘Neve Calda‘, for example, features passages of slightly limp and wobbly pastoral pop, although these are interspersed with more robust, rocky moments. ‘Meditazione‘ is largely an overwrought, string-laden piece of balladeering that wouldn’t be out of place in a stage musical, although there is a brief passage of psych-rock.
‘Missione Sirio 2222‘, the lengthy suite that closes the album, is the closest thing to actual prog, but for me the highlight is ‘Incantesimo’, the only other long track. It’s a lumbering, murky beast, with more than a touch of early Sabbath about it.
Sirio is enjoyable enough, but rather patchy and derivative; the group’s follow up, Ys (1971) sees them make a quantum leap forwards. Keyboard player and vocalist Gianni Leone – formerly a member of Città Frontale – had joined during the recording of Sirio (although uncredited, he contributed keyboards to several tracks). Cecioni and Cupaiuolo departed, and Vito Manzari took over the role of bassist. Leone’s introduction was undoubtedly significant, as his vocals and keyboard work dominate the album.
Many see Ys as an early masterpiece in the field of symphonic prog, although opinion is far from undivided. I would stop short of calling it a masterpiece, but it’s definitely an impressively dense and complex piece of work. The weak point for me (and for several other reviewers) is Leone’s vocal style, which verges on the bombastic in places, even dipping into rock/metal histrionics on occasion. Musically, though, it’s a belter. Often insanely intense, it features passages of angular, complicated aggression that are sometimes breathtakingly effective.
The 11 minute ‘Epilogo‘ is a joy: a dark, ominous cocktail of King Crimson, doom-rock and warped jazz. ‘Terzo Incontro’ is a crisp, frenetic slice of overblown, operatic prog.
Il Balletto di Bronzo split in 1973. In the mid-90s, Leone reformed the band with bassist Romolo Amici and drummer Ugo Vantini from the neo-prog group Divae. In 1997, they released a live album Trys, recorded at the Progressivamente Rock Festival in Rome in 1996. It’s a competent but rather arid collection of synth-driven ELP-style prog.
Cuma 2016 DC, released under the Il Balletto Di Bronzo name in 2016, featured (minimal) contributions from Leone, Ajello and Cecioni. It’s a shocker: banal emo-hard-rock that includes some versions of the group’s old tunes that verge on the blasphemous.
Born in Sicily in 1945, Battiato moved to Rome and then Milan in the mid-60s. His earliest releases included light pop tunes ‘E Più Ti Amo‘ and ‘La Torre‘. His career took a very different direction after meeting experimental musician Juri Camisasca in 1970. He released two albums in 1972. Fetus is an eclectic mix of fractured rhythms, swirling synth, café-bar folk, abstract electronica and gentle but earnest crooning.
Pollution is more experimental and varied, ranging from the concise noise of ‘Areknames’ to the robotic synth-prog of ‘Beta‘ to the peculiar, delicate ambience of ‘Ti Sei Mai Chiesto Quale Funzione Hai?’
Sulle Corde Di Aries (1973) opens with the 16-minute ‘Sequenze E Frequenze‘, an Oldfield-esque piece of hypnotic electronica. The briefer tracks on side two take a more understated, folky approach. Clic (1974) mixes passages of bleak, fragile electronica with randomly chopped vocals, mutated strings, Tangerine Dream-esque sequencers and dark ambient noise. Highly recommended.
M.elle Le “Gladiator” (1975) sees Battiato veer into even more abstract and experimental territory, seemingly influenced by Cage and Stockhausen. Much of the album was dominated by a church organ, which he recorded in Monreale Cathedral in Palermo. The first half of the 13-minute opening track, ‘Goûtez Et Comparez‘ is a collage of snippets of speech and music from TV and radio (plus some spoken word from Battiato himself) which then morphs into twinkly synth-driven krautrock. The final three minutes are dominated by the organ, which is the key feature of the remaining two tracks, ‘Canto Fermo’ and ‘Orient Effects’.
The album has its critics: it has one of his lowest scores on progarchives and Italian music site ondarock suggests that it ‘represents a large and pretentious failed idea, or if on the contrary it is simply a disc made of “experimental fills” aimed at masking, if not the lack of ideas, at least the author’s transitory phase’. Whilst Gladiator does sound like a collection of disparate ideas and improvisations that don’t quite hang together as a coherent whole, I found much to enjoy in the organ’s grandiose, hypnotic swirl and ‘Goûtez”s cut and paste mayhem.
After releasing his first five albums on Italian independent label Bla Bla, Battiato moved to classical label Ricordi for his next three LPs. ondarock‘s comment that Gladiator was part of a ‘transitory phase’ was accurate, as Franco Battiato (1977) and 1978’s L’Egitto Prima Delle Sabbie (‘Egypt Before the Sands’, which won the Stockhausen award for contemporary music) saw the electronica/krautrock jettisoned in favour of piano-led modern classical minimalism. ‘Zâ‘ (from the first) is a particularly sparse and astringent piece, a 20-minute exploration of a single chord; ‘Sud Afternoon‘ (from the second) takes a similar approach, but the use of a delay effect creates a lighter, less harsh atmosphere.
Whilst these two releases both consisted of two side-long pieces, his other album for the label, Juke Box (1978), was much more concise, featuring six tracks that take up less than half an hour. Conceived as the soundtrack (although never used) to a TV movie about Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the dome of Florence Cathedral, it still focused on sparse, ponderous piano melodies, but contained more variety and texture than the previous two albums. Soprano Alide Maria Salvetta and violinist Giusto Pio helped to broaden the sound, although it’s still far from an easy listen. ‘Hiver’ has an intriguingly icy fragility, but ‘Telegrafi‘ is a somewhat exhausting atonal violin improvisation.
Having moved through phases of electronica, avant garde experimentation and classical minimalism, Battiato took a radical left turn in 1979. Having been dropped by Ricordi, he was signed by EMI and released L’Era Del Cinghiale Bianco (‘The Era Of White Wild Boar’) which saw him return to the commercial pop approach of his 60s singles. The album is a blend of melodic euro-pop and smooth jazz-rock, and whilst it’s undoubtedly tuneful and competently executed, I find it rather insipid. There isn’t a single song that wouldn’t feel out of place as a Eurovision entry; worst of the bunch is possibly the stodgy, syrupy ‘Il Re Del Mondo’.
A series of similar albums emerged regularly throughout the 80s. A particular low point was the re-recording of ‘La Torre’ on 1982’s L’Arca Di Noè. The original 1967 single was fluffy and inconsequential, but at least had a bit of groove and feeling about it; here, it’s rendered into a cheesy hi-energy disco-pop horror.
In 1984, his new style found its natural home as the Italian Eurovision entry. ‘I Treni di Tozeur’ was performed by Battiato and Alice. It came fifth.
The 90s saw Battiato shift to a more down-tempo, ballad style, although this is no more appealing than the previous decade’s disco-pop-rock. Gommalacca (1998) adopted a more rocky approach, but is still pretty grim. His latest release was 2019’s Torneremo Ancora, a saccharine concoction recorded with The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.
Franco Battiato has had a remarkable career. It’s hard to square the experimentalism of Pollution, Clic and Gladiator with the endless stream of bland pop-rock that makes up about 80% of his recorded work. Far be it for me to begrudge him the commercial success that he attained from the 80s onward, but you can’t help but wonder where his musical journey might have taken him…
Bennink was born in Zaandam in North Holland in 1942. According to the bio on his website:
‘His first percussion instrument was a kitchen chair. Later his father, an orchestra percussionist, supplied him with a more conventional outfit, but Han never lost his taste for coaxing sounds from unlikely objects he finds backstage at concerts. He is still very fond of playing chairs.’
Bennink plays clarinet, violin, banjo and piano, but is best known as a percussionist. His output is prodigious (he has appeared on nearly a hundred albums that span six decades) so I have focused mainly on his solo releases.
In the 60s, he played with jazz artists such as Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery and Dexter Gordon. His first recorded appearance was in 1964 on Last Date, an Eric Dolphy album that also involved Jacques Schols and Misha Mengelberg.
In 1967 he co-founded the Instant Composers Pool with Mengelberg and saxophonist Willem Breuker. He collaborated with Evan Parker and Derek Bailey on The Topography Of The Lungs (1970), a frantic, scratchy piece of improv-jazz.
The first release under his own name was Solo (1972). Bennink recorded all the sounds at his home studio and even designed the artwork himself.
The majority of the tracks are brief, brittle snatches of frantic percussion, although ‘Fiddleelddif’ is a lengthy, jagged piece of sawing, abrasive noise and ‘Listen The Birds’ is a dark, squealing distortion. It’s a challenging album that’s full of fascinating ideas but has a touch of self-indulgence about it.
Nerve Beats was recorded live in 1973, but wasn’t released until 2001. It’s dominated by the 26-minute ‘Spooky Drums‘, which features not just an assortment of percussive passages of varying tempo and ferocity, but also gibbering and grunting wordless vocals, tootling clarinet, ghostly piano, wobbly sci-fi effects and what sounds like someone sawing through a plank of wood. It’s all a bit shapeless, and again feels self-indulgent. The briefer (a mere 16 minutes) title track is more satisfying, especially the opening six minutes, a mix of skronky free jazz and Kraftwerk played through a broken Tannoy.
Bennink performed on a variety of collaborative Instant Composers Pool albums in the late 70s, playing with artists such as Steve Lacy, Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann. His next solo release was 1979’s Solo – West/East. Again, Bennink played everything on the album, which included (according to the label) megaphone, sounds (stones, typewriter, watch, sticks, ladder), conch shell and bullroarer.
The first side of the LP (‘West’) is taken up with relatively brief pieces of sparse improv, sometimes focused mainly on one instrument (‘Viola’, ‘Banjo’). ‘La Strada’, whilst frequently abrasive, also contains passages of playfully almost straight-jazz clarinet. The second (‘East’) side consists of the 21-minute ‘Und So Leiter’ (where the typewriter makes its appearance). For me, this is much more successful than many of his other lengthy pieces. Whilst still skitteringly random and often challenging, there’s a more balanced dynamic and an underlying sense of humour that works well.
Tempo Comodo was recorded live in 1982. Featuring 15 tracks, only one of which passes the five minute mark, it largely eschews the non-percussive instruments of his previously releases and focuses on brisk, agile drum workouts that occasionally (‘Brushes/Airdrumming‘, ‘Sticktrick’) verge on traditional drum solos. Only a couple of tracks deviate from this approach: ‘De Krieps’ features a mutilated clarinet (?); ‘Stroef’ is a bracing, scratchy shriek in which it’s challenging to pin down exactly which instruments are being tortured (the sleeve only identifies that Bennink plays ‘drums + other stuff’). The album displays plenty of invention and impressive virtuosity, but it’s a little one-paced and becomes somewhat wearing over 42 minutes.
The 80s and 90s saw Bennink continue to make frequent appearances on collaborative albums, including with Steve Beresford (see below). In 1996, he recorded Serpentine with American trumpeter Dave Douglas.
The duo complement each other very effectively, both veering between hard bop and free-experimental styles, not always at the same time. ‘Too Close For Comfort‘ finds both taking a more traditional tack, Bennink providing an understated swing that underpins Douglas’ smoky solo. ‘Neck Four’ is quite the opposite, both providing frenetic, urgent improvisations that somehow sound simultaneously dislocated and in tune with each other. Lengthy centrepiece ‘Alap‘ sees Douglas meander beautifully over Bennink’s dislocated percussion. ‘Young And Foolish’ is especially good: Porgy And Bess-era Miles Davis spiked with splashes of vitreous percussion.
Amplified Trio (2007) featured John Coxon and Ashley Wales of Spring Heel Jack. It’s a distorted, distended riot of free-jazz-improv-psych-rock that sounds like a drugged-up jam session attended by Whitehouse, Boredoms, Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers. It’s impressive in a pummelling, relentless fashion, although perhaps not the sort of thing that you’d wade through in its entirety very often.
Parken (2009) was released under the name Han Bennink Trio, and featured Joachim Badenhorst on clarinet and Simon Toldam on piano. It’s a nicely balanced mix of melodic jazz and full-on freak-out. At one end of the spectrum, ‘Lady Of The Lavender Mist‘ is loose, bluesy ballad and ‘Fleurette Africaine‘ is a nimble toe-tapper. At the other, ‘Flemische March‘ is a ragged, jittering cacophony and ‘After The March‘ is brittle, proggish jazz. The album closes with the achingly beautiful title track, which features exquisite vocals from Dutch singer Qarin Wikström.
As well as his various jazz-related collaborations, Bennink also played with Dutch post-punk band The Ex, appearing on their 1995 album Instant.
I have undoubtedly only scratched the surface of Bennink’s vast body of work. This website provides a plethora of links should you wish to investigate further (it also includes pictures of him playing a ‘cheese drum set’). Like Franco Battiato, he has produced an incredibly diverse range of music, although their careers took very different directions. To conclude, this is him performing, aged 70, at London’s Bishopsgate Institute in 2012:
Another prolific artist. Born in Shropshire in 1950, multi-instrumentalist Beresford has performed on around 60 albums over the last 47 years. Like Han Bennink, many of these LPs were collaborative, and once again the breadth of his body of work means that I am only able to sample and summarise.
His earliest appearance was on a 1973 album by Trevor Wishart called Journey Into Space, a double LP of electroacoustic musique concrète. It was recorded at the University of York’s music department; Beresford was identified as one of the 47 contributors who ‘were involved in performing or improvising source-materials on found-objects, instruments or voices, for driving cars and motor-bikes, or for technical assistance in mixing and recording operations’.
He also appeared on two releases by The Portsmouth Sinfonia, Plays The Popular Classics (1973) and Hallelujah (1974), both of which were produced by Brian Eno. The Portsmouth Sinfonia, founded by double bassist Gavin Bryars (who went on to compose the remarkable ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet‘ which was rerecorded with Tom Waits in 1993) was made up of people with no musical training, and developed a cult following in the 70s.
In 1975, he collaborated with Garry Todd, Dave Solomon, John Russell and Nigel Coombes on Teatime, a collection of scratchy, urgent improv pieces.
Later in the decade, Beresford played with David Cunningham’s Flying Lizards, which led to him making an unlikely appearance on Top Of The Pops (The Flying Lizards are also on the NWW List, so more on them later).
Whirled Music (1980) was recorded with Max Eastley, Paul Burwell and David Toop. It’s not as consistently manic as Teatime (although it has its moments), and has a more spacious, abstract sound. ‘LMC (a)’, for example, opens with a barrage of tinny rattling before settling into a ghostly, barren soundscape. ‘Suffolk’ is a faint, asthmatic rendering of the BBC radiophonic workshop. ‘Butlers Wharf’ (like ‘Suffolk’, recorded outdoors) is a bleak, strangely mesmerising collage of field recordings.
Also released in 1980, The Bath Of Surprise was the first album credited to Beresford alone.
It’s an eclectic mix of found sounds mixed with a variety of unusual instrumentation, such as (according to the sleeve) toy piano, bath water, nailbrush, cowbox, musical toothbrush, duck call, electronic bird, squeaky chops and chicken box. As entertaining as this list sounds, for me it too often crosses the line between ‘playfully inventive’ and ‘aimlessly pissing about’.
Yet another 1980 release, White String’s Attached, saw Beresford collaborate once again with violinist Nigel Coombes. Consisting of three lengthy pieces, it’s a relatively straightforward (in comparison to the previous albums) piece of piano-violin jazz improvisation. Imitation Of Life (a 1981 collaboration with cellist Tristan Honsinger, trumpeter Toshinori Kondo and Flying Lizard David Toop) is shrill and acerbic, although it also features occasional snippets of lively, bluesy trad-jazz.
Double Indemnity (another 1981 collaboration, this time just with Honsinger) was similarly manic and angular and also features vocal contributions from the cellist. In ‘Pre-Echo‘, for example, Honsinger discusses an unnamed woman’s approach to making salad dressing and his need for a haircut over brusque stabs of piano and flugelhorn. ‘Stolen Time‘ is a brief, discordant drone which Honsinger overlays with a disturbingly mutant scat. The lengthy title track, which takes up the entirety of side two, is an inventive piece of meandering, jagged improvisation which ebbs and flows in intensity and tempo and remains engaging throughout its 24 minutes.
The cover of 1986’s Dancing The Line places it firmly in the mid-80s.
Just as Battiato had done in 1979, Beresford took a surprising diversion with this album, which veered into cocktail-jazz-synth-pop territory. It was billed as a collaboration with Anne Marie Beretta, a French fashion designer who contributed some of the vocals. Kazuko Hohki of Frank Chickens (who is married to Smiths/Fall/Billy Bragg producer Grant Showbiz) also sang on the album, as (somewhat hesitantly) did Beresford himself. Dancing The Line is smoothly executed, undoubtedly, but it’s most definitely not my cup of tea.
David Toop played on Dancing The Line and also featured on Deadly Weapons (1986), alongside John Zorn and French actress and director Tonie Marshall, who provided spoken-word vocals. Conceived as a soundtrack to an imaginary film noir, it’s a curious but highly rewarding concoction of bluesy trad-jazz, electronica and avant-garde reflection.
In 1987, Beresford recorded an LP with Han Bennink. Directly To Pyjamas opens with the gentle swing of ‘Contradiction, Please’; the following fifteen-minute ‘Mr. Knife Miss Fork’ combines passages of gentle, pretty jazz with bursts of freak-out improv. The rest of the album follows this schizophrenic pattern, interweaving laid-back, melodic jazz with chaotic, atonal outbursts. Whilst the constant shifts in approach are rarely without interest, the overall effect is one of slight frustration, as the two of them don’t seem to be able to settle on what they want to achieve and it falls uncomfortably between two stools. It also has a particularly grim cover.
Signals For Tea (1995) was Beresford’s first release of the 90s. It’s a collection of rather predictable straight jazz tunes, many of which feature Beresford’s bland vocals. The lyrics are a little cringeworthy too. In particular, ‘Unremarkable’ sets a very high (low) bar for embarrassingly forced rhymes: ‘a piece of string / a rubber ring; a tissue box / a pair of socks; a muddy place / an untied lace; a hairy scar / a clean jam jar’.
In 1997, Beresford reunited with British violinist Nigel Coombes. Two To Tangle was a live recording of the duo playing in London and is a return to form. The five lengthy pieces have more spark and invention about them than was the case in most of his late 80s / early 90s work, although over 75 minutes the sparse piano/violin approach does begin to feel a little stretched.
Foxes Fox (1999) finds Beresford on even firmer footing, playing with a strong cast of innovative collaborators. Evan Parker’s sax work on ‘Amoebic Mystery’, for example, is exemplary (see the mix below). However, although the individual contributions are excellent, it’s the merging of strengths that make this such an effective album.
Beresford’s first release of the 21st century was another collaboration, this time with British pianists Pat Thomas and Veryan Weston. On nine of the twelve improvised tracks, Beresford can be heard in the left channel, Weston in the right, with Thomas sitting in the centre. (With pleasing symmetry, the remaining three are duets which cover each of the possible combinations and see each performer take a turn in either channel.)
The trio extract about as much as is possible from the format, each finding a careful balance between responding sympathetically to their fellow performers and heading into new tangents and shifts in tempo. Although some might find it a little dry, it pulls off the impressive feat of being one of those albums that you can either let drift over you or absorb yourself in its detail.
Beresford’s output remained prolific in the early 00s – he appeared on no less than eight LPs between 2002-2004 alone. One of them, B + B, saw him collaborate with Han Bennink again. Like Directly To Pyjamas, it mixes relatively traditional jazz with passages of warped experimentation, but is more inclined to the latter. It merges the two approaches more successfully; ‘Crumb In Bed’, for example, is a 22-minute cocktail of manic free-jazz-electronica twists and swirls, hyperactive staccato blues and laid-back swing.
I Shall Become A Bat (2004) was recorded with saxophonist John Butcher. It’s a collection of sharp, granular pieces of electro-acoustic improvisation that are unsettling and challenging, full of abrasive spikes. It’s an uncomfortable listen for sure, but the 25-minute title track is a particularly impressive piece of pulsing mayhem.
John Cage, a pioneer of the approach, defined indeterminacy as ‘the ability of a piece to be performed in substantially different ways’. Put very simply, it involves a concept / structure that is identified by the composer but the arrangement, tone and rhythm are left to the determination of the performer. Cage’s recorded version of Indeterminacy, which he performed with pianist and composer David Tudor, was released in 1959. It featured Cage reading out 90 short stories, making each one last exactly one minute which entailed considerable variation in the tempo of his delivery. Tudor produced the musical accompaniment in another room, the two of them being unable to hear each other.
In 2010, Beresford and interdisciplinary improviser Tania Chen decided to revive the piece, and asked British comedian Stewart Lee to perform the readings. Beresford felt that Lee was an ideal choice for the role, given the ‘very obsessive, analytic nature of [his] comedy’ (for example his dissection of the strange phenomenon of the worship of Del Boy’s fall through the bar in Only Fools and Horses). Lee saw his role as akin to that of the tramp whose looped vocal formed the basis for Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet:
‘I’m a resource. The only Cage piece I really knew was 4’33”. I wasn’t an expert and I’m still not. I tried not to find out about John Cage, so as to come to it clean. A lot of his strategies seem to be quite conceptualised, academic ways of approaching the unfamiliar. So actually being unfamiliar with his stuff I thought would be very helpful.’
There’s a live recording of a 2012 performance here; the sound quality is dubious, but it gives you a flavour of how the whole thing worked. The clip below is an excerpt from the 2012 LP, taken from the performance at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch on 2 June 2010.
Indeterminacy was revived in 2016.
Beresford has continued to be prolific, despite turning 70 this year, releasing five albums in the first half of 2020 alone. His most recent release was What Blue, a collaboration with Blanca Regina.
Yet another highly prolific artist, trumpeter/composer Berrocal was born in 1946 in Saint-Jean-d’Angély in Western France.
His first release was Musiq Musik (1973), recorded with Dominique Coster and Roger Ferlet, a selection of sparse, fragile pieces that are intriguing if a little hesitant and underdeveloped.
Parallèles (1976) is desolate and ghostly. ‘Galimatias’ is a bleak cornet solo; ‘Rock’n Roll Station‘ a pulsating, unnerving narrative (that would later be covered by Nurse With Wound); the 24-minute ‘Bric-à-brac (To Russolo)’ is a fractured, meandering and astringent soundscape. ‘Post-Card’ feels like a despairing glimpse of the end of the world.
Catalogue (1979) is comprised of 17 concise pieces (only three make it beyond three minutes). It’s a jagged collage of spliced dialogue, truncated melodies and bursts of blues, jazz and new wave. It lacks coherence, but you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer volume of ideas being thrown together.
Berrocal played on Nurse With Wound’s To The Quiet Men From A Tiny Girl in 1980, and also contributed ‘Conseil De Ministres‘ to the United Dairies compilation An Afflicted Man’s Musica Box (1982).
His next release was as part of a group called Catalogue, which he formed with Gilbert Artman (see post #5) and French guitarist Jean-François Pauvros. Pénétration (1982) was recorded at a Swiss music festival.
Pénétration is an absolute blast, a joyfully chaotic collision of post-punk, avant-garde and free jazz. ‘Khomeiny Twist’ merges distorted psych-fuzz guitar and twinkling krautrock synth and is topped with Berrocal’s unhinged vocals.
‘Absolution‘ is a hectic mix of Suicide, Can, The Velvet Underground and wailing sax; ‘Stop Stress’ throws in Elvis, The Ramones and percussive coughing; ‘The End‘ is a 14-minute improvised wig-out that occasionally teeters on the edge of self-indulgence but always manages to claw its way into new and interesting territory. According to Berrocal, people didn’t really know what to make of the LP:
‘The punks thought we were strange, the jazz community hated it, and the rock press said it wasn’t rock’n’roll.’
Catalogue released one further studio album, Insomnie, in 1987. Like Pénétration, it draws from a wide range of influences – cool, sparse jazz (‘Nocturne’), gruff trip-hop (‘Le Chat’), angular electro-pop (‘Je Pars Pour Rome‘), urgent and funky post-punk (‘Keep Cool Calme’) – but it’s all a little too disparate and doesn’t quite hang together as well as its predecessor.
Hotel Hotel (1986) saw Berrocal dip into a lighter, more ambient approach, which he described as ‘more pop… motorway music, music to drive to’. Although there’s a haunting quality to songs such as ‘Minuit La Nuit‘ and ‘Nuit de la Troisième Lune‘, overall it feels rather lightweight and ephemeral. The highlight is ‘Seltsame Brücke’, a dark, ambient piece featuring vocals from Krista Leuck.
La Nuit Est Au Courant (recorded live in 1989 and 1990 and released in 1991) is a collection of spacey but overly polite jazz tunes. Several collaborative LPs followed in the mid-90s, the last of which was The Oblique Sessions (1997), featuring Pascal Comelade, Pierre Bastien and Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit.
Liebezeit’s presence has a significant impact on proceedings, and in places – for example the fidgety, folky ‘Jours Tranquilles A Rodez‘ and the re-working of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Station‘ that transforms the track into a crisp, driving piece of Krautrock – it could easily be mistaken for a Can album. It’s more diverse than that suggests, however, taking in a range of styles: the playful ‘Ant’ Walz‘, the jazzy murk of ‘Morceau En Forme De Pinces‘, the laid-back fuzz-guitar Mariachi of ‘A Mexican Spaghetti Strangler‘.
The album also includes a delicate, strangely moving instrumental take on Neil Young’s ‘Prime Of Life‘.
It’s a pleasingly odd blend of French folk, smokey jazz, jagged electronica and understated post-rock guitar. How much you enjoy it will depend on your feelings about Tazartès’ guttural vocals, which might be a little overwrought for some tastes. The highlight is the CD bonus track ‘Zilveli’, which layers ghostly trumpet over waves of delay-pedal / distorted guitar.
MDLV (2014) was Berrocal’s first solo release in 23 years. Many of the tracks are very brief: several are less than a minute long, and only the slurred version of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman‘ makes it beyond five minutes. This gives the album a rather fragmentary feel, exacerbated by a typically scatter-gun approach to tone and genre.
‘Prière‘ answers the question ‘what would Slint have sounded like if they’d been born by the banks of the Seine?’; ‘Aether‘ combines haunting trumpet lines with pulsing Four Tet-esque electronica; ‘Metallic Bay‘ sounds like The Stooges having a stab at free jazz; ‘Ministres En Conseil‘ is a stately, glacial piece of synth-driven modern classicism. It’s an impressively ambitious work. The most peculiar moments are ‘Ultim Arlene’ and ‘Signe Particulier’, avant-garde takes on the Dead Kennedys.
Despite being well into his 70s, Berrocal is still going strong, and has released six albums in the last five years. Ice Exposure (2019) saw him collaborate with Feneche again, as well as Vincent Epplay, and finds him (and his associates) still capable of creating intriguing and inventive music.
His latest album, released in June 2020, is Xmas In March. It’s another collaboration with David Fenech, and also involves Jason Willett. The only song I’ve heard from it is ‘Cocoquanthusiastic’, which I discovered via Fenech’s website. Featuring a guest appearance from Vincent Epplay, it’s beautifully poignant and evocative.
NWWL Mix #08
I do not own the rights to any of this music, and will happily remove anything if asked by anyone who does.
Pascal Comelade, Pierre Bastien, Jac Berrocal & Jaki Liebezeit – Shikaku Maru Ten (The Oblique Sessions, 1997)
Foxes Fox (featuring Steve Beresford) – Amoebic Mystery (excerpt) (Foxes Fox, 1999)
Il Balletto di Bronzo – Secondo Incontro (Ys, 1971)
Franco Battiato – I Cancelli Della Memoria (Clic, 1974)
Han Bennink, John Coxon, Ashley Wales – AT 7 (Amplified Trio, 2007)