(All Album Reviews by Reginod)
Perhaps there is some irony in the existence of a band such as France's Etron Fou Leloublan. At a time when rap was developing a firm and lasting grasp on the charts, hearts, habits and minds of Western consumer culture, EFL integrated the spoken word - their own kind of French "rap" - as they pushed other musical boundaries. Alas, the likes of EFL would remain deep in the RIO underground, but they managed to produce at least 6 albums (5 studio and 1 live) between 1977 and 1985, beginning as a trio, going through several lineup changes, and finally adding keyboards to become a quartet on 1982’s Fred Frith-produced Les Pommes Gonflés. Les Sillons De La Terre was recorded in August 1983, combining the organ and piano of Jo Thirion; the saxophones of Bruno Meillier; the drumming (and sometimes saxophone) of Guigou Chenevier; and the bass work of Ferdinand Richard. Richard, Chenevier and Thirion took turns providing the vocals.
Fortunately, Les Sillons De La Terre has been reissued on CD by Musea/Gazul Records. The preponderance of sax may lead some to use the word “jazz” when describing this music. Indeed, the liner notes assert: “Les Sillons de la Terre may also embody Etron Fou’s strongest affinities to jazz.” With that acknowledged, this doesn’t strike me in the least as a jazz album. Rather, a decent measure of jazz instrumentation is applied to compositions bearing a distinctively 20th Century flavor. Comparisons have been drawn to Henry Cow, early Gong, and even Captain Beefheart.
The album begins with “Phare Plafond.” Richard’s bass immediately establishes itself as a substitute for the guitar, playing a heavy riff in 9/8 while Thirion paints the sonic background with some pleasantly nightmarish keyboard swells. Like most of the material on LSDLT, it is not melodic in the conventional sense. As opposed to singing, Thirion shouts the lyrics in a barely constrained manner on the tune’s second part, after which it descends into controlled chaos before coming to a close, showing a measure of the instrumental balance of which EFL was capable.
“Les Vitres” begins with a sparse bass riff, accompanied by saxophone, before Thirion checks in with another slightly spooky keyboard progression. Again the vocals are spoken rather than sung; apparently two members (unclear to me which ones) perform the vocals together, providing an eerie “mirror” effect. Chenevier’s stuttering approach to the drum kit adds to the appeal not only on this cut but on the entire album.
“Les Alsaciennes” is one of the album’s three instrumentals. Again Richard’s bass serves a guitar-like rhythmic purpose, and doubles a brief melody line with the tenor sax, most likely played by Meillier. “Nouveau” follows, beginning with solo bass chords, and remaining instrumental for the first two minutes, after which four verses are “sung” with a slightly menacing deep voice. The instruments fill out the rest of the piece in a politely absurd fashion, before it comes to an abrupt ending.
On “L’enfance de Guigou” Richard’s bass provides the rhythm for the verses, and Chenevier’s drums begin afterward, with Thirion providing an icy-smooth keyboard bed for a great sax solo from (again most likely) Meillier. This is where the listener can get drawn into EFL, as it is an outstanding cut that sounds positively fresh more than 20 years after it was recorded.
“Emoi” is like a nightmarish cartoon soundtrack, and could well indicate why EFL has been compared to Gong. The vocals almost sound as if the “singer” (unknown) had huffed a lungful of helium. More nifty bass riffing drives the piece in manic fashion, and the keyboards and saxes happily “toot” in a bizarre unison.
“C’est Pas Bien” features more spoken-word vocals. The bass and drums create a tense ambience underneath another dreamlike keyboard progression, and the whole bit is juxtaposed with unified keyboard-saxophone blasts, illustrating how EFL could create many atmospheres within one short piece.
“Et qu’cet air-lá” is another instrumental, featuring by dual saxophones, and backed by some relatively simple piano chords. On “Lavabo,” the vocals are closer to actual singing, but still mostly spoken. The lyric portions alternate with saxophone melodies, lending an even quirkier feel to an already quirky album. The effect is actually somewhat humorous.
The instrumental closer “Le jeu l’alcool et les femmes” begins with a solo sax performance, before the ensemble joins in. It may have been the album’s most challenging piece to play, as it unwinds in several directions. It brings a pleasing and proper end to a relatively short (41:25) work.
Special mention should be made of Thirion’s keyboards. The employed timbres, refreshingly, were not a throwback to the 1970’s, but also were void of the sterility found so often in the new digital playground of the 80’s. Thirion played with a slightly restrained, coolly efficient, left-of-center chordal approach, and she perfectly complemented EFL’s instrumental environment .
After listening to Les Sillons De La Terre for a few weeks, I’d offer only meager caveats. The vocals, entirely in French, may turn some listeners away. This is lower-case progressive music, and probably not to the tastes of symphonic, neo, or prog-metal fans.
It would be an unwieldy comedy of errors for me to attempt to provide a proper translation of the words on Les Sillons De La Terre (the furrows of the earth). Suffice it to say that the lyrical content is somewhat provocative, with a shot of dark humor. Indeed EFL’s approach as a band was apparently much the same. They provided a unique musical flavor, eminently appropriate for a surrealist cabaret. Les Sillons De La Terre turns out to be a fine album that should enhance the collection of any RIO enthusiast.