(All Album Reviews by ffroyd)
Sometimes I go through phases where I must just lose my mind. For example, I had read some really positive comments about the Québec City band Morse Code from a few reliable sources and decided that they were worth checking out. About a year or two ago I had the opportunity to hear one of the albums and for some reason I just didn’t think it was any good. After hearing the new reissues of their albums, I’m convinced that I was temporarily insane because this is some truly amazing music!
Ok, lets start things out here with a little history. The band first started out some time in the 60’s under the name Les Maîtres with bassist Michel Vallée, drummer Raymond Roy and keyboardist Christian Simard. When it came time to record an album, it was suggested that a more English sounding name would get them better recognition so they chose Morse Code Transmission. The band had a pop rock sound that was compared to bands like The Guess Who. After a couple of not-terribly-successful albums on the RCA label and a few not-very-interested guitar players, the band hooked up with guitarist Daniel Lemay (who had been in a group called Phantom Grey), shortened their name and revamped their sound.
Switching labels, they were persuaded by EMI to write a “disco” track because that’s where the hits were at the time. That single, “Cocktail” is available here as a bonus track and honestly this sounds a whole lot better than most disco that you’ve probably heard before. It’s got a snappy beat and some great funky clavinet work. The flipside was “Qu'est-ce que t'as compris?” and is also included as the other bonus track. Fortunately, this turned out to be somewhat of a hit and whetted folks’ appetites for their first LP as Morse Code, La Marche Des Hommes.
By now you’re probably thinking, “Ok…blah blah blah…so what exactly does this band sound like?” Well, to be honest, it’s nothing you haven’t heard before. They have a really solid bombastic, symphonic prog style that’s heavy on the keyboards. Since this was already the mid seventies, the band had an arena rock side but influences of bands like Genesis, Yes and ELP and quite prevalent. The tunes are quite dramatic and dynamic with lots of variety throughout. The lyrics are sung in French and therefore the band has a resemblance to groups like Pollen, Ange, Atoll and various other French sung progressive rock. I remember reading one time that they sounded like FM but this isn’t really that accurate.
I would say that my favorite element of the music is definitely the keyboards. Christian Simard is fond of using the organ and mellotron for spectacular effects. There are bright and speedy runs with bursts of synthesizer as well as longer sustained passages. Fans of the mellotron should note that Christian’s work here is top notch, and the portions are plentiful. All this probably wouldn’t matter if the rest of the band stunk. Fortunately, that is not the case at all. Lemay’s guitar work is always very exciting and the rhythm section is more than capable of getting the job done.
My favorite track here is probably the opening cut, the 11-minute title track “La Marche des hommes”. This is a very energetic piece, with lots of participation from everyone in the group. I’ve said this before but you can sense an album is going to be great when it starts out with the sound of a gong. It’s such a prog cliché but I’ve always found it to be true. Some other highlight tracks include “Le Cérémonie de minuit” (which opens with some great acoustic guitar and a creepy church bell), “Une goutte de pluie” (“A drop of rain” - a nice mellow track with gorgeous keyboards) and the aforementioned “Cocktail” and “Qu'est-ce que t'as compris?”
The fine folks at the ProgQuébec have reissued the three most important works from the great band: this one, and the second and third albums (Procréation and Je suis le temps). All three are excellent and if you’re interested, I would suggest starting with this one. The band did release another album in 1983 but I’ve read that it wasn’t all that progressive. In 1995 the band regrouped and released D'un autre monde which was supposedly a return to form with an updated sound. Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of this great band.
I would guess that the folks who were already familiar with Morse Code are aware of how great these albums are and have jumped on the reissues. For those of you out there who are unfamiliar with the band, they are definitely worth checking out. If you’re like me and don’t take to the band on first listen, there’s still hope -- without brain surgery or heavy therapy sessions.