French Synth Freaks of the ‘70s
August 20, 2017

French Synth Freaks of the ‘70s

Back in the stormy ‘70s, when Brian Eno was inventing ambient music in England and Tangerine Dream was mixing Moogs with Krautrock, a crew of electronic individualists in France was busy crafting some singular synthesizer tapestries of their own. Sometimes they were influenced by the aforementioned trailblazers and their ilk, but often they were finding their own idiosyncratic way into previously unexplored electronic thickets, without stopping to worry about what the end result might be or what anybody would think about it. With the notable exceptions of Jean-Michel Jarre, who found fame with his 1976 classic Oxygène, and Moog pop pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey, these artists were working well under the radar, largely unnoticed in their own country and all but invisible on an international level. (And that remains the case today—a lot of this music isn’t available on Spotify, so I’ve created a YouTube playlist instead.) But the frequently quirky electronic vistas they created deserve their own chapter in the saga of synth music.

Paul Putti’s short-lived Pôle label achieved underground renown releasing albums by his project of the same name as well as fellow travelers like Philippe Besombes, freely utilizing minimalism and avant-garde techniques. Composers like Jean-Pierre Decerf and Teddy Lasry crossed over from the world of “library” recordings for film and TV but ultimately made intoxicating, atmospheric music that stood on its own. On tracks like “Speedway,” the duo Space Art came off like a Gallic version of Autobahn-era Kraftwerk. If there’s ever a synth-assisted apocalypse, Fredric Mercier’s doomy, titanic “Storm” would certainly make a suitable soundtrack. And Philippe Féret has all but vanished into the deep pockets of time, but his 1978 debut album nevertheless found him at the front lines of the ambient movement. Take a deep dive into a French river filled almost to overflowing with visceral analog electronic tones and maverick notions about what music could be.

Best of ‘00s French Touch
October 25, 2016

Best of ‘00s French Touch

For electronic fans of a certain age, French Touch (or, as it’s also known, “French House) owned the 90s. Marrying the plop disco with the peaking phaser effects, Ed Banger, Daft Punk, Kavinsky, and Cassius provided the soundtrack to many late nights (and early mornings). The music was sexy and fun, and was the most commercially dominant type of electronic music in the States until EDM reared it’s ugly head in. This Apple Music playlist is a little jerky in terms of its flow and pacing, and “Heatwave” if from ‘00, but it contains some great remixes from the genre and succinctly sums that particular time and place.

Indie Rock Face-Off: Neo vs. ’90s

The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.

The Year in ’90s Metal

It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.

Out of the Stacks: ’90s College Radio Staples Still At It

Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.