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(48.56, Cuneiform Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. La Clef 10:50 2. L'Axe du Fou 16:32 3. Double-Sens 13:50 4. La 13eme Lune 8:24 LINEUP: Patrick Forgas – drums Sebastien Trognon – saxophones, flute Dimitri Alexaline – trumpet, flugelhorn Karolina Mlodecka – violin Benjamin Violet – guitars Igor Brover – keyboards Kengo Mochizuki – bass
Prolusion. FORGAS BABD PHENOMENA was formed in the late Nineties by French drummer Patrick Forgas (whose debut album, “Cocktail”, was recently reissued by Musea Records). “L’Axe Du Fou” is their third album, released as a seven-piece four years after the live album “Soleil 12”, which was their first release with the US label Cuneiform. At the time of writing, the band is scheduled to perform at the 2010 edition of the North-East Art Rock Festival (NEARFest) – a yearly event taking place in the month of June in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA.
Analysis. Four years after the release of “Soleil 12”, Patrick Forgas returns with a partially revamped lineup (including two of his former collaborators, Igor Brover and Kengo Mochizuki, plus four new musicians), and an absolute stunner of an album. This is one of those discs that manages to exude an authentically progressive feel, and where the inevitable influences are seamlessly worked into the fabric of the music in such a way as to become an essential component of the overall sound. In reviews of Forgas’ work (both as a solo artist and with his band) frequently crop up comparisons with the Canterbury scene – quite an adequate description for someone who is occasionally tagged as the French Robert Wyatt. In spite of the fluid, hard-to-pinpoint nature of that sound, some of its outstanding features are at least in part displayed quite noticeably on this album (and also on Forgas’ debut, “Cocktail”, reviewed here). Just like the Canterbury bands, Forgas Band Phenomena manages to achieve that fine, often elusive balance between complexity and lightness of touch. Their music impresses for its apparently loose, yet highly disciplined structure, and the technical skills of the individual players, but at the same time brings a smile to your face – the polar opposite of all those bands or artists that seem to enjoy wallowing in misery and gloom. It is ‘serious’ music that somehow manages to be uplifting – no mean feat in the world of progressive rock, where, all too often, depressing content is seen as a quality rather than a flaw. “L’Axe du Fou” (The Axis of Madness) is a compact album whose four tracks range from the 8 minutes of La 13eme Lune to the 16 of the title-track. Unlike the compositions featured on “Soleil 12”, which dated back from the early days of Forgas’ activity as a musician, most of the tracks were written in the three years previous to the album’s release, while the intro to La Clef originally belonged to a never-recorded 1997 composition. Clocking in at slightly under 50 minutes, it has the ideal running time for an album that is amazingly dense on a musical level, even though not as intimidating as more left-field fare. The band functions like a mini-orchestra, all the instruments striving together to produce an impressive, though never overdone or overwhelming, volume of sound. While the leading instruments are clearly the horns, sax and violin, the contribution of the other musician is essential. Patrick Forgas and bassist Kengo Mochizuki lay down a groundwork of sophisticated subtlety, driving the music along at a steady pace, without pyrotechnics, but with unfailing reliability. However, it is the commanding performance of Polish-born violinist Karolina Mlozecka, and her extraordinary mastery of her instrument, that proves to be the album’s single most important feature. At a first listen, the tracks may sound deceptively alike, which might give the listener an impression of monotony. This, however, could not be further from the truth. As a whole, the compositions might be described as a sort of beautifully controlled chaos that holds together superbly, a rich texture of instrumental prowess and melodic warmth. La Clef opens briskly, with upbeat horns and a nicely stubborn guitar line over an understated, yet excellent rhythmic backdrop. The instruments often appear on the stage all at the same time, but without the confusing, overblown feel that might result from such a situation. The track alternates sedate, wistful, violin-led passages with more intense ones, interspersed by the blaring of the horns and the jazz-tinged exertions of the sax, while the keyboards provide a discreet but noticeable accompaniment. The title-track displays a more definite rock bent, courtesy of Benjamin Violet’s clear-sounding guitar, which adds a note of electric intensity to the proceedings, sometimes vying for attention with Mlozecka’s scintillating violin. The fabric of the composition is somewhat more uneven than in the previous effort, the rockier passages shifting into lyrical, flowing sections, or jazzy ones with an almost Latin flavour – undoubtedly an effort of astounding complexity, whose many twists and turns are skilfully and tastefully realized, rather than flung in your face in a ‘look what I can do’ manner. After this exhilarating ride, Double-Sens almost lulls the listener into expecting something a bit more relaxed. The first half of the track is indeed distinguished by its understated approach, giving an impression of smooth serenity, quite entrancing in its own way, with all the instruments sounding gentle and muted rather than assertive – when, almost all of a sudden, the band shifts into high gear, the melody of the previous sections turning into a dissonant maelstrom, punctuated by an offbeat sax solo. Then, as if nothing had occurred, the music starts flowing calmly and beautifully once again, all the instruments working in lockstep, and a distinct Canterbury feel in the keyboard textures and violin work that reminded me of Caravan circa “For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night”. A full-tilt guitar solo in the best rock tradition adds some spice to the final part of the track. La 13eme Lune brings the album to a close with more Canterbury references, especially in the steady underlying rhythm pattern. Subtle, almost melancholy at the beginning, with the flute lending a welcome pastoral touch, it gradually gains momentum, with distorted guitar chords, speedier drumming and energetic horn bursts leading to a typical rock’n’roll-style ending. I am aware that the above description does not really do justice to the beauty of “L’Axe Du Fou”, an album that needs to be savoured without any hurry in order to grasp its full import. As my rating clearly shows, it is one of those rare, practically perfect offerings that are a real credit to the whole progressive rock genre. Forgas Band Phenomena are a brilliant outfit that deserve much more exposure than they have had so far – I, for one, will be looking forward to any future releases from them.
Conclusion. Undoubtedly one of the best releases of the past year, “L’Axe du Fou” is a highly sophisticated, yet curiously accessible album that can be safely recommended to all progressive rock fans. Indeed, there is enough complexity to please lovers of more demanding stuff, and enough melody to make it pleasing to the ear of those who prize listenable potential above all. With stunning musicianship and flawless composition on display, this is a disc that deserves the highest rating at my disposal. Top-20-2009
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