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(62.49, Musea Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. Underlifetime 5:16 2. Underevolution 3:11 3. Underknowledge 2:51 4. Underprogress 6:28 5. Undermemories 3:06 6. Underknowledge 4:06 7. Underbark 2:43 8. Underatom 7:18 9. Undersky 5:28 10. Underbark Reprise 3:33 11. Underlifetime 4:18 12. Understones 4:50 13. Underdream-1 5:10 14. Underdream-2 4:25 LINEUP: Philippe Claerhout – ac., el. & bass guitar, bouzouki Francois Claerhout – synthesizers; gamelan, percussion; pan flute Michael Geyre – analog keyboards; accordion With: Thierry Moreno – drums, percussion (1, 4, 8, 9, 11) Fabien Lo Cicero – fretless bass (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) Dominique Caubet – fretless bass (1, 3, 6, 8)
Prolusion. Hailing from Bordeaux, France, XII ALFONSO (named after a 19th-century king of Spain) consists of brothers Francois and Philippe Claerhout and drummer Thierry Moreno, plus a number of guest musicians changing at every album. Active since 1988, they have released five studio albums, as well as a live album, “This Is” (2003).
Analysis. XII Alfonso are an outfit with a relatively unusual format, being centred around two core members, the gifted multi-instrumentalist brothers Claerhout. “Under”, their fifth studio album, recorded between 2007 and 2008, was apparently meant as a break in the process of completion of a trilogy dedicated to French Impressionist painter Claude Monet - the first and second parts of which were released respectively in 2002 and 2006. Like its predecessors, “Under” is a concept album, though the kind of concept behind it is not quite clear. According to some sources, it may be a reinterpretation of the myth of Atlantis in the light of the development of modern civilization – something which is quite plausible, seen the title and those compositions referencing recent events in the history of our world. However, unlike their previous albums, which featured mainly female vocals, this disc is completely instrumental – unless one counts the recorded voices featured in some of the tracks. Though XII Alfonso are often placed under the all-encompassing ‘symphonic prog’ umbrella, their music is more in the eclectic tradition of Mike Oldfield or The Alan Parsons Project, with touches of Vangelis, some world music influences, and even the occasional Pink Floyd reference thrown in for good measure. In any case, they definitely belong to the mellower side of the prog spectrum – there is hardly anything jarring, dissonant, or even overly complex in their music, which is often soothing, even excessively so. In fact, most of “Under” sounds very much the same, and flows by without demanding any excessive efforts on the part of the listener. For all of the brothers Claerhout’s ambitions, the album as a whole ends up being little more than glorified background music, or the ideal soundtrack to some nature-based documentary. The 14 tracks – whose titles all begin with the word ‘under’- run almost without interruption, like movements of a single composition rather than separate items. A look at the liner notes will reveal the use of an impressive array of instruments, some of them quite exotic – not just ethnic ones like the gamelan, or the Yemeni musical stones, but also a pioneering electronic keyboard called the Ondioline. XII Alfonso’s sound seems indeed to hinge on electronic instruments, which form both the background, in form of faint or majestic washes, and the ‘main event’, so to say, of their compositions. The use of recorded voices, both from real people (Martin Luther King Jr’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech in the last three tracks) and from radio or TV programmes reinforces the somewhat cinematic quality of the music. Unfortunately, as already hinted in the previous paragraphs, most of the tracks are almost undistinguishable from each other - soothing, slow or mid-tempo pieces with a strong melodic feel, peppered by the occasional bout of interesting percussion or guitar work, and often dangerously bordering on new-agey elevator fodder. Ambient noises, like the sounds of sloshing water in Underprogress, are used judiciously, and not as frequently as one would expect in such a record. Some of the acoustic guitar passages are undeniably beautiful, especially when combined with the liquid, tinkling sound of the electric piano as in Underknowledge, or with the Spanish flavour of the castanets in Undersky. The real highlights of the album are to be found right in the middle of it. Not only are they markedly different from the rest, but they are excellent tracks in their own right, so that I could not help regretting that the rest of the album was not more in line with them. The longest item at over 7 minutes, Underatom is introduced by a newscast announcing the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945; then it develops in a harder, darker direction than the previous tracks, with plenty of guitar riffing, whistling electronic keyboards, and brisk drumming, interspersed by the dry yet faintly ominous voice of the newscaster. It is by far the most progressive offering on the album, skilfully building a slowly mounting atmosphere of vague menace, bolstered by the eerie sound of the pan flute and mournful keyboard washes. On the other hand, the two-part Underbark, at times strongly reminiscent of Far Eastern (mostly Chinese) music, is where the ethnic instrumentation really comes into its own, with distinctive percussion work and a sort of lively dialog between pan flute and acoustic guitar. If a larger proportion of this album had followed in the footsteps of Underatom and Underbark, the rating would have undoubtedly been higher. As things stand, “Under” is a bit of a missed opportunity – over an hour of music that, while skilfully played by a group of outstanding musicians, is all too often rather forgettable, and tends to fade into the background without really capturing the listener’s attention.
Conclusion. While “Under” is undeniably a well-crafted album, presented in a classy package, it is also likely to disappoint those who look for variety and excitement in their music. Given the technical proficiency of the musicians involved, as well as the wide range of instruments employed, one might have expected something a bit more lively and less repetitive. Regrettably, all too often “Under” comes across as little more than background music, though with some intriguing moments that point to a more genuinely progressive direction. On the other hand, fans of ambient and new age music will probably find this album very much to their taste.
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