“French rock” might seem like an oxymoron—or at least the description of an extremely rare bird. When a French group plays rock and roll, it almost always seems to have an ulterior motive or be linked to another genre (more often than not some form of electronic music). There are few solidly rock and roll bands to come from France, that I know of. More often they seem to produce either frivolous pop or music that is much more serious than mere rock. Serge Gainsbourg was able to both parody and reap the benefits of the teen-aged mentality of rock and roll, culminating in his Nazi-rock-schlock album, Rock Around the Bunker. In other words, good French rock, in a typically ultra-rational fashion, tends to also work as a critique. This doesn’t necessarily mean bad music, but it can result in something that is painfully self-aware.
The French band from Versailles, Turzi (led by Romain Turzi), could be accused of too much self-awareness, if they didn’t have a sense of humor. The group describes its music as “rock disciplinaire”. Taken seriously, this term strikes at the heart of the matter. Living in the shadow of the ordered gardens of the Sun King’s palace might instill a love for order. The most salient example of the negative side to a “disciplinary” approach to making music might be found in the track on Turzi’s second album, B, “Baltimore”, which features Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie on vocals. “Baltimore” sounds almost exactly like a Primal Scream song from Evil Heat. I like that album, so it doesn’t necessarily bother me—but I also own that album and can listen to it any time. Turzi is obviously studious, but it may come at the peril of lacking a bit of heart.
Like Primal Scream did on Evil Heat, Turzi explores the darker side of Krautrock on B—as opposed to their debut album, A, which stayed more often in its cheerier range, led by pretty synthesizers bubbling up melodies. The first album also had more vocal tracks, usually in a whispered shoegaze style. With B, which follows A‘s alphabetically-themed song titles, Turzi continues to make atmospheric music. But it is now a scary atmosphere. The album could serve well as a score to a horror movie. The darkness and heaviness of the music recalls another French rock band, Magma. (They too were somehow more and less than a rock band). But where Magma’s music has a religiosity that calls up Satanic rituals, Turzi’s horror show would more likely set a chase scene in a slasher film.
In the most successful songs on the album, heavy drums lead the path into darkness. This march is complimented by a guitar placed firmly in the center of the sound, which is an interesting development with B. The guitar leads a number of songs with almost metal-style riffs, but it is not allowed to take over completely. Turzi still plays synth-driven electronic music in the Krautrock vein. Turzi interestingly alternates these styles so that the heaviest guitar songs fade into electronic drones, providing quick glimpses of sunshine and of a more expansive sound.
B changes up the letter concept from the last album by giving each song title a place name. I was trying to make more of this concept than I think is possible, as if “Buenos Aires” would make Tango references. “Bethlehem”, one of the few songs to feature vocals, does make mention of Jesus. It doesn’t seem that there is a method linking the city names to specific songs. Still the songs have a sonic and tonal unity that would seem to mute whatever global claims are being made by dropping these names. In the end, Turzi makes conceptual music without a real leading concept. Therefore it sometimes seems that there is something lacking, whether it’s a more centered approach (with lyrics and vocals for example, though this might compromise the post-ness of their rock) or them fully fleshing out the heavy sound and letting loose (with more drums and perhaps some improvisation).
Nonetheless, the album is enjoyable. It produces a singular atmosphere and maintains it from beginning to end. Turzi is supremely focused. This is the positive side to “rock disciplinaire.” The key to enjoying this album is to not think of Turzi as a band that takes itself too seriously. If “rock disciplinaire” speaks of wide enjoyment rather than scholarly concentration, then it becomes clear that they are not trying to convey a message (which would ultimately fail). Instead, they are playing with forms that border on pretentiousness or even overuse and having fun all the while. The way Turzi jumps from the tropes of hard rock to hard electronica and back again not only gives the album a driving momentum, but also its own form of excitement.
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// Notes from the Road
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