[17 December 2009]
If only Etienne Jaumet had been around when Ridley Scott was looking for a musical arranger for Blade Runner. At a whopping 20 minutes, Night Music’s opener “For Falling Asleep” conjures an image of a forbidding metallic metropolis, basked in neon while something sinister effervesces and billows out like steam from the city’s manholes. Apart from the synths gurgling beneath a mist of Middle Eastern influence, there’s a forlorn sax, played by Jaumet himself, that provides the key brushstroke to a neo-noir sound epic. However, it wouldn’t do for Jaumet, known as one-half of Parisian dance duo Zombie Zombie, to sound like a dead ringer of Vangelis. Rather than inflate “For Falling Asleep” with the kind of wounded romanticism of the Greek composer’s “Damask Rose”, say, Jaumet has cogitated the idea of staring into the abyss with what sounds like the kind of high-pitched vocal tremors that accompanied the ape scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey . Still, buried in this haunting landscape is the flickering ember of Emmanuelle Parrenin’s harp, a touch at once diaphanous and sullen.
“For Falling Asleep” sounds as much like Brian Eno and Silver Apples as it does Pharoah Sanders. And even though it resembles little of what Jaumet has done before, it is everything you’d expect this unshakeable analogue enthusiast, who considers his TR-808 and RE-201 close companions, to do. Jaumet’s affection for the ‘70s, something evident from Zombie Zombie’s krautrock-specked disco electro, extends to his making “For Falling Asleep” an entire A side of Night Music, with the remaining four tracks on the flipside. Still, with the help of unlikely collaborator Carl Craig, a Detroit producer, Night Music sounds as unified as a clutch of consecutive scenes of a movie.
As “For Falling Asleep” suggests, the album is hardly nightclub material. Jaumet’s Teutonic disco underpinnings are limited to “Mental Vortex” and “Entropy”. But with both tracks’ Steve Reich-inspired monotony comes a sizeable coat of Teflon. By contrast, “Through the Strata” champions the brooding Arabic-inflected mien of the album opener. With its faint echoes of a sullen Al’meh, “Through the Strata” sounds like a makeshift Moroccan bazaar set up within a manufacturing plant. It could be a potent symbol of the emasculation of an ancient culture for a contemporary one or the dogged persistence of the former in spite of the hegemony of the latter. If instrumental music is capable of strong narrative, then here is some irrevocable proof.
“At the Crack of Dawn”, meanwhile, sounds like the sonic version of retrofitting in terms of the way it summons an image of an Arabic cityscape inhabited by creatures that travel by Seeder Ramships. Here, layers of filtered saxophone, assuming the place of a mjwez or Algerian mizwid, strain over the steady march of droning synths and a sprinkling of celestial effects. The track’s repetitive though surprisingly untiring nature—one motif is recycled over and again for its near-five minute duration—suggests a meditative quality not unlike an Islamic call to prayer. It is this kind of subtlety of mood, wedded to vivid evocation, that furnishes Night Music with a sophistication very much absent from Zombie Zombie’s industrial proto-electronica.
Night Music is something that you would expect to be a side project given that Zombie Zombie is still very much on the go. Yet it gives some critics, notably Johnny Dee of The Guardian, some pause when thinking that all musical tangents are somehow cursed, being self-indulgent at their best and mere flotsam at their worst. For Night Music is a revelation, and a fine one at that.