French avant-rock and electronics trailblazer Richard Pinhas was up front at the barricades during 1968’s Parisian student uprising, and a defiance of conventions has underscored his musical ventures ever since. Pinhas was a key figure in the European outsider rock scene in the 1970s. His pioneering group, Heldon, fused electronica with Kraut- and progressive rock, and frequently dispensed with notions of easy melodies and rhythms. Heldon produced a handful of highly influential recordings, including 1976’s seminal Un Reve Sans Consequence Speciale, and the band’s work was notable for evoking a darker vision than much of the galaxy-gazing sequencer trance of the era.
Pinhas re-wired the psychedelic to craft portentous and processed suites, with shadowy, free-form guitar lines wrapped around sinister synth. His work has clearly inspired the grim electronics and post-this and avant-that noise of our times, and his solo releases since the ’80s have touched on everything from his philosophic musings to science fiction and social activism.
Whether exploring pitch-black brutality or improvising over luminescent soundscapes, Pinhas has found beauty in noise, injecting deep, emotive passion into even the bitterest of tracks. Recent collaborations, such as 2008’s Keio Line (with Japanese noise-legend Merzbow), and 2010’s Metal/Crystal (with Wolf Eyes and Merzbow) have been some of Pinhas’s best works yet.
His latest release, Desolation Row, is no different. It’s a superb album, and although Pinhas has been musically active for four decades, the album suffers from no shortage of ideas or shows any sign that Pinhas is willing to settle into the role of a comfortable or timid elder of experimentalism.
In fact, Desolation Row finds Pinhas with abundant revolutionary zeal, returning to the underground artistic battlegrounds of his earliest work. The album’s manifesto is clear cut and political: “Desolation Row is an image of what we can Feel and See coming during this neo-liberalist era… neo-liberalism transforming ultimately into TEKNOFASCISM.” Pinhas’s disgust at corporate avarice and the eroding of democratic institutions is clear, but the aim of Desolation Row is to also provide a voice for the victims of capitalism. “Music is a way to fight… and to bring weapons to people, to make them feel outside of their servitude, and perhaps to make them happy, even for one minute… a way to fight THE POWER!”
Pinhas began his musical journeying with Heldon’s 1974 release, Electronique Guerilla, so his return to radical artistic resistance is all very apt. But he is not alone in his raging against global unrest on the album. Desolation Row finds him collaborating with a range of fringe-dwelling sonic subversives whose own work has certainly followed the initial pathways Pinhas hacked into the musical jungle. Lasse Marhaug and Oren Ambarchi, as well as Etienne Jaumet, Noël Akchoté, Eric Borelva, and Pinhas’s son, Duncan Nilsson, all appear on Desolation Row. And, with all insurrectionists gathered, Desolation Row explores the turbulence of the times via six lengthy tracks.
Two of the album’s songs follow distinct compass points. “North” funnels warped jazz through a storm of electronics and treated guitar, while “South” stretches tones and textures to breaking point, over a glaze of percussion and pulsations. “Square” finds bluesy and bucolic guitar being strummed and plucked, and it’d almost make for a pleasant Floydian amble, if not for the ever-present menacing hiss of electronics darkening the view.
“Circle” continues in the same vein, with drums and fragments of guitar bleeding into a harsh and ominous squall where bursts of notes rise and fall in the tempest. “Drone 1” toys with Pinhas’s very favorite elements, density and delicacy chafing at each other through banks of noise both blissful and phantasmagorical. Meanwhile, “Moog”, the best track here, returns full circle to Heldon days, with layers of grungy space-rock guitars and waves of outré effects for a 17-minute jaunt of hallucinatory avant-rock.
Every album that Pinhas has released — either solo or under the Heldon banner — obviously has its dedicated fans, and Desolation Row ranks up there with some of his finest work. Again, it’s an exquisite undertaking overall; all intricately layered, with hailstorms of immersive noise and vast glistening vistas. The percussion and electronics range from majestic to monolithic, and guitars transform from six-string progressive gambols into abstract shards and misty loops. Of course, none of those elements are unique to Pinhas, but his ear for composition results in a distinctive latticework of sounds.
After four decades, Pinhas’s work is as fulfilling as ever. Whether shaping art rock maelstroms or sublime improvisations, he has always created hypnotic music that exhibits an adept handling of power. That’s exactly why Desolation Row works so well. It has a fierce message to deliver, and the very disobedience of its sound ensures rebelliousness is always on the mind. It’s an album that underscores Pinhas’s investigation into new ways to confront, but most of all, it shows a wholly admirable refusal to conform.