Richard Pinhas: Desolation Row

French avant-rock and electronics trailblazer Richard Pinhas has been making noise for four decades. And his latest album, Desolation Row, is as fulfilling as ever.

Richard Pinhas

Desolation Row

Label: Cuneiform
US Release Date: 2013-05-21
UK Release Date: 2013-05-27

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.






Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.