The Montreal-based experimental rock group Fly Pan Am released four albums between 1999 and 2004, then announced an indefinite hiatus. After that, the members kept busy with various bands and projects. Then, as is the case with many bands, the hiatus ended with a one-off live performance. That was in 2018, and, not surprisingly, the band have now returned with a new studio album. C’est ça is a safe recording in that it will not alienate fans of their previous work but is not a complete rehash of that work, either. But the album may not be “safe” for one’s ears or psyche.
Indeed, with all four of the band’s original members still in the fold, C’est ça sounds as if it could have been recorded much less than 15 after its immediate predecessor, N’écoutez pas (2004), the Fly Pan Am album it most resembles. The robotically groovy Krautrock rhythms, bits of silence, static, and noise, and electronic squelches and squirts still provide the basic sound. What C’est ça does, though, is emphasize the extremes. Therefore, there are more stretches of floating, droning, shoegaze-like atmosphere and also more death metal and hardcore-inspired screaming and wailing—often within the same song.
This juxtaposition results in passages like that in “Each Ether”, where plangent guitar strumming like one might hear on a Slowdive album is overlaid with harrowing, tortured shrieking. Likewise, “One Hit Wonder” spends three-and-a-half minutes working up a swell of gauzy, blanketing guitar effects, and then punctures it with rapid-fire beats and more shrieking, this time with what sounds like an analog computer going haywire in the background. A band like Deafheaven have navigated this juxtaposition in sound in an engaging way and almost natural-sounding in a “why didn’t anyone think of that before” manner. But on C’est ça it sounds relatively random and unconvincing. Maybe that’s partly because even these jarring yet relatively structured compositions are interspersed with all-instrumental noise collages which do little to establish a tone or atmosphere.
Fly Pan Am deserve credit for getting the classic Krautrock vibe right—the muffled drums, snappy tempos, and taut basslines recall the glory days of Can and Neu. That is also part of the problem, however. For all their experimentalism, Fly Pan Am are ultimately derivative in a way that doesn’t bring much new to the palette. Malcolm Mooney-era Can invented and presented C’est ça‘s self-contradicting dynamics and unhinged vocalizing in much more engaging fashion—a half-century earlier. When they try going another route, as on the tribal “Discreet Channeling”, Fly Pan Am end up aping a Cure B-side. Somewhere, Fly Pan Am fans are doubtless thrilled the band got back together and picking up right where they left off. Everyone else would be better off going straight to the source.