Jean-Claude Vannier: LEnfant Assassin des Mouches

A small miracle of 20th century progressive music from Serge Gainsbourg's most satisfying and challenging collborator.

Jean-Claude Vannier

L'Enfant Assassin des Mouches

Label: B-Music
US Release Date: 2006-09-19
UK Release Date: 2006-09-11

For a whole generation of post-hip-hop crate-diggers in search of the perfect break, Serge Gainsbourg’s legendary 1971 concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson is something of a Holy Grail. A sumptuous, strings-drenched paean to erotic love with a funky psychedelic rock group at its core, this album ranks for many alongside the contemporaneous and comparable rock-operatics of David Axelrod’s late '60s/early '70s output. For those who assert that this 35-minute masterpiece’s only drawback is its brevity, the timely reissue of French composer Jean Claude Vannier’s lost wonder L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches will come as a massive kick in the pleasure circuits.

Vannier was Gainsbourg’s chief collaborator on Histoire de Melody Nelson, providing the complex and subversive arrangements that have made that album such a highly regarded oddity. L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches was the album Vannier put together under his own name directly after working on Gainsbourg’s classic, and it continues many of the same musical preoccupations, taking them into even more intense and otherworldly dimensions.

Being a product of the early '70s, this is, of course, another concept album, hung on a disconcertingly bizarre story -- penned by Gainsbourg as a response to hearing the music for the first time -- which tells the almost Alice in Wonderland-style tale of a young boy (the titular ‘Child Fly-Killer’) who descends into a nightmarish, underground fly kingdom to do battle with the king of the flies, only to meet a grisly and well-deserved fate. For the most part, however, it’s not necessary to try and follow the story in order to be completely rapt and involved by this peculiarly seductive suite of tunes. The music has its own fascinating linear logic, epitomising the now-clichéd notion of "a movie for your ears."

At the heart of the album lies Vannier’s rock ensemble Insolitudes, a tight and funky post-psychedelic outfit featuring three lead guitars, electric bass, drums and piano. Vannier himself provides additional piano and flute and the whole sound is augmented by a couple of additional percussionists, various brass instruments and a string quartet. From these basic building blocks, Vannier creates a huge, dizzying array of sounds and moods that reveal the truly visionary nature of his arrangements.

For all its leanings towards rock, this is unmistakably the product of a Left Bank French intellectual, comfortably at home within an avant-garde sensibility. As such, the whole endeavour is peppered with unsettling jolts of musique concrete -- brief snatches of clock-tower chimes, street sounds, footsteps, pounding heartbeats, matches struck, anguished breathing, alarm bells, trains, gunshots -- all of which help to push along the essential narrative of the work. And, even when the band’s playing some of its most rockish pieces, it’s frequently subverted by surreptitious avant-garde trimmings, rattling classical percussion à la Edgard Varèse, ghostly moans, scrabblings and whooshes. Undoubtedly, though, it’s the string arrangements that take this music to another level. Vannier used multi-tracking to transform his string quartet into what he termed a "1001-piece orchestra." When combined with equally grandiose arrangements for a large choir, the result is a huge, soaring, angelic-demonic sound that makes Axelrod’s similar investigations sound distinctly terrestrial by comparison.

Within this, the album touches on a variety of musical styles -- from gritty funk-rock (which, again, bears comparison to Axelrod’s prescient beats), through proggy rock-opera that, in terms of sheers bombast, almost reaches the heights of fellow Frenchman Christian Vander’s prog-absurdist outfit, Magma. There’s also strangely disorientating fairground music, a Parisian café-accordion waltz and a deeply trippy dose of raga-rock with droning strings, hippy bongos and spiralling acoustic guitar.

Ultimately, this album is a trip in every sense of the word: deeply psychedelic, unsettlingly original and hypnotically involving. So utterly does it hold the listener’s attention that, in the final few moments, when the child fly-killer meets his grisly doom, and the album ends with a saccharine -- and in this context undeniably nightmarish -- elegiac flourish, one can almost see the word ‘FIN’ projected on the screen of one’s imagination. A hearty ‘Bravo!’ seems the only reasonable response.






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".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


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 .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

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.