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.