I rather enjoyed writing my post on Italian prog, so I thought I’d move on to another country.
You really can, without generalizing too much, tell a lot about the musical nature of a people from their prog rock. Italian prog is, of course, quite dramatic, emotional, and unbridled. With some significant exceptions, so don’t get your dander up, Italians. Now the French are a darker people, as we know. And their music reflects that. While of course a number of styles were explored by some highly creative musicians in the 1970s, the music generally tends to be: dark, dramatic, dense and a little Gothic, or jazzy, angular, and … dark and a little Gothic. Sometimes French prog is even kind of scary to listen to. The only cheery French prog I can think of is Gong, and that’s because only some of the band members were French. The band was led by an extremely jaunty Australian, after all.
In any case, as with just about every country with an art-rock music scene in Europe in the seventies, there are more than enough gems to pick a list of ten albums you should check out, if you like progressive music.
Magma is a pretty famous avant-garde institution, but sometimes it seems more like sensationalized infamy. Sure, the band was led by Christian Vander, the world’s craziest drummer, with giant, blazingly angry eyes and superhuman energy on the skins. Sure, he had the members wear black and a scary medallion around their necks. Sure, he had them sing in a Teutonic-sounding language he made up, and all the records are concept albums about some frightening planet. Leaving all that aside, Magma’s music is AMAZING! If you don’t believe me … listen to the magnificent “De Futura“. Just listen to it! Anyway, this particular album is possibly the band’s most “accessible”. Magma’s self-named zeuhl music is a fusion of jazz-rock, spacy prog, experimental electronic and influences from early twentieth century classical (ie Bartok et al.), all thrown together in a cosmic stew. Sometimes this music is very intimidating, but this album, while it does reach those distinctive frenetic heights of thundering beats, hammering repeated melodic lines and shrieking alien vocals, also contains some quite tender moments, as on “Coltrane Sündia” and in one particularly pleasant part of the two-part title suite. Magma ain’t just a band, it’s an experience, and one you want to have if you have any guts or spirit of adventure at all.
Highlight track: “Köhntarkösz” part 1
One has the distinct impression that Ange was top dog in French prog at the time, and the band has sustained a long career ever since. But like Magma, Ange don’t pull no musical punches either. While the music definitely fits well with “symphonic prog” bands like Genesis and Italy’s PFM and Banco, this shit is DARK. Even the ever-present seventies mellotron is like no other mellotron I’ve heard before, sort of just slightly off-key enough to be disturbing while still listenable, with a boomy bassiness and a slushy thickness. The tracks are super-dramatic, led by Christian Décamps’ unhinged but supremely dexterous tuneful vocals. The riffs are huge and grand, the guitar soloing is raw, but there are pretty moments as well, such as the ballad “Ballade Pour Une Orgie” (gee, wonder what that’s about). But even when things seem cute on the surface, at the same time it’s all very disturbing somehow, like it’s an album made by a cult of ritual killers (no offence, chaps). Maybe I’m reading too much into this. But anyway, this is really, really good stuff, as dramatic and creative as Genesis (and quite similar at times) but stripped of anything that might resemble English manners, which is the advantage of this European stuff — they just don’t hold back. This album is definitely a classic.
Highlight track: “Les longues nuits d’Isaac“
Pulsar came from the Pink Floydian school of languid, spacy progressive music complete with hazy, ethereal synths and gentle guitar soloing. So their first two albums are quite pleasant in that regard. But of course, these guys are French, so for their pièce de résistance, they put out this chunk of weirdness, which is also one of my favourite albums! This also is a concept album, but why it starts with a creepy kid singing an Irish melody, I don’t know. This album is not perfect; sometimes it meanders a bit, but the general mood is disquietingly autumnal, quiet but sorrowful and dark. There’s some quite sad-sounding mellotron, actual strings and flutes, weird bass synths, odd time signatures and that Gilmour-influenced guitar soloing. The overall effect is very dreamy and melancholy to an extent you don’t hear very often from rock bands, especially at that time. Of all the bands sometimes disparagingly called Floyd clones, this is the one that really went in its own direction and came up with a distinct, moving sound of its own. You should not miss this beautiful album.
Highlight track: “Halloween” Part II
This one-off is an impressive effort that rides the line between Magma’s brutalist zeuhl-ishnessand the more conventional (if you can call it that!) dramatic prog of bands like Ange. Some albums just have a mood, and I have to say this band and album are well-named, because there’s something slinky and slithery about the first track, “Le Chamadère”, which sort of slimes its along along a chimy guitar lick and rough, spooky keyboards. Then things get really scary as the singer starts freaking out in a most over-the-top fashion that puts the rest of these French dramatists to shame. The rest of the album is a mixed bag but still with that nightmarish vibe, even on quieter tracks like the ballad “In the Screen Side of Your Eyes”, featuring some flute as well. The vocals are totally outta control, which seems to be a hallmark of the French scene! Perhaps it’s the 1979 release date that helps provide a cold, almost post-punk energy to these proceedings. I imagine the band scared itself so badly that it had to break up. In any case, a fine album well worth searching out.
Highlight track: “Le Chamadère“
Believe it or not, Magma’s style was not just popular in and of itself, it also inspired a whole genre of zeuhl bands wanting to duplicate that monolithic cosmic sound, and this is one of the finer albums to come out of that scene. Eskaton took the sounds of later Magma from albums like Üdü Wüdü (home of that INCREDIBLE track “De Futura”) for its inspiration, meaning monstrously fuzzy overdriven bass locked in step with racing, bashy but super-up tempo drum parts bashing your ears like a sledgehammer as eerie, almost operatic vocals wail over top and jazzy synths thud away on repetitive parts to provide texture. With added edgy guitar soloing to boot. It ain’t punk rock, since there are also sudden, off-putting changes of rhythm and tempo (though rarely of mood!). So basically this album is four straight tracks of this stuff! If you like this kind of punishment, this is heaven. And if you don’t like this description, don’t knock it until you try it. Good zeuhl induces something of an ecstatic state in the listener who is receptive to it.
Highlight track: “Eskaton“
This is sometimes described as second-rate Ange, and I don’t entirely disagree, since the influence is very plain. But heck, have you heard some of the bad European Floyd and Genesis imitations from that period? Like, almost copycat stuff and done poorly. Well, not almost — definitely. Anyway, if this is second-rate, fine, but it’s actually a very high-quality prog album in that symphonic prog style. There’s some great guitar playing (a bit heavier than Ange, actually), some quite lovely keyboards, some very pretty ballads and a fine sense of melody overall. And yes, really dramatic storytelling, and rather nutty vocals (natch!). No doubt side two is a concept piece about some chap’s little violon, but my French ain’t good enough to understand. Still, that’s where the band sounds most enthused about its compositions. Not the first album to start your French prog explorations, but definitely you’ll hit in the second round.
Highlight track: “De toute ma haine“
And here’s yet another late-seventies, competent and quite nice album by a band that made several such recordings. Now, this may sound like less than enthusiastic an endorsement, but let me assure you there were many albums that didn’t make the cut for this list, so I do like this a lot. Atoll is another band with an intense, dramatic vocalist. The music is quite late-seventies in feel, meaning that it’s still definitely prog rock, but the instrumentation is spartan, guitars and an array of the keyboards that were new to the market. So like the Arachnoid album, there’s a punkish energy that’s more akin to Peter Gabriel’s solo albums of the period than to florid symphonic prog. Also a resemblance to the Floydian tones of Pulsar (some GREAT cosmic string synth interludes. I fucking LOVE those seventies string synths), the Genesis sound of the period, and other spacy prog bands like FM — and even a sort of prediction of the sound of early Marillion. So while this is not distinctive stuff, it’s a great album for synth-heads and anyone who likes a classy slice of late seventies pompy rock.
Highlight track: “Paris c’est fini”
I almost forgot about this band for some reason, until a reader reminded me. Malicorne was the French version of what Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention were achieving in the UK, electrifying and rocking up French folk music. And they did a great job of it too. Led by the Yacoubs, Gabriel and Marie, Malicorne could be either slick or rough, depending on the occasion. The arrangements are always dramatic and tasteful, and both have wonderful voices. The reason why Malicorne is appropriate for a prog rock list is that, being European, the band was less interested in just rocking out per se rather than with adding interesting touches from progressive rock, jazz, early music and other genres to liven things up. It’s an impressive discography, and this is one of the slickest albums in it. The songs range from smooth and jazzy, almost like a folky French Steely Dan (“Les sept jours de mai“), to ancient and rustic (the wonderful a capella “La Mule”) to epic lengthy ballads (“Jean le loups”). If you have an interest in traditional music along with your rock, Malicorne’s music is really one of the best experiences you can have.
Heldon stands out in the French scene because it was basically a Krautrock or space-rock act that listeners of Kraftwerk, Ash Ra Tempel, Harmonia and Neu! will enjoy very much. This massive double album is full of experimental electronics mixed with nutty guitar sounds (check out “Cotes de Cachalot”) but also some jagged tracks that sound more like Starless and Bible Black-eraKing Crimson than anything else (“Mechanmmment Rock”). There are also two very long proto-ambient tracks for you Tangerine Dream fans out there. This is not only a very unusual band and album for the French scene, it’s also a very, very good experimental rock album from the classic era of such things.
Highlight track: “Mechanmment Rock“
Ah, I love those prog oddities. Those ones that make you go, “What were these guys ON??” Yes, this is one such album. It’s a two-track odyssey that is apparently based on a book by Flaubert, for what it’s worth. No drums, just these crazy pseudo-classical (and occasionally weirdly jazzy) compositions featuring occasional lady vocals, purdy synths, tasty violin (the group had a violinist), and elegant piano and elegant guitar. I guess it goes well with other almost pseudo-proto-ambient prog efforts like Jade Warrior’s from the same era, long, textured suites where the delicate pieces flow into each other. But this album is anything but boring — it’s quite daring in its own quiet way, especially the weird ‘n wonderful violin sounds and tasty solos that would make Ponty proud. Once again I’m astounded when I consider the depth of talent in Europe at this time, especially when compared with the lousy efforts of ham-handed indie rockers of today who think they’re making interesting art music. They should all listen to this for pointers.
Highlight track: part one