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Un peu de l'âme des bandits

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Album Review

The late '70s were a heady time in European progressive rock circles. Chris Cutler, drummer of the leading group Henry Cow and unrepentant leftist seeking to distance himself from both major-label and American rock influences, found similarly minded groups in France, Sweden, Belgium, and Italy, and brought them together for a British tour under the banner of Rock in Opposition (RIO). New musical influences and adventures gave rise to more short-term formations for Cutler and Fred Frith (Cow's guitarist), including this venture with a Belgian duo, Aksak Maboul, comprised at the time of Marc Hollander and Vincent Kenis. This group had recorded an album in 1977, Onze Danses Pour Combattre le Migraine, which became a cult album in its own right. As Aksak toured, their paths crossed with the various RIO groups, which led to this album in 1980. Cutler and Frith brought a solid rhythm section, but ready to make terrific noise when appropriate (as on the backing tracks of "Inoculating Rabies"). Michel Berckmans, wind player from Univers Zero (one of the Belgian RIO groups), and Hollander were the wind and reed section. Frank Wuyts and Denis Van Hecke rounded out the group on keyboards and strings. Stylistically, the album is all over the board. For example, the opening track, featuring Catherine Jauniaux on vocals, launches into a twisted blues number, with the singer freely improvising and trading licks with Van Hecke's cello and Hollander's sax. The second part of "A Modern Lesson" features extremely intricate horn writing, with different players rapidly trading different elements of the lines. "I Viaggi" uses a Middle Eastern scale, with cello and voice doubling the melody line. "Palmiersen Pots" is a classical piece for string trio, followed by a tango composed from several popular pieces cut up with scissors and reassembled at random. The album culminates with a long suite (originally all of side two on the vinyl release) based on a shorter arpeggiated figure, composed sections alternating with solos on bass, cello, electric cello, and synthesizer. On top of all of the great musicianship, Frith and lead engineer Etienne Conod performed significant studio wizardry after the sessions. "A Modern Lesson" contains sounds from a pinball machine as well as bits from every other track (and this is well before the age of samplers). The lead bassoon/oboe lines of "Inoculating Rabies" would be inaudible over the guitar and percussion noise in a live situation, but the contrast makes the piece. The CD reissue includes a track by a later Hollander/Kenis group, which unfortunately only magnifies the greatness of this Aksak Maboul lineup and this album, which remains a pinnacle of the RIO movement.

Un peu de l'âme des bandits, Aksak Maboul
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