For decades, French music—especially French rock—has been ridiculed for not being as rugged, beautiful, and righteous as Anglo-American music. While France may not be as prolific with the excellent rock jams as the US and the UK, it certainly has manifested its share of world-class music.
The newest case in point is High Wolf, a mysterious entity who's making his Seattle debut this week. A torrent of exciting, exotic sounds emanates effortlessly from High Wolf; with some diligence, you can find his music on limited-edition cassettes and vinyl, but you'll probably have better luck locating it on his Bandcamp and MySpace pages, where his frequent and fruitful collaborations often pop up.
Using Jon Hassell's Fourth World malarial atmospheres as a springboard, High Wolf generates compositions of serpentine grandeur. It's psychedelic music that appears to derive from some imaginary arboreal region (High Wolf claims to come from the Amazon, which we could not confirm at press time). Whatever the case, his mesmerizing loops of distant, enigmatic chants; swirling keyboard drones; entrancing hand percussion; and warped guitar calligraphy coalesce into a new species of ecstatic ritual musick. It makes you want to gobble drugs whose names you can't pronounce and converse with deities you don't believe exist. High Wolf could come from a squalid Parisian brothel, for all I care, but as long as he keeps pumping out sublime jams like the ones on releases like Ascension and Incapulco, life is too beautiful.
High Wolf is but the latest in a long line of French musicians who twist conventions into unique configurations. Below is a short list of other crucial mavericks from the country whose language contains too many silent letters.
JACKY CHALARD: Responsible for the 1974 obscuro gem Je Suis Vivant, Mais J'aipeur de Gilbert Deflez (B-Music), Chalard cut an intrigue-packed psychsploitation soundtrack that could make Quentin Tarantino ejaculate into his collection of Gerardo de León videos.
SERGE GAINSBOURG: An archetypal Ugly Casanova, Gainsbourg was like Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, and Barry White all rolled into one troll-like French Jew. But he could write the hell out of a song. Against great odds, his lugubrious monotone vocal delivery moistened panties worldwide, as he gallivanted through genres—yé-yé, lounge, orchestral rock, folk, reggae, funk, electronic, pop—like a Gallic David Axelrod. Superbly abetted by producer/arranger Jean-Claude Vannier, this sleazy-listening auteur forged enough memorable songs to keep his daughter Charlotte well stocked for life.
HELDON: Heldon, guided by guitarist Richard Pinhas, basically owned the 1970s. They began as cosmique guitarcentric bliss merchants but gradually morphed into something much more fierce by the time albums four through seven—Agneta Nilsson, Une Reve Sans Conséquence Spéciale, Interface, and Stand By—surfaced. With these works, Heldon became menacing sonic cyborgs that conjured ghastly dystopian vistas through demonically throbbing bass, solar-flare guitars (think a panic-stricken Robert Fripp), and synths in agonizing nervous meltdown. They invented a kind of end-times prototechno that the French military should've enlisted for defense purposes. Play Heldon's final quadrilogy when you want to clear the party—and induce mass psychosis in the process.
LARD FREE: Led by saxophonist Gilbert Artman, Lard Free mixed electric-Miles jazz with an expansive, harrowing brand of acid rock. Tracks like "Warinobaril" pay tribute to Bitches Brew, but Lard Free really soar on "Spirale Malax," a 17-minute comet-dust cyclone, a veritable vortex of brain-blasting, post-Xenakis composition that sounds like a new planet being born. Lard Free's ultraheavy downer music somehow lifts you sky-high.
MAGMA: A molten force of energy and invention, Magma leader/drummer Christian Vander created his own oddly guttural language, Kobaïan, to construct an alternate reality around which to build monstrously powerful songs. At their best, Magma blend operatic vocals with John Coltrane–esque fire walls of chaos and beauty. An overwhelming sense of spirituality and Übermensch virtuosity mark Magma's music. Plus, their logo is badass.
JEAN-PIERRE MASSIERA: Massiera is a one-man pseudonym factory. Under dozens of names, this Fellini of the mixing board concocts hugely fun, crazy-angled productions touching on nearly every genre over the moon. While his disco tracks are trés camp, hypersexual romps of maximal pleasure-giving, JPM also flexes ebullient studio wizardry in the prog, psych, garage, and African realms. But check out his Horrific Child guise for a truly mind-fucking audio-collage experience.
SPACECRAFT: Ivan Coaquette and John Livengood made only one album, 1978's Paradoxe, but it's a stone psych monster, instrumental space rock that's trippier than Kubrick's 2001 on DMT.
JEAN-CLAUDE VANNIER: Vannier made a madly experimental orchestral/musique-concrète masterpiece in 1972 titled L'Enfant Assassin des Mouches. It's a perversely dark and disorienting listen—even more impressive than his production/arrangement work on Gainsbourg's classic Histoire de Melody Nelson.
Other French music essentials: Chico Magnetic Band, Alain Markusfeld, Igor Wakhevitch, Fille Qui Mousse, Weidorje, Ilitch, Jean Cohen-Solal, Philippe Besombes, Pataphonie, Tone-Rec, Metal Urbain, Shylock, Catherine Ribeiro & Alpes, Brigitte Fontaine & Areski, Alain Gorageur, Atoll.