Ze-Ka’s Ghost Planet (OPA LOKA RECORDS OL1705) is an eerie synth droner which like Bruno Duplant’s unsettling Fictions record (noted here) was inspired by fears and terrors resulting from the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. As world-threatening disasters go, that particular emission of radioactive toxins clearly continues to resonate with artists and activists to this day. Ze-Ka, who is Jean-Philippe Feiss, the French composer, titles his lengthy slow tunes with epithets such as ‘Gold River’, ‘Red Forest’, ‘Oceans’ and such like, which along with the plain front cover artwork will lull the unwary into a false sense of security; but then wait till you open the gatefold and see the grim photos of what I assume is a derelict nuclear reactor, and then try doing something about that lump in your throat. More to the point, listen to the beautiful but disquieting music and see if you manage to get a good night’s sleep this month.
Ze-Ka doesn’t owe a great debt to many modern electronicists, it must be said; while ‘Fission (Tribute to the Liquidators)’ has that kind of severe pared-down throb that might align Ze-Ka to the Cologne clicks-and-cuts brigade, the next cut ‘Gold River’ is much more romantic, allowing mixed chords and conventional modulations to progress its unhurried journey. Both of these approaches make for very compelling listening; it’s hard to leave off, the simplicity and basic repetitions genuinely help stimulate the imagination. “Listen to the music and forget everything,” exhorts press release. Part of this overall effectiveness in design may be due to Feiss’s classical background; he studied at a conservatory, possibly Boulogne-Billancourt, under the cellist Xavier Gagnepain, and then took up studies in jazz and improvisation. The cello is Feiss’s first instrument and he only came to synths ten years ago, while along the way there’s been collaborations, video installation sounds (with Sigalit Landau), his trio Sibiel with cello, bass and guitar, participating in jazz scenes.
Ghost Planet is his first solo release, but what assurance there is in its conception and execution, lending the work a lot of weight. Now that I look again I see it’s a combination of cello playing and synths, which may account for the depth and richness of the sound here. If it were wholly synthetic it might not be as engaging. The cello is most clearly audible to my ears on the ‘Red Forest’ piece, a highly successful meeting point of modern minimalism, simple repetitions and strong technique; Feiss denies any possibility of adding vibrato in the strings, a particular action of classical string players which displeased John Cage so much. ‘Red Forest’ consequently sounds like a cross between American minimalism and industrial electronic death-drones mixed with viola da gamba music from the salon of Louis XV. Very good. From 7th November 2017.