Indifferent cover art, banal title – but the music on Actions Soniques (VAND’OEUVRE VDO1850) deserves a curious lugger or two bent in its direction. All French; the “actions” were led by the guitarist Dominique Répécaud, familiarly called “Ana Ban”, who happened to be a director at CCAM and managed the Musique Action Festival in Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy and was also associated with 33RevPermi. He’s played on some 40 releases since 1986, often as part of the group Soixante Étages. For this record, he’s joined by Daunik Lazro (baritone sax player) and Kristoff K. Roll, a monicker which conceals the identities of two electronics players – J-Kristoff Camps and Carole Rieussec. The secret weapon is the voice of Géraldine Keller; she may not appear on every single minute of the album, but when she does she exudes a tone of venomous dimensions, as if spitting poison bile at her enemies through pursed lips, as she generates her inspired improv-babble of gibberish.
On the surface, this record looks like it’s going to pan out into a reasonable hunk of free improv – the instrumentation, especially the sax, fits that profile, as do the electronic-wielding part of the act, who tip the balance towards the EAI genre of yesteryear. However, it’s clear that Répécaud has other ideas. His axe-work frequently becomes dark, gritty and heavy (without ever once turning into an ersatz Sonic Youth), and it’s through his efforts that moments of Actions Soniques are pulled away from the improv arena and dragged unwillingly into the realms of industrial skroink and meandering art-noise. If he could get a better rockier amp, no doubt he could tip the scale over into the doom-stoner genre too. But despite his love of abrasive grind and lurching shocks, Répécaud never dominates the scene and lets the other performers elbow into these vignettes. I use this word because most of the cuts are quite short, and the brevity of the set is a welcome relief from the 15-minute or longer workouts which some performers seem to favour these days.
This shortness is one thing that lends the cuts their very mysterious, inconclusive air; listen as one might, one feels no better informed about anything after hearing these strange maundering sojourns in foggy, unknown zones. The players all venture into the charmed circle with a hesitant step, eyes wide with consternation, unsure what they will find; quite the opposite to some grand-master of free music confidently striding into the colosseum before slaying 15 bears and tigers. The press notes describe this release as “an electric and expressive energy” and “full of imagery”; yet my take is somewhat different. The energy is there, just diffused and distributed in weird ways; and rather than concrete imagery, what I find is ambiguity and unusual moods. Rather than “actions”, the record seems to propose “pensées”, ruminations about where we find ourselves and what we should do next. None of these characteristics are bad by any means, and the group make it all work in their favour. From 8th August 2018.