review by: %%name=Avi Shaked%%
We've been hearing great things about the annual "Rock In Opposition" festival for a few years now, and this year's lineup was too good to miss, so we headed to the south of France (Midi-Pyrénées) for three days of progressive music.
For the uninitiated, "Rock In Opposition" (or RIO in short) was originally a 1970s movement of avant garde, progressive bands which elaborated not only the rock music palette but also its compositional attitude, and today the term is openly and alternatively used with "avant-rock" to describe forward-thinking artists as well as music which is demanding, typically complex (often "rehearsal intensive," to borrow the description off a Facebook group dedicated to such music) and genre-intolerant, and usually explores and extends the borderline of rock, classical music, modern jazz and just about any other genre that can fit the purpose.
We are well aware of the above absurd, trying to define and confine something which originally tried to break loose of defintions. Luckily, the festival's artistic director did not feel the need to conform with RIO associations, and besides avant-rock legends - such as Univers Zero and Present - the festival offered some surprising and refreshing anomalies such as the noise/alternative rock French band We Insist! and the comic rock trio Poil (whose raw, energetic and lunatic performance was considered to be one the festival's highlights), which helped in making the event all the more diverse.
Before going into details about the performances, we have to say we were pleasantly surprised with the festival's logistics. The location of an indoor venue in Cap'Découverte - a parking area surrounded by nature somewhere between the cities of Carmaux and Albi - was gorgeous: at any time you can go outside the venue and breathe the fresh air, whereas the venue itself was roomy (for the attendance of a few hundreds), and included two concert halls - the bigger one with enough seats to simultaneously accommodate everyone and allow the music to be absorbed as it should be, and a smaller one which that allowed a less formal gathering and the occasional progressive dancing (to the more upbeat performance); as well as a lounge dedicated to chit chats with the artists and merchandise stands and an interview floor which hosted interviews with many of the artists who participated.
One of the highlights of the first day of the festival included Aranis, which performed an articulate set, armed with pianist Pierre Chevalier and for the second half of the set drummer Dave Kerman (both participated on the band's brilliant RoqueForte which we raved about in issue #72).
It was Faust, however, which delivered the festival's most sensual set. Watching Faust in live action is like watching a mad scientist in his lab. The band's performance is about exploration, with experimental music produced in a sort of a jam session by both actual instruments and other tools, being complemented not only with obscure visual sceneries (and we're not just talking about the projected video but also about the group's staging, such as entering the stage wearing horse masks and playing the first number while still wearing them) but also with appropriate scents of the live welding. It was a truly multidisciplinary experience that cannot leave you indifferent.
The Chicago based Cheer-Accident opened the festival's second day. Fronted by the lovely Evelyn Davis the band gave a solid, entertaining and thoughtful performance. Like on records, Cheer-Accident music is not always concise, and we occasionally found ourselves distracted, but this also gives you the notion of a band that is constantly searching, even though they have the pop chops and songwritings skills to win you over.
Univers Zero - one of the original RIO members - followed. Like quite a few of the festival acts that revolve around their drummer - namely Cheer-Accident, the Japanese, jazzy avant-prog trio Korekyojinn (which provided a fair amount of its trademark intoxicating, intricate grooves and brief, engaging melodic statements later that day) and the Norwegian Panzerpappa (which gave a playful yet articulate performance the next day), Univers Zero's music is centered around and conducted by Daniel Denis, whose playing propels the music, both rhythmically and creatively. The band has performed in this festival - which to our understanding enjoys a comparably large number of returning visitors - a few times, and that might have contributed to the decision to leave some of its renowned pieces out of the set list. Regardless, the performance was dark, as expected by anyone who knows the band, but we felt that the current lineup lacked an acoustic string instrument to live up to the chamber music character that is typically attributed to the ensemble, leaving a somewhat stark impression.
After being impressed with the latest Soft Machine Legacy release (covered in this issue) we were highly expecting to see the group in action. So much in fact that we decided to skip most of Poil's show, even though we found the part we attended immediate, highly entertaining and cool (lets face it - most avant rock bands lack that spicy ingredient!), and for us it worked better than on record. Back to the Soft Machine Legacy - it was on the first number the guys did that we felt that something was wrong, or in fact missing. "This cannot be John Marshall playing the drums," we thought, and indeed it wasn't! Marshall fell ill and was replaced, leaving his unique chops dearly missed. Still, the performance was worthwhile, especially due to John Etheridge, whose guitar sound is unmistakably warm and elegant and his playing was captivating and full of emotion - if we had to pick the most valuable player of the festival - it's Etheridge!
Despite all the rewarding, aforementioned performances, it was the US band Mirthkon that closed the second day with a disappointment. We were expecting the band's entertaining material to be all the more lively on stage, but instead we found the band a bit lost: the arrangements were not exciting, the actual performance was not tight (in fact, sometimes it got messy or inaccurate) and try as he might, Wally Scharold is no Frank Zappa, and his seeming attempts of orchestrating the band out of the anchoring compositions did not result in any spontaneous brilliance or humor.
Things did get back on track on the third, final day. Guapo demonstrated more psychedelic Pink Floyd leanings than we remembered it had while at the same time living up to its trademark, thickly moody and intricate blast. Shortly after that sensational set, it was Nullstellensatz - a trio led by trumpet player Jean-Pierre Soarez of Art Zoyd fame - which delivered the festival's most sensitive and transcendent experience. Unlike Art Zoyd, which was actually a member of the RIO movement, the music of Nullstellensatz owed more to free jazz, and while the trio took a significant time to calibrate, it was just before we were about to leave the hall that the players started unleashing a slow, meditative number of unbelievabe beauty and tuneful ambience exploration. We estimate that this last engagement lasted for twenty minutes or so, but it's really hard to say as it left us euphoric.
Later that day we experienced a similar yet different excitement as the mighty Present - in the festival's closing, and arguably most intensely rewarding, set - managed to strike the chords of our soul with its relentless performance, leaving us exhausted but determined to pay this festival another visit.