Vox Populi!, "Magiques Créations"

Sunday, 21 January 2018 00:00 Anthony D'Amico Reviews - Albums and Singles
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cover imageEver since their cult favorite Half Dead Ganja Music album was reissued back in 2013, I have been fascinated by this deeply unusual "ethno-industrial" duo from France and have done a decent amount of digging to track down the rest of their back catalog.  That has proven to be a somewhat convoluted task, leading to lots of dead blog links as well as a few wonderful unofficial compilations.  In fact, several of the best songs on this new digital-only collection have appeared on those unofficial releases, while some others appear to have come from an untitled 1988 tape.  Curiously, a lot of these experiments spanning 1984 to 1989 are just as good as anything that appeared on Vox Populi's formal albums (in some cases, even better), making this kind of a crucial bit of underground industrial archeology on Emotional Rescue's part.  I suppose motivated or frugal listeners can probably find a lot of these songs elsewhere if they put their minds to it, but this is an extremely well-curated collection that provides an excellent introduction to one of the most creative, cool, and underappreciated bands of the '80s cassette underground.

Emotional Rescue

As with all Vox Populi! releases, the songs compiled on Magiques Créations predominantly feature the core duo of multi-instrumentalist Axel Kyrou and vocalist Mithra Khalatbary, but trying to figure out much beyond that is probably a doomed task (the untitled cassette, for example, credited a third member named  FRG MAN and Axel himself appeared as GNOUF TAP).  It is probably safe to say several of the usual contributors from this era turned up though, such as Mithra's percussionist brother Arash and Pacific 231's Pierre Jolivet.  Additionally, it is similarly hard to tell if this is entirely a studio recording, as several VP releases are mixtures of studio and live work.  For the most part, however, Magiques Créations at least feels entirely like a studio creation–it is certainly somewhat lo-fi at times, but there are a lot of subtle and hallucinatory effects swirling around the periphery that probably would have been lost in a live setting.  In any case, the loose thread that ostensibly holds these otherwise unconnected pieces together is that they chronicle the band's progression towards 1989's Aither, which Emotion Rescue has previously reissued and regard as a high-water mark of sorts.  This collection makes a lot of sense in that context, as there is an increased emphasis on grooves and hooks that was mostly lacking from 1987's murkier, more atmospheric, and ritualistic-sounding Ganja Music.  That said, most of these songs still sound a hell of a lot more like Ganja Music than the cleaner and more conventionally poppy Aither.  The difference is subtle, but Magiques Créations still sounds like an experimental/industrial project with an unexpected talent for hooks and melody, while Aither sounds like an unusual internationalist pop group with some lingering sharp edges.  Also, the palette here is generally still an endearingly primitive one, as the opening "Joue Joue" is just a few wobbly organ chords, a drum machine, a microphone, and some ingenious use of effects and (possibly) tape loops.

I might be imagining this, but I get the strong impression that Kyrou and Khalatbary's home was kind of a popular gathering place for musicians from many disparate backgrounds and that much of their work from this period came out of loosely structured jams that Kyrou later expanded and enhanced.  As a result, there is a pervading sketch-like feel to many of these pieces, which generally unfold as propulsive and vibrant vamps on a single theme rather than compositions with distinct sections or a clear beginning and end.  The delightful flipside to that approach, however, is that the best pieces sound spontaneous and fluid.  Also, their exotic and slow, hazy grooves provide a fertile group for outré experimentation and bold flashes of creativity.  That feature is best exemplified by "Ankaboot," in which roaring engine noises and crunching field recordings fitfully subsume a lazily funky bass and drum machine groove.  Khalatbary's versatile and melodic vocals provide a similarly effective grounding and gravity, alternately imbuing these experiments with playful sensuousness, tender sincerity, or the feeling of a timeless ritual.  In album highlight "Tchi Tchi Vox," for example, Mithra enhances a wonderfully off-kilter and plinking groove with sultry, cooing, and charismatic stream-of-consciousness vocals, yet she sounds like a reverb-swathed traditional Iranian singer in the propulsively throbbing "Jube Man."  Elsewhere, as on "Remembering Ancient Flights," she resembles some kind of ancient priestess, while "Be Modar" feels like a warmly dreamlike lullaby.  In a way, Vox Populi! strike a perfect balance with this album: Kyrou is the restlessly innovative ethno-industrial mad scientist and Mithra is the heart and soul.  Some pieces are certainly weighted more heavily on one side than others, but that essential harmonious coexistence is always present and makes VP's art greater than the sum of its parts.

Magiques Créations has a significant shortcoming, it is merely that it is a grab bag of wonderful ideas that I would have loved to hear explored further.  However, consistency and follow-through were not Vox Populi's greatest strengths during this fertile creative period, as they focused instead on tirelessly forging ahead creatively.  Consequently, I am delighted that these experiments were documented at all and that someone has taken the time to shine a light on some of the underheard gems that got never got the attention they deserved.  Vox Populi has always been an intriguing and unusual project, but this particular era is the one closest to my heart: this is the brief window where they started to become rhythmically inventive and hook-savvy, yet still maintained a primitive and ramshackle DIY charm.  Also, while I very much appreciate the spirit and creativity of these obscure recordings, it should also be noted that this is a legitimately and improbably strong batch of varied material (there are saxophone solos!).  An occasional song perhaps errs a bit towards filler, but the bulk of these eleven pieces are consistently catchy, inventive, and unusual.  If an alternate reality existed in which Dead Can Dance and Bryn Jones teamed up to make a soulful bedroom minimal wave-influenced album in the mid '80s, it would probably sound a lot like this (and I am sure I would like it).  I doubt it would be nearly as effortlessly psychedelic, free-wheeling, and loose-limbed as Magiques Créations though.  Vox Populi were not self-consciously pulling other cultures into their art, nor were they particularly drawn towards darkness.  Instead, they were just distilling what came naturally into something far more lysergic, beautiful, and unreal.   When they got it just right, they sounded like no other band on earth.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 23 January 2018 08:32