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Lise Barkas & Lisa Käuffert, "Lo Becat"

Lo BecatThis album is definitely one of the more unlikely underground hits to cross my path in recent memory, as this strikingly unique bagpipe performance first quietly surfaced as an extremely limited CDr back in 2017 on Strasbourg's Soleils Bleus label. Last year, however, it got a well-deserved vinyl resurrection on Belgium's forward-thinking Morc Records and it sold out almost immediately (as did last month's repress, unsurprisingly). Notably, the bagpipe has historically not been my favorite instrument, but I've said the same thing in the past about harps and harpsichords only to have my mind blown by Joanna Newsom, Mary Lattimore, and Catherine Christer Hennix, so this is merely the latest revelation that any instrument can sound amazing in the right hands. I also never expected the French traditional music scene to be the source of so many stellar contemporary albums, yet Lise and Lisa have just joined my personal pantheon of Gallic folkies (France, Tanz Mein Herz, etc.) who have dropped killer left-field psych gems in recent years. That is an especially impressive feat for Kaüffert, given that she is a German bagpiper.

Soleils Bleus/Morc

As far as I can tell, Lo Becat was originally recorded back in 2016 for a radio broadcast, but Lise and Lisa have been playing together as a duo since 2014. While Kaüffert's own origin story remains a mystery to me, Barkas' journey to traditional music amusingly began via Coil, as she was entranced by Cliff Stapleton's hurdy-gurdy playing. That eventually led her to the music of France's Yann Gourdon and her involvement in more traditional fare, but that was mostly because there is a lot more demand for bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy players in the traditional/folk music scenes than in the experimental one (Coil is no longer hiring, I'm afraid). In the years since, however, Barkas and her like-minded friends have carved out a unique niche through the band L'Écluse (Kaüffert is also a member) and collectives like Kreis. Unsurprisingly, Lo Becat is the appropriately unusual fruit of a union between two avant-garde-minded bagpipers with one foot in traditional music circles, as it is essentially a loose fantasia upon an old ballad entitled "la belle va au jardin des amours" (Beauty Goes To The Garden of Love) that segues into a folk dance. Neither of the two pieces incorporated into Lo Becat are familiar to me as an American, of course, but I doubt a dueling bagpipe version of either would be recognizable to many French people either. That said, a timeless and beloved melody is always a solid foundation for adventurous experimentation or improv.

While the central melody is indeed a lovely and haunting one, the real magic of Lo Becat lies in the execution, as the two bagpipes organically drift back and forth between intertwining melodies and an eerily harmonized unison. Ironically, the album feels like a dance long before it incorporates the actual dance piece, as each piper seems to be independently playing something quite beautiful with their own cool flourishes, yet the two halves fluidly and sensuously merge again and again to form otherworldly harmonies. Aside from that, there is also a subtle psychedelic haziness and a host of fleeting nods to everything from free-jazz intensity to the repeating patterns of Reichian minimalism. The latter proves to be especially useful, as Morc's reissue splits the original 25-minute recording into two halves for the vinyl format, but manages to do it quite seamlessly due to a stretch that resembles a locked groove.

To the duo's credit, none of their forays into wilder and more experimental terrain ever feel self-conscious, as Lo Becat always feels like a killer performance that is alternately frayed, fiery, and churning in service of a thoughtful dynamic arc. Hell, even the inherent shrillness of bagpipes works in the pair's favor, as it gives the melody a viscerally anguished-sounding edge that only enhances the melody's inherent beauty. Throughout it all, I am reminded of Charles Bukowski's famous dismissal of Camus: he preferred "somebody who screamed when they burned." Unlike the hapless and presumably long-forgotten Albert Camus, Barkas and Kaüffert manage to unleash a fiery intensity that leaves one hell of a deep impression and they did not waste any time doing it. More importantly, the two ladies had the good sense not to linger around once they achieved that dazzling feat: Lo Becat is 25-minutes of pure fire without a single lull or hint of filler in sight (and their masterful interplay keeps the performance compelling long after that initial impression dissipates).

Listen here.