Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Richard Pinhas – Desolation Row – Cuneiform

A pioneer in experimental electronic music creates an auditory tempest.

Published on August 5, 2013

Richard Pinhas – Desolation Row – Cuneiform Rune 366, 77:59 [5/21/13] ***1/2:

(Richard Pinhas – guitar, electronics; Oren Ambarchi – drums, guitar, electronics; Lasse Marhaug – electronics, noise; Duncan Nilsson – electronics, noise; Etienne Jaumet – analog synthesizer, saxophone; Noël Akchoté – stereo guitars; Eric Borelva – drums)

Avant-garde electronic music necessarily has a cult audience. Amongst those who are part of the unusual genre is Frenchman Richard Pinhas, who turned from philosophy (he earned a PhD from the Sorbonne) to electronic music: he co-founded and/or fronted two influential bands in the 1970s: prog-rockers Heldon and likeminded Schizo. Pinhas began issuing solo records in the late 1970s: several have been re-released by the Cuneiform label. Many of his previous projects centered on science fiction and related themes (Frank Herbert and Philip K. Dick were his inspirations), but on Pinhas’ latest Cuneiform outing, Desolation Row (which may or may not be titled after the Bob Dylan song), he focuses on 21st-century topics such as corporate greed, media manipulation, government eavesdropping and the loss of democratic ideals. Pinhas discusses his current venture during a three-minute, online, promo video (note: there are no subtitles, only those who know French will understand Pinhas’ statements).

The single-word names for the tracks don’t convey Pinhas’ uncertainties about the present and future, but the cascading and often bellicose instrumentals do express anger, rebellion and defiance. The tumultuous opener, the 16-minute mini-riot called “North,” is an avalanching sonic maelstrom. Initially, there is a rooted drum rhythm, while overlapping electronics rise up, and squalling guitar also incrementally but forcefully increases. Pinhas’ digitally-modulated inflection dials up the noise into a concentrated soundscape, where the repetitive beat is subsumed by freely-improvised electronic uproar. This is the result of turning “white noise” into a tempest. On the nine-minute “South” Pinhas and his collaborators craft a texturally stringent drone, akin to Peter Namlook’s brasher aspects mixed with components borrowed from Sunn 0)))’s [evidently not a typo!...Ed.] heavy-noise terrain. Drummer and guitarist Oren Ambarchi, who has worked with Sunn 0))), delivers aggressive assistance. Jazz-esque drums and an extended guitar solo add assertiveness.

Shapes are also employed as tune designations. “Square,” (another nine-minute piece) is the closest Pinhas gets to recognizable rock material. A shuffling but slightly fragmented drum beat holds an essential groundwork and doubled (or possibly tripled) guitars provide a riff-based route. The electronic stretches are lowered at times, which allows breathing room and space for listeners to examine the layered guitars. The thickly-processed “Circle” pursues an insistent groove, but the pulse is steadily submerged beneath a bombardment of effects, delays, loops and other electronically-altered audio signals, until there is only a scarcely observable beat. Before the four-minute mark, a wave of industrially-inclined mire becomes the track’s nucleus. There is no traditional song structure or melody, mainly just a specific, reiterating guitar chord which follows the digitally-intense, electronic howl.

The album’s lengthiest number is the almost 19-minute centerpiece, “Moog,” where Pinhas liberally uses ‘70s-styled analog synths. At times, Pinhas fashions music which echoes Jean Michel Jarre’s compositional style and rhythmic movements, particularly with surging oscillations and prolonged pulsations. The cyclic sequencer sound also hints at early-‘70s Tangerine Dream, but Pinhas’ avant-garde tendencies engender an outcome more abrasive. Etienne Jaumet’s atmospherically-treated saxophone has a brief spotlight, before churning electronics take over, and the epic transforms temporarily into a fierce assemblage. “Moog” concludes with the circular synth pattern which begins “Moog.” Pinhas and his avant-garde allies finish with the aptly-termed “Drone 1,” a 16-minute noise-fest which is tautly blanketed by a constant yet regularly modifying analog synth arpeggio, piercing and ear-wrenching guitar gusts, and a dense collation of ominous, escalating noise which generates unremitting tension. Desolation Row is not for the inexperienced audiophile. Pinhas’ unconventional electronic compositions are not meant for the uninitiated.  Desolation Row can be an exhausting journey, but the album is worth discovering for fans of open-ended, experimental noise-rock.

TrackList: North; Square; South; Moog; Circle; Drone 1.

—Doug Simpson




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