Vitalic – Flashmob

Vitalic were always pretty noisy. Four years earlier, OK Cowboy had introduced us to a beautifully screechy form of French electronica that really sounded completely unlike anything that had come out before. A decade ago this week, we were celebrating their return, with another round or bristling, squawking chiptune-meets-electro-meets-house.

It opens with See the Sea (Red), which is, as Vitalic fans would have been expecting by now, a catchy, pounding instrumental. It’s a great opener – perhaps not entirely memorable between listens, but one that really throws you back into the middle of it.

Poison Lips was the second single, and adds a vocal, although it’s largely unintelligible. Whereas the preceding track was a catchy synth-based track, this one pounds forward with a huge bass line and understated beats.

This is a long album, and so a bit of filler is probably inevitable. For it to come in the form of the title track is perhaps unexpected, but Flashmob really is something of a disappointment. Overly repetitive, and entirely lacking in any meaningful form of melody, the best you can really say for it is that it would probably sound good in a darkened club with a heavy musk of chemicals in the air.

But we’ve clearly entered the harder, darker section of the album now, as One Above One churns along. In addition to the characteristic howls and screeches, for the first time there’s an intelligible vocal here to enjoy, but unfortunately it gets repeated so many times that it’s hard to really see this as a vocal track.

On it goes. Still is a warped, gloomy electro instrumental, which gradually builds to include softer sounds such as huge pads. Terminateur Benelux, from the lead Disco Terminateur EP is a harsh, somewhat unpleasant, noise piece.

Second Lives was the third and final single, and is much better – a driving, catchy piece with a huge synth lead line. Allan Dellon, which is commonly misspelt online (it appears to refer to Brazillian footballer Allan Dellon rather than French actor Alain Delon), is a sweet instrumental piece with an uneasy but pleasant melody. Then comes another take on the opening track, this time as See the Sea (Blue). This version is a little gentler and a lot more discordant, driven by slightly off-key chimes and a slightly bouncier rhythm than the earlier version.

Then comes the curiously titled Chicken Lady, a rhythmic, beatsy piece with processed, chanted vocals. It’s oddly brilliant, a striking parallel for the album as a whole, and honestly Vitalic‘s work in general. Still no idea what the lyrics are supposed to mean, but never mind.

It seems only right that the album should hit one of its darkest points next, as Your Disco Song turns up with its huge synth lines. It’s not disco, it isn’t really a song, and it certainly isn’t mine, but it’s pretty good, with a huge LFO bass line. Then Station Mir 2099 is traditional Vitalic – quirky, warped synth parts that don’t quite go together but still result in an outcome that’s somehow glorious. After that, there’s just the miniature Chez Septime, and the album is over.

Flashmob may not, ultimately, be everybody’s tasse de thé, but it’s not a bad album either, and definitely not a bad place to get to know Vitalic.

This album is still available, although the physical cost seems a little inflated at the moment – try here for starters.

Vitalic – OK Cowboy

When you start listening to Vitalic‘s debut album OK Cowboy, it really does seem to come out of nowhere – it starts with the blisteringly vigorous and entirely brilliant Polkamatic, and never seems to slow down until it ends, thirteen tracks later.

If you cast your mind back, Vitalic did appear out of nowhere himself, exactly a decade ago, when OK Cowboy was released. In fact, I knew so little about him that it wasn’t until writing this article that I realised there was only one person behind the name – Dijon-based Pascal Arbez-Nicolas. After a few years of minor one-off releases, this album appeared to very little fanfare, and gradually spread by word of mouth.

Poney (Part 1) is the second track, and perhaps it’s a cliché, but it sounds completely unlike anything you’ve ever heard before, with its enormous synth swells and electronic beats. It had originally been the first Vitalic single, back in 2001, alongside a few of the other tracks on the album, and moves things forward here perfectly.

Lead single My Friend Dario is the one thing about this album that might have caught your attention at the time, as it did get some airplay, but it’s actually one of the weaker pieces on here. As is so often the case, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it – it just isn’t quite as good as most of its neighbours.

The brilliantly named Wooo is one such example, and the swing beat should make you want to jump around pretty quickly too. As with many of the tracks here, there’s a beautiful simplicity, and while there isn’t a huge amount in the way of melody, and the vocals are entirely lacking, the chords a couple of minutes in will definitely grab you.

La Rock 01 is another piece taken from the early Poney EP, and it won’t let you go either, as the huge synth backing swells and subsides dramatically, but it’s The Past that turns out to be the most memorable track on the whole of OK Cowboy. Apart from being one of the few with vocals (admittedly obscured under layers of electronic wizardry), its chords come together perfectly, particularly towards the end in the middle eight. On top of all of that, the arrival of the 6/8 rhythm half way through helps on every conceivable level, and you won’t fail to be moved by the power of The Past.

No Fun crops up right in the middle of the album, and regardless of whether your idea of fun agrees with Vitalic‘s, it’s still very catchy, and also, you might finally realise at this point, it’s actually rather noisy too.

Poney (Part 2) appears to have very little in common with the earlier first part, but it’s good too, as is the violently moving Repair Machines. It’s not really until Newman that the quality lapses at all, and even that might just be because it isn’t quite as catchy as everything else – it’s still perfectly good in many ways.

Things start to wind down a little towards the end – the brilliant Trahison is slower, and less noisy, although every bit as eccentric as some of its predecessors, and then U and I, which is a lot more repetitive, but still entirely fitting. It’s only the final track Valetta Fanfares which disappoints a little, and only then because it seems a somewhat anticlimactic ending after the ceaseless brilliance we experienced earlier.

It was only after writing this that I discovered there’s also a bonus hidden track, right at the beginning of the CD, entitled One Million Dollar Studio, which is (a) really good, and (b) completely unlike anything else on the album, so I can’t help but feel a little cheated by only discovering this ten years on. But anyway, you’ve probably got the point by now – OK Cowboy is a very fine debut album, and comes extremely highly recommended.

You can still find OK Cowboy all over the place, and if you can’t track down the double disc version then go for the standard one anyway, as it’s great.

Chart for stowaways – 14 February 2015

Let’s count down this week’s top ten albums:

  1. Marsheaux – A Broken Frame
  2. Vitalic – OK Cowboy
  3. Röyksopp – The Inevitable End
  4. Erasure – Wild!
  5. Erasure – The Violet Flame
  6. Recoil – Liquid
  7. Enigma – A Posteriori
  8. Deep Forest – Music Detected
  9. Saint Etienne – Tales from Turnpike House
  10. Andy Pickford – Terraformer

The invasion of the oldies continues! Dirty Vegas spend their second week at number one on the singles with their cover of Duran Duran‘s Save a Prayer.

Beginner’s guide to Vitalic

If you haven’t come across Vitalic before but like your electronica to be dark and aggressive, or think that this whole “darkwave” thing is pretty exciting, you’re in for a treat. For the last decade, Vitalic have been releasing deep and grimey melodic electronic dance music, and are well worth a listen or three…

Key moments

My Friend Dario from the debut album OK Cowboy – you won’t have heard anything quite like that before. They never really bothered with the charts particularly, but their brand of noisy but melodic electronica is something quite unique.

Where to start

Keep it simples and start at the beginning with OK Cowboy (2005).

What to buy

Work through their back catalogue in order – V Live (2007), Flashmob (2009), and finally Rave Age (2012). You might experience the odd Poney en route (see what I did there?) but there’s also more than enough good quality material to keep you occupied.

Don’t bother with

Vitalic‘s better moments are mainly clustered around the start of their career, so if you start to get bored as you work forward then you could probably call a halt to proceedings.

Hidden treasure

The French double CD version of OK Cowboy features some fun extras, including a live cover version of Warm Leatherette and the new track Candy.

For stowaways

Live – November 2013

Five highlights coming up in the next month or two…

Ultravox

Remember them? Off of the 1980s? They don’t do synths and all that any more, which probably means they’re not as good as they used to be. With limited dates coming up in Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, and London.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Jon Hopkins

Having supported Pet Shop Boys on some of their recent dates, the ambient / chill-out master is back on the road supporting Clark across the USA and Canada this month, followed by some odd dates in Australia and the UK in subsequent months.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Vitalic

The crazy French dance troupe are currently mid-tour, hitting up Switzerland and France in coming weeks.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Sigur Rós

Fresh out of the cold north and touring over the next few weeks in Ireland and the UK, followed by Luxembourg, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

Full list of dates at Songkick

Happy Mondays

Nearly  a quarter of a century on, Happy Mondays are back with a mini-tour of the UK going on.

Full list of dates at Songkick

The Stowaway Awards 2013 – Nominations

Awards season is upon us! To celebrate, here are the nominations for our own ceremony, the Stowaway Awards. You already know the results of the Best Track thanks to our countdown the other week, so we’ll just cover the exciting awards.

Best Album

Last year’s winner was Credo by The Human League. The nominees:

  • Air – Le Voyage dans la Lune
  • Apollo 440 – The Future’s What it Used to Be
  • Delerium – Music Box Opera
  • Hot Chip – In Our Heads
  • Metroland – Mind the Gap
  • Pet Shop Boys – Elysium
  • The Presets – Pacifica
  • Saint Etienne – Words and Music by Saint Etienne
  • Sébastien Tellier – My God is Blue
  • Soulsavers – The Light the Dead See

Best Remix

Last year’s winner was Personal Jesus (The Stargate Mix) by Depeche Mode. The nominees:

  • Gossip – Move in the Right Direction (CSS Remix)
  • Jean Michel Jarre – La Cage (Vitalic Rmx)
  • Ladyhawke – Blue Eyes (Ron Flieger Remix)
  • Tycho – Dive (Keep Shelly in Athens Remix)
  • Van She – Jamaica (Mad Professor Dub)

Best Live Act

Last year’s winners were Sparks. The nominees:

  • Gotye
  • Justice
  • Keep Shelly in Athens
  • M83
  • Madness

Best Newcomer

Last year’s winner was Kavinsky. The nominees:

  • Bim
  • The Good Natured
  • Gotye
  • Metroland
  • Soulsavers

Best Artist

Last year’s winners were The Human League. The nominees:

  • Apollo 440
  • Hot Chip
  • I Monster
  • Metroland
  • Pet Shop Boys
  • The Presets
  • Saint Etienne
  • Sébastien Tellier
  • Shit Robot
  • Soulsavers

The full and exciting ceremony will take place in mid-February. Next week, we’ll start looking in detail at what’s been going on at the Brit Awards.

Vitalic – Rave Age

“Quick,” said absolutely everybody who is any good, “We’d better release our new album while it’s still 2012!”

And so they did. The latest offender of the last-minute rush to get their album on the shelves is Vitalic, who are back with a new album called Rave Age. After the excellent OK Cowboy and the marginally less excellent Flashmob, I think you’re allowed to have high expectations. Here’s a track called Stamina:

You can also download another one for free called No More Sleep from their record label’s Soundcloud.

Jean Michel Jarre – Essentials & Rarities

As always I’m a little bit late to the party, but on a recent European trip I finally managed to get my hands on Jean Michel Jarre‘s Essentials & Rarities box set.

For me, Jean Michel has a slightly chequered musical history. After some fun (and often silly) experimental works in the early seventies (more on those later), he seriously kicked arse for a five year period with Oxygène, Équinoxe and maybe to a lesser degree Les Chants Magnétiques. The eighties seemed to be characterised by a struggle to regain his individual identity without simply repeating himself. His moments of ingenuity (Rendez-Vous) were peppered with more patchy releases (Zoolook and En Attendant Cousteau) and a couple of largely unfathomable ones (Musique pour Supermarché and Revolutions). And a huge volume of live albums, some of which make for more entertaining listening than others.

By the 1990s, he was officially A Legend, and seemed a lot more comfortable with the label. Chronologie and Oxygène 7-13 are both wonderful, but both bring with them an acceptance that “this” was the sound for which he is going to be remembered. Metamorphoses is the slight exception, in which he brought together experimental and pop elements perfectly to create an album which was an almost complete commercial disaster. Hence the subsequent experimental years which followed, with some of his most exceptional albums, such as Sessions 2000 and Geometry of Love, which went almost entirely unheard by the world at large. Oh, and then there was Téo & Téa. Erm…

Anyway, it’s essentially (yes indeed) a double CD set containing two completely separate albums: another “best of” compilation, and a set of very odd early tracks. I think there’s probably some value in comparing the first CD with its neighbours before we do anything else, and just to confuse us mere mortals, most of them have exactly the same name…

  1. The Essential, also known by the rather better alternative name Musik aus Zeit und Raum (1983) is basically a set of highlights from the first six or seven years of his career, and basically contains snippets from the entirety of Oxygène, Équinoxe and Les Chants Magnétiques as well as a few bits and bobs from Les Concerts en Chine. It all works, as you might expect, but there’s something ultimately very unsatisfying about only hearing three or four minute snippets of these albums. It also suffers horribly from the perils of early CD mastering, so the sound is pretty empty to say the least, particularly when compared to the wonderful remastered versions of the late 1990s. Its main saving grace, however, is the beautiful 7″ version of Orient Express, and on balance I’m very glad that I own a copy.
  2. Images (1991). The one to own here is the 1997 remaster, which plops on all the secret bonus tracks from all the previously different versions. Admittedly, this leaves it with rather too many tracks, but everything you’ll ever want is near the front, so you’ll be very relaxed for half an hour or so before you find you need to start jabbing the skip button. The mid-album lull kicks in with a bunch of previously unreleased tracks: Moon MachineEldorado, and Globe Trotter, none of which are especially breathtaking, and then it continues through some of his less interesting mid-eighties tracks before closing with Second Rendez-Vous.
  3. The Essential (with the red cover) (2004) seems to have been snuck out by his former friends at Disques Dreyfus, and for some reason I’ve never actually ended up with a copy. Looking at the track listing, it seems fairly pedestrian – there aren’t many surprises on there. The more contemporary tracks, Chronologie (Part 4)Oxygène (Part 8) and C’est la Vie (the latter from Metamorphoses) are oddly surrounded by earlier works, which I can’t help but suspect must make for a slightly odd listening experience, but without hearing it, it’s difficult to say.
  4. The oddest of all of them, AeroAéro or AERO (also 2004), which you can choose to listen to on olde-fashioned “compact disc”, or alternatively you may prefer to watch a DVD of the music with an extremely creepy pair of eyes watching you – it’s your choice really. The best way to think of this album is as a live set – Jean Michel basically recreated the contents for listening in 5.1 surround. There’s a fairly standard batch of “original” tracks from the 1970s, broken up with some distinctly odd new tracks with names like AerosolAeronoxe, and Aerogène.

This time around, you get the distinctly odd Souvenir of China at the top, before launching into a whole bunch of Oxygènes and Équinoxes with zeal. He still has a nasty habit of fading out my personal favourite Oxygène (Part II) before it gets interesting. Most of the ‘essential’ tracks are on there, and there are some nice surprises as well such as Arpegiateur and Calypso (Part 2). Where it suffers is from having multiple tracks from Les Concerts en Chine, while forgetting entire swathes of his later career, although the cynic in me suspects that this may be because these were released by a different record company in the first place.

On balance, though, by sticking to simple rules such as “his early years were his best” and “stick to about fifteen tracks”, this tribute to Francis Dreyfus actually tends towards being the best of Jean Michel’s many compilations, which as tradition now dictates must contain the word Essential. There’s a brief low point in the middle when the choice of tracks starts to falter, and I might have chosen to trim the admittedly lovely Space of Freedom in favour of more Équinoxe (Part IV), but these are all minor niggles really.

Which just leaves us with the Rarities album. Like a lot of people, I was very pleased in 2003 when Jarre finally re-released his 1973 soundtrack album Les Granges Brûlées. Until I heard it, of course. Both this and his debut album Deserted Palace (1972), which I obviously haven’t heard because that would be illegal, have hints of brilliance such as La Chanson des Granges Brûlées, but are mainly fairly dull, and in a couple of cases utterly awful (I’m looking at you, Zig-Zag). So it was with some caution that I approached the Rarities album.

But I’m pleased to report that it’s actually pretty good. As you might expect, you get a bunch of stuff from Deserted Palace and Les Granges Brûlées, as well as his first single La Cage / Erosmachine (1969) in its entirety, early single tracks Hypnose and Black Bird (both 1973) and another early oddity Happiness is a Sad Song (1969). He also had the common sense to omit the bloody awful Freedom Day (1972, see below).

As you might expect, the compilation is hard work to listen to, so it’s worth treating with a little caution. A lot of the tracks are very avant garde, and many lack obvious hooks. At worst, though, they never stop being interesting, and there are some wonderful gems hidden in there if you give them time to show themselves.

The real pay-off comes right at the end of the album, in the shape of a newly remixed version of the La Cage / Erosmachine single by modern-day geniuses Vitalic, who have reshaped the tracks with their contemporary experimental sound and turned them into something utterly wonderful. It might have made a nice circularity if these had received their own release as a 7″ single, but you can’t have everything I suppose.

Overall: Essentials is pretty much essential, and Rarities is also worth hearing, although you might not want to keep it in the car. And as we all suspected, Jean Michel Jarre is definitely the godfather of electronic music.

Since Jarre couldn’t be bothered including it on this set, here’s a taste of his early years with Freedom Day:

You can get both Essentials and Rarities together in a lovely box from places like Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, or alternatively skip the Essentials bit and just get the Rarities album on its own from iTunes and the like.