Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Philippe Besombes
Ceci est Cela (aka Besombes)

Released 1979 on Divox
Reviewed by achuma, 13/03/2006ce

After the ‘Besombes-Rizet/Pôle’ album (see separate review), Besombes returned to working with Luc Ferrari and making music for contemporary ballet and the Groupe de Recherche Théâtrale de l’Opéra de Paris, when he could find the time. But, tiring of this, he bought some new synths and formed Hydravion (‘Seaplane’) in 1977, with the intention of going in more of an electronic rock direction. This group met with great commercial success in France, and they played live frequently, although the group line-up changed a lot. One memorable gig for Besombes was at a sky station, backed by classical musicians! Hydravion made two albums – ‘Hydravion’ [Cobra, 1978] and ‘Stratos Airlines’ [Carrere, 1980] – the first of which was the best, but still nowhere near as good or radical as his earlier work, including the album under review here.
It’s easy to imagine some bits of the Hydravion music being used for French television in the late 70’s, as much of it was, oddly enough (all tracks were used, according to Besombes – generally for sports, current affairs, news themes and the like – though I have to doubt whether they used the entire tracks, but rather the more accessible sections of each). Some of the cheesy synth rock sounds very dated and immediately reminiscent of the era in which it was born (oddly far more dated than Besombes’ more vintage music, which has barely dated at all), but dedicated synth music fans and hardcore Besombes worshippers will be able to lap it up with an amiable grin, as the whole album is by no means a commercial affair, and even the accessible bits are weirdly catchy. Many of the tracks still exhibited Besombes’ madcap unpredictability, and there are some great tripped-out diversions to be enjoyed that are hard to imagine encountering on mainstream television of the time! I do really like the first Hydravion album despite it not being as great as Besombes’ classic stuff; I haven’t yet heard the second Besombes album, which is reputedly not as good.

After forming Hydravion, Besombes was approached by the Divox label to release a solo album – which would be ‘Ceci est Cela’ – and he moved his studio to where it is to this day, changing its name to Versailles Station. This album collected some previously unreleased recordings Besombes had made for ballet and theatre since the early 70’s, with the addition of a more commercial track – the amusing and very cheesy disco joke song ‘Princess Lolita’ – following the misguided request for a ‘hit’ from Divox. The remainder of the album is prime experimental electroacoustic headfuck, different to his previous releases but still totally unique (though perhaps with hints of some Luc Ferrari in places, which is unsurprising given that they were making music together) and still likely to appeal to fans of ‘Libra’ and the Besombes-Rizet collaboration. Some people regard this as his best album, although I’m hard-pressed to choose a favourite between this and the previous two. I love it all! As I’ve said in the previous two reviews, I think Philippe Besombes, on the basis of these three albums, is one of the greatest electronic musicians and sonic creative genii that we have ever had, and he deserves greater recognition for his obscure accomplishments.

‘Princess Lolita’ [3:32], as I said above, was made solely due to the record company insisting on a track that could be used as a potential hit single. What were they thinking? Although this track in no way sits easily next to the remainder of the album, nor indicates what is to come, it’s pretty fun all the same and makes the record all the more diverse in its scope. What you get in this opening track is a funky disco groove on bass and drums, ridiculous male and female vocals, grotesquely slowed down and sped up respectively, alternately cheesy and trippy disco synth moves, cool handclap rhythms on the chorus breakdown, and a hilarious “nya nya nya nana na na na” schoolgirl chant. It’s all just so silly and obviously tongue-in-cheek that you can’t take it seriously, but you can both laugh at it/with it and dance to it, as it’s goofily catchy and grooved as well.
‘Géant’ [4:32] gets down to business with some more typical Besombes music, a semi-static gravity field of blobby throbbing synth clusters, mellotron and what sounds like a shimmering Theremin laying down an expansive, hovering cloud of beautiful soaring psychedelic gloom.
‘Pawa 1’ [12:09] follows with a crack of thunder that breaks up and keeps scattering like messy shards across the night sky, or maybe it’s the sound of a jet breaking the speed of sound and then dropping immediately back, again and again... it soon develops into a shuddering loop joined with synchronous atonal synth globs, before gracing us with a few moments of silence, making me think the track is over already. But no, read the playing time, it can’t be, and it isn’t, soon fading back in with sweeping wafts of droning electronic sound and processed human chanting, gliding across vast empty space like a solitary, lonely bird of portent. This builds and builds in tension as the sounds space out more and more, the pitch gradually steps up in subtle progressions, before petering out on a peak and flowing seamlessly into a forest of echoing electronics, through which a slow, emotionless but organic sequencer throb carries as though always having existed, like the subtle pulse of blood through cosmic veins. A strange, treated one-way conversation emerges, what sounds like a voluptuous and vivacious French girl speaking poor English, buzzing hard as acid kicks in and turns knees and stomach watery, but continuing to try to talk and occasionally falling into goofy, spunky laughter as technicolor rainbows spray across the room. This gets weirder and weirder, then suddenly POW! another portal slides open in 5 dimensions and with a gleeful “wooooo!” of multitracked women we slide through the hole and into an inner fun-world, jumpy synth sequences bouncing away all hyperactive and stoned, synth tones boing like springs and a joyous room full of happily chatting and laughing girls all talk at once, meshing into a non-threatening but overwhelming metropolitan acid party cyber cocktail extravaganza for the last couple of minutes of the track.
‘Ceci est Cela’ [14:41] begins side 2 gently and gorgeously, a slow subsonic ticking pulse upholding a smooth heavenly miasma of angel echoed flute, mellotron, feather brush sand dune synth palettes and gently trickling electronic cascades of sound. A few minutes later it all changes suddenly and almost imperceptively, all disappearing save the pulse, now more prominent and complex and less subsonic, as heavily treated French voices do strange things from ear to ear and random sporadic runs on the keyboards gradually coalesce into something with more form, albeit mysterious and ambiguous, all the elements of the whole shifting in and out of focus, morphing and giving birth to new elements that crawl around the nooks and crannies growing deep into your brain. Then it all speeds up suddenly, shifting into a chaotic gear before dropping us down into a murky underworld shadow of what came before, and receding, leaving us all alone, in almost total darkness, in the middle of fucking nowhere. Wait, what’s that, some kind of light and sound approaching? As uneasy drones groan, swell and hum, great washes of dusty wind sweep all around, greased sax squeaks and mowls, stopping and starting, joined also with glintzy, cheesy synth keyboard, a jarring two-note riff not really played in any regular rhythm. Shit, it’s a spaceship descending from above, not an approaching car, and as rolling drums step out of the dust and rage into the mix, it all picks up and starts spinning around in a vortex, as you are beamed up by Scotty, that ridiculous two-note keyboard riff going overboard like a little kid fascinated by repeating the same new swear word over and over again. Just as it seems like the beam-up must have fucked-up, you find yourself all of a sudden standing in a totally different world again, this time naked within a glass tube as alien children giggle, point and talk about you to each other, now a temporarily trapped zoological exhibit snatched from the planet you called home and they called a stopover, as a laboratory of electronics gabble in work around you. Then slipping away again, some narcotic substance taking effect as all that’s left are the children’s voices, getting more and more echoed and fucked up and distant as you slip out of this consciousness and emerge as a gloopy syrup ready for the next one.
‘Seul’ [5:08] is a slowly progressing submerged world of out of focus narcotic lumpen shapes, groaning and crawling sluggishly along in a strange sprawl, as percussion picks out a jungle rhythm beneath. Wet squelchy splashes of synth liquid squirt in toothpaste streams as though reverbing within a subterranean cave, dripping profusely from the ceilings, echoing off the walls and exuding nitrous oxide from the cracks between the rocks. After a while this begins to dull the senses as sounds gradually strip away and you groggily drop into semi-conscious slumber.

This album was recently reissued on CD for the first time by MIO, which is especially great because this is by far one of the rarest Besombes albums and the hardest to find on LP. Presumably because of being embarrassed by its existence, the first track – ‘Princess Lolita’ – is indexed as track 0 on the CD, and to hear it you have to press play and then rewind until the start of the track (which plays in the negative time preceding track 1). However, if you go just that bit too far it just resets back to zero and you have to try again. Also, annoyingly, it doesn’t play on the DVD player I’m currently using to play my CDs! It won’t let me go into the negative time. There’s not any reason bar vanity to have done this, as I’m sure many buyers of this CD will want to hear the whole album as it was originally, as I do, and if they don’t want to hear the first track again they could always have started from track 2 on subsequent listens. Although it’s totally different to the rest of the album, and is unfortunately embarrassing to its creator, I think ‘Princess Lolita’ is pretty cool and always makes me grin!
The recent CD reissue also features an album’s worth of previously unreleased recordings from 1972-1976, including 2 tracks by his old duo PJF (see ‘Libra’ review). This extra stuff is all excellent, but rather than try to describe any of it (which would be difficult anyway, and I’ve found these Besombes reviews difficult enough in trying to convey the music in words), I’ll leave it to surprise you if you buy it. Some of it sounds like out-takes or alternate mixes from the ‘Libra’ sessions. Incidentally, the CD reissue mis-spells the album title as ‘Cesi est Cela’, but the track of the same name has what I think is the correct spelling (Ceci est Cela).

After breaking up Hydravion at the start of the 80’s, Besombes made the album ‘La Guerre des Animaux’ [1982], and contributed some music to the various artists LP ‘City & Industry’ [1983], which also featured Bernard Paganotti (Magma, Weidorje, Paga Group) and Gilbert Artman (Clearlight, Lard Free, Urban Sax, Catalogue). I haven’t come across either of these records yet – if anyone reading this has or does, and can make me a copy (I’m happy to trade for rare un-reissued stuff), please let me know!
Besombes also continued to produce and engineer for other bands and solo artists, as he has since the late 70’s, sometimes working with groups as unexpected as Manowar and Whitesnake! He also started his own label which releases mainly French hard rock and metal, and released a techno/electro album under the pseudonym of Arno du Chesnay. His most recent recording project has been with the group Rondinara, with 6 CDs of beautiful music made for babies! Besombes also managed to slip in a solo album of sorts in 1999 without many people noticing, when Sony France approached him to do an album as part of their ‘Musique & Nature’ series of mood music CD’s. Each album in the series has some kind of theme, like ‘Oceania’ or ‘Extase’. Besombes did one for the theme of ‘Cosmos’, appropriately, subtitled ‘Mélodie de l’Espace et des Étoiles’. He’s been discreet about it, doing it all under the pseudonym of A. Boréalis and giving only P. Besombes as the composer of each track (not even giving his whole first name), although these names only appear inside the cover booklet and not on any external part of the package, so searching the internet or even the Sony France website for a Philippe Besombes album called ‘Cosmos’ will probably not get you far if you don’t bear this in mind. The music is pleasant ambient cosmic synth, only occasionally a little experimental, and occasionally cheesy on a few short tracks, but largely unclichéd, lovely stuff. Just don’t expect anything too close to his radical visionary 70’s work!

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