Philippe Besombes

Released 1975 on Pôle
Reviewed by achuma, 13/03/2006ce

This album occupies a very special, weird place in my heart. I first heard it through a friend, who taped it for me from the original vinyl on his dodgy tape deck... When I got it home and played it while tripping on mushrooms, I found that the recording had come out with the speed constantly going up and down, which lent an even creepier air to the creepy bits (a housemate who came up the stairs and past my room at this point was even thoroughly spooked, and she wasn’t tripping!), and for a while I came to know the album in that warped guise. But anyhow, who’s this Besombes guy?

Philippe Besombes was a sonic genius who somehow evaded wider recognition for his music until very recently, with the reissue of most of his 70’s output on MIO. It’s always seemed a shame to me that Richard Pinhas and his band Heldon have been relatively more acclaimed, despite overall being less inventive in the French experimental electronic rock field. Not to knock Pinhas though, he made plenty of great albums in the 70’s. But Besombes is no less deserving of attention, and in my mind, much more so. I like to think I’m his biggest fan, but more likely there are scattered folks all around the world who hold his music in as high regard as I do. The music of his prime 70’s output is some of the most hallucinogenic I’ve ever heard, even more remarkable because Besombes didn’t take any psychedelic drugs, despite what has been implied on at least one on-line write-up. This guy is a sonic genius and aural magician who made music that sounded like he had psilocybin pumping through his veins, but it all came down to his own natural inspiration and curiosity. Believe me when I say that his music is made for psychedelic journeying, even if he didn’t necessarily intend it that way, or do so with any direct knowledge of that kind of thing. A natural shaman who had no need to venture to the other side on chemical sacraments because he was already there, at least through his ears. The music he made in his prime just comes alive, even more so with certain chemical assistance. What potent natural juices this guy had flowing through his brain!
Besombes was a student chemist (no, not that kind of chemistry...) who became more interested in electronic music in the early 70’s, and abandoned his Ph.D studies to further explore this area. Whilst still a student, however, he began making music with a friend, Jean François Dessoliers, using both conventional instruments and primitive electronic equipment borrowed from the nearby physics lab. Calling themselves PJF, they recorded some experimental music from 1970-1971. In 1972 they made music with a ballet company before parting ways as musical partners later that year. Besombes then met Jean Michel Jarre and performed live with him on several occasions. This was well before Jarre had recorded anything and was making more experimental music which we may never hear to redeem him from his better-known path of pleasant mediocrity.
In 1973 Besombes was commissioned to do the soundtrack for an experimental film (‘Libra’) by the Pattern group of directors. The film, which didn’t have any dialogue, went for over 90 minutes and was about four guys living happily isolated in nature, until their idyll is broken by a crashed US satellite, which brings journalists, television crews, and the end of their peace. Judging solely from the completed soundtrack, however, it would seem more suited to accompanying a weird supernatural psychological horror film! It took Besombes a while to assemble appropriate backing musicians, overcome technical difficulties, and wait for funding to arrive, so recording didn’t happen until 1974, in Besombes’ own Studio du Chesnay. The personnel on the recordings was abundant, with Philippe Besombes – synths, claviers, sitar; Patrick Verbeke – lead guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, dobro; Alain Legros – bass, acoustic guitar, voice; Françoise Legros – voice, whistle, ‘bad temper and the rest’ (literal translation from the back cover!); Brigitte Grossin – voice; C. Roulet – drums; A. Martinet – guitar; J. Legras – oiseaux (?); Allan Jack – organ, voice; D. Cambier – bass; Armani, C. Dachez, D. Daure, A. Rébé – cuivres (?); and C. Beaumont, Biscotte, C. Brau, P.J. Knowles, G. Perdriaud, J.D. Umpleby and C. Verbeke – voice.
The release of the soundtrack album on Pôle in 1975 was the beginning of Besombes’ involvement with the label, which would last for another year or so. Around this time Besombes had also begun working with, and learning from in the process, Iannis Xenakis, Luc Ferrari and (briefly) Karlheinz Stockhausen. He was a member of Luc Ferrari’s live group, along with friend Jean-Louis Rizet, which would lead to the Besombes-Rizet collaboration I’ll discuss in a separate review. He also eventually got his Ph.D in 1975, in between all the music-making. You can read more about what he did next in the reviews for ‘Ceci Est Cela’ and ‘Besombes-Rizet’. Now, to the music of ‘Libra’...

‘La Plage’ [2:51] opens the ritual proceedings on a very ominous and creepy note, as unsettling keyboard drones waver, spiky guitar notes stab out a few grim warnings, and an oscillating synth warbles as a female voice babbles wordless panic and psychic meltdown. More soothing angel vocals also underpin it all, aahing wordlessly and sparsely in the back ground all icy cool almost like human mellotron, though hardly acting as a tonic to the overall vibe of spooksville. Weird pinging synths fade in like sheets of brief nitrous oxide dementia, building the dark vibe as the keyboard drone breaks up into fragments and treated guitar scrapes it all down to nothing.
‘Rugby’ [1:54] picks up the pieces with disjointed guitar, bass and drums noodling, very much like a band so tanked they’ve forgotten how to play anything at all, before their brains are splattered across with the wall with a scary treated vocal snarl of whiplash and all mental hell breaks loose. Over a steady bass locked groove and clattering drums alien voices warp and morph like some intergalactic demon baby, as electronics bubble and seethe into every synapse and snap them open in the process. Too soon the groove fades out, though variations on this theme will surface again throughout the album.
‘Theme Grave’ [1:58] enters with a high-pitched electronic signal like a low-key emergency warning, soon joined by a ghostly siren wail, as some kind of treated instrument – hard to tell what – lays down sparse stabs of resonant sound. Soon a slow melody unfolds on multiple keyboards, drums subtly underpinning this sombre development. We’re passengers on Charon’s boat to Hades, and nothing can save us now, as we’re clearly already dead. After such a downer, ‘Ballade en Vélo’ [2:14] is an unexpected respite in its comparitive conventionality. Gentle acoustic and electric guitars twine away with occasional horns adding to the brew, as this melancholy but weirdly cheery tune rolls along like a fond memory of simpler times past, when sanity was something you took for granted. Cheesy but emotionally spot-on and kinda beautiful, and it doesn’t at all outlast its welcome.
‘Les Diapos’ [2:04] picks up the doom and gloom thread of psychic breakdown with more ominous keyboard droning and occasional random deviations of gothic church organ as played by an evil madman. What sounds like the insides of a treated piano being fiddled with, and the occasional echoed snatch of a woman babbling in almost wordless French, contributes further to the feeling of thread-by-thread psychic disintegration, all sounds gelling together in an almost static field of reverbed night terrors.
‘Cérémonie’ [3:19] is lighter in mood, though no less of a serious air, as descending church organ chords are laid down producing a heavenly but dark and despairing atmosphere that’s more early 70’s Pink Floyd than Christian gothic. After a while wordless chants join in over the slow melody, as though lamenting over lost souls, as synths swell and subside in the background like icy winds.
‘Jaune’ [1:51] returns to the ‘Rugby’ theme, only faster, the bass chugging in its malevolent purpose, drums driving it along like the pooka streaking down wet roads under a night sky in black horse guise, as shafts of weird electronic head-fuckery and tape sounds swing further meathooks through your grey matter, all the while as the inside of that piano is being abused again, clanking and clattering jarringly and without regard to natural rhythm. Midway through an alien synth loop winds its way into your skull like a soft drill and the sound of perhaps a highly processed toilet flush washes the bass/drums/electronics down the drain, the loop continuing to the end and stopping suddenly as ‘PJF 261’ [3:19] begins. This track is all shimmering random keyboards, ghostly wordless vocals, snippets of indecipherable conversation and otherworldly electronic treatments, underpinned by a subtle machine drone. It all feels like being held floating in some zero-gravity closed chamber on a space station, as your system is being pumped full of psychedelic drugs and unseen beings monitor the changes in your consciousness behind bubbles of logos.
‘Raggacountry’ [3:12] is a soothing change of pace, as serpentine sitar and acoustic guitar unfold into a garden of delights, birds chattering in the background under a brief splash of sunshine. Initially it’s like some exotic tapestry out of Dzyan’s last album, ‘Electric Silence’, but soon picks up pace as bass and tablas enter and a curious hybrid of Indian sub-raga and country blues guitar winds a path through your heart and mind, rich and vivid as a lucid dream. Synth sounds build in the background, swelling and scattering before the ever-present drone leads straight into a quite unexpected diversion – ‘Boogimmick’ [2:03] – which is, as the title would suggest, a boogie/rock’n’roll jam-out with electronics and weird voices splashing out a colourful web of tripped-out sonics, making it more than just any old retro affair, and ending side 1.
‘Hache 06’ [4:47], opening side 2, is built around a curious bass line that I just love to bits, but can’t come close to describing. After an introductory run-through, expansively phased drums kick in and weird synth tones slip and slide in the surrounding air like phantom gliding birds leaving trails of phosphorescent mist in their wake. Jazzy electric guitar enters too, before they break it down in the middle, all restraint and musical majesty, before it slowly builds and builds to greater twisted heights. This is the kind of music that just keeps opening doors in your mind with gentle persuasion, clouds parting in dark skies to reveal the splendid rays of blinding white light beyond, and then the wax holding your wings together suddenly melts away on a weird ending as you drop quickly back into the womb of disturbed headfuck that this album is obviously full of.
‘Appel de Libra’ [1:10] is more reverbed ghostly, ominous keyboard dronings and wordless chanting layers, giving a bed to the sound of a woman babbling variations on ‘libra’ over and over like she’s in the middle of a belladonna trip stuck in a mind loop, rolling on the floor of a mausoleum gazing in fascination at her own post-cottonmouth copiously dribbling salivary fluids as though she’s discovered the glue that holds it all together – and also lets it all fall apart, as the mood is shattered by a clamour of discordant organ.
‘Poursuite’ [1:18] begins as a drone – yes, an ominous drone of course – fades in and stops suddenly, then again, before the ‘Rugby’ theme re-enters on bass and drums, and the inner-piano abuse continues unabated, creaking and clattering like we’re being stretched on the rack in the gloomy, dank dungeon of the evil madman from before, hallucinogens still pumping through our ravaged brain cells making every twitch and groan come alive in three dimensional colours of psychedelic torment. Not that it’s necessarily painful or unpleasant to listen to – if you’re into this kind of thing so far, mental torment never sounded so good!
‘La Ville’ [4:32] is almost a continuation, but with an entirely different sonic pallette – the bass and drums are still there driving it all, but the bass line is slightly different and more complex, and the drums jazzier and less clattering, as sitar weaves aural illusions, alien voices chatter in one ear before disappearing, all manner of layers of sound sliding around and morphing like a seething witches brew of psychedelic disorientation. Just as it seems the track has faded to a close it returns on chirping electronics, doomy drones and disturbed sitar melancholy, before the alien chirp signals the re-opening of the portal and the original theme returns, only to be similarly interrupted and to return again. Vocal loops reverbed and echoed beyond recognition hover like we’re eavesdropping on some cocktail party conversation where everyone is fucked up on Datura but doesn’t realise anything is amiss, before it all seeps into a malevolent droning storm of sonic headfuck.
‘Les Cosmonautes’ [2:12] is initially quite similar to the opening track ‘La Plage’, creepy and with the same sonic ingredients, but with added deep space atmospherics, 3-D synths winding and growling, sending black hole worms deep into your brain and carving out great tunnels to other dimensions.
‘Avécandista’ [6:00] continues over the now familiar ominous droning and random organ stabs, as a French woman embarks on an emotionally disturbed vocal delivery. I have no idea what she’s on about, but it could be that it’s that same woman still out of her skull on belladonna, having broken out of her ‘libra’ loop, and regardless of the actual verbal content the vocals are unconventional and improvised, but contributing really well to the overall vibe as a further instrument, rather than as actual singing or even a simple spoken monologue. She’s really putting her demented soul into it. There’s no actual tune here to follow, just creepy meanderings over a droning base. This all sounds like it could be unfolding within a church late at night, as part of some arcane ritual involving hallucinogenic dissociatives and dark intent.
‘Tis a Song’ [2:35] closes this remarkable album on an unusual and more positive note, being a slow and conventional (apart from all the nebulous phasing) melancholy ballad that’s like the final part to ‘Ballade en Vélo’, making sure the listener finishes this experience without wanting to go out and slash their wrists (unless this song makes you want to do it through its cheesiness!). The vibe is kind of hopeful and nostalgic, like it’s the end of life’s movie, all (well,most) danger and distress have passed, and it’s time to raise a glass to all friends and foes from some distant past.

‘Libra’ has finally received its due and was reissued on CD in 2004 by MIO. It features sparkling remastered sound, and nearly half an hour’s worth of bonus recordings, all previously unreleased and all worth checking out. The original LP is pretty scarce, though it’s not one of the rarer Pôle releases. Besombes, and this album of his in particular, is also likely to receive a little more recognition through the inclusion of a track from ‘Libra’ on the recent compilation ‘Prog Is Not A Four Letter Word’, which has been turning a few heads. It’s about time this genius received his due recognition from a wider audience beyond the small circle of cult enthusiasts who’ve spoken of his classic albums in hushed tones to their friends and fellow collectors for the past few decades – or kept him a private secret so as not to create competition in searching for his records. Thanks to MIO, there’s now hopefully enough to go around! Unfortunately, though, there are still a few things of his from the late 70’s and early 80’s that haven’t been issued on CD at all and might never be – or at least Besombes has said he has no plans to reissue them.
Big thanks to Philippe Besombes for opening up to a stranger like a friend, and letting me interview him via e-mail with numerous lengthy questions.

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