Catherine Ribeiro+Alpes—
No. 2

Released 1970 on Festival
The Seth Man, December 2007ce
The first album by the French group Catherine Ribeiro+Alpes was the oddly named “No. 2.” Titled as such to tie-in with their previous incarnation as the short-lived Catherine Ribeiro+2 Bis, after this lineup recorded their sole effort for Festival Records, Ribeiro and husband Patrice Moullet disbanded 2 Bis and reassembled as the re-named Catherine Ribeiro+Alpes with the addition of Denis Cohen on percussion and organ. What they achieved as a trio was light years ahead of 2 Bis for “No. 2” sounds the result of an ensemble far larger, stronger, wiser and prone to experimentation. With the playing field emptied of their earlier folk-rock ruminations, Moullet was allowed to impose an uncompromised musical vision with his own self-made instruments. Yielding previously unheard sounds, they assisted in building up repetitive layers of rhythmic motifs to provide contrast to Ribeiro’s vocals, located in a similar no-woman’s zone as Nico’s on her then-recent album, “The Marble Index.” Perhaps it was their shared past lives as actresses (Nico in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” Ribeiro in Godard’s “Les Carabiners”) eternal expatriate outsiders (the German-born Nico relocating to New York City and many points in Europe while Ribeiro was born in Lyon, France to working class Portuguese parents) or the drama of their existences as young and strikingly beautiful European artistes coming of age during the chaos of the sixties/seventies cusp -- A chaos they both navigated with more than a great degree of poise and forbearance.

They were similar only because they were both so unique, but in entirely different ways. Apart from exploring far darker themes than those of most female singer-songwriters of the day, as much as Ribeiro descended into realms just as dark and experimental as Nico, the comparisons end there. For Ribeiro’s alto vocals were far more demonstrative -- as well as stark, dark and brimming with full timbre textured like wood grain and draped in mysteries of brooding anguish as they emanated from her symmetrical head fixed to her statuesque frame. Her voice was beautifully controlled only until it descended unevenly into shrieking and wailing as if unhinging itself not only from the song but existence as well. Singing in French, Ribeiro’s voice soars, whispers, breaks into screams, cracks open the sky and passionately scales the heights of her Alpine-ranged emotions that peaked dramatically as if to darken the very summit of Mount Blanc itself. Her whole heart is in every modulation of every consonant while her commitment to her words that nested inside the arrangements of husband Patrice Moullet suggested a personal and artistic relationship that was complementary in every way.

As the sole musical composer of the group, Patrice Moullet not only created Alpes’ musical vision but shaped it further by constructing instruments of his own invention. The apparatus that appeared on “No. 2” was the cosmophone (credited on the sleeve as an electric lyre) which resembled an expressionistically-angled guitar with an oversized metallic body and neck that and could be either picked or played with a bow. Making its debut on the previous 2 Bis album was the percuphone: an elongated motorised machine with a variable speed control that produced tight, telegraphic repetitions reporting with the depth and low end of evenly rapped out bongos played at Morse Code velocity. Although this instrument would feature prominently on many future Alpes recordings, it was absent from the stripped-down proceedings recorded for “No. 2.”

The group’s previous folk underpinnings were retained and consigned to a trio of brief classical acoustic guitar instrumentals. All three were named “Prélude” and were interspersed to book-end the album with pastorales much like King Crimson’s “Peace: A Theme” did on throughout their “In The Wake Of Poseidon” album. Along with one concluding Portuguese ballad, these link together (and contrast greatly) with the far broader and highly progressive expanses that comprised the majority of “No. 2.”

As if to approximate the rhythm of a late night snowfall, “Sirba” opens with two circling Farfisa organ lines alternating in counterpoint until one of them un-tethers itself from the rhythm to blossom into full-bloom extemporisation. Moullet intones in Dylanesque guide vocalese while the entrancing build of layered patterns build and build and then build some more. “Sirba” takes its title from the Romanian term for ‘Serbian Dance,’ an ancient Central European folk rhythm whose unfolding and tightly-performed time signatures are adhered to as a chaotic avalanches of tom-tom rolls, random cymbal-striking and inhuman crow caws increase in dissonance and volume. When its crescendo halts dead in its snow-filled Balkan tracks, the dramatic stillness sets the darkened stage for “15 Août 1970.” Although Funkadelic recorded a song about the previous day, Ribeiro probably did not have “Saturday Night, August The 15th” slated as the original title (what was going on that weekend anyhow?!) Regardless of the song’s provenance or date, it signals the first appearance of Ribeiro’s vocals, here accompanied only by Moullet’s classical acoustic guitar. An arid lament, it’s probably a detailing of some life-changing event that occurred a fortnight after their appearance at the huge Aix-en-Provence Festival; where they were slotted somewhere in-between that unlikeliest lineup of Leonard Cohen, Johnny Winter and Chico Magnetic Band. Ribeiro’s modulations are the most lonesome and beautiful ones of the album, while Moullet’s finger-picking classical guitar is astutely aware of his wife’s every curve of tempo, no matter how miniscule.

As mysterious sounding as its title, “Silen voy Kathy” enters as an ominous calm before the storm. Low organ notes rumble behind Moullet’s cosmophone manipulations that resemble those of a viola held to a high-pitched, needling drama or even the quieter patches of Jimmy Page’s violin bow solo on “Dazed And Confused.” It maintains its quiet suspense until falling away into a series of plucked and faltering droning trails. Ribeiro vocals are enthralling, pleading and strident as they keep everything else in a state of suspended animation until it merges into a building of wordless wails to underscore a repeating musical crescendo. It all passes by in a duration of seven minutes that seems far shorter and far deeper.

After a repeating pair of the same acoustic “Prélude” that opened the album comes the eighteen and a half minute “Poème Non Épique.” Look out below, for this is a staggering and distended track comparable only to the entirely-imaginary aural scenario of Nico guesting on lead vocals on the last tracks of both sides of “Fun House” simultaneously as Iggy, Ron, Dave and Scotty forsake all guitars to manipulate some of Iggy’s homemade instruments in the Stoogeland basement jerry-built from the following: a organ recently stolen from SRC, a drainpipe strung with copper wire played with switchblades through a Mosrite Fuzzrite fuzzbox while several vacuum cleaner attachments are left to tumble low in a broken dryer while miked through their PA. Achieving a cathedral-sized O-Mind without guitars but just a set of Iggy’s hairy and Partched-together instruments, this ‘non-epic poem’ contains all of the late-night-shaking-off-of-numbness ambience of “Dirt” with the wild abandon of “L.A. Blues” into a wah-wah’d freak-zone of both into a tumult all it’s own. Which it is, because it doesn’t sound like The Stooges per se, as much as some mutant form of tango breaking loose from its tradition of restrained passion and high stepping rigidity held to the breaking point merged with the outermost fringes of the most out-there psychedelic Rock of all time (Forgive me for the magic roundabout of the previous paragraph because it ain’t the intention to lead anyone down the primrose path of purple prose’n’passages that “Poème Non Épique” is some sort of missing companion to “Fun House” cos it isn’t. But Alpes were just so fucking unique on their high watermark “No. 2” album that one -- OK, yours truly -- is resigned to pointing to fictitious might-have-beens in order to draw some semblance of comparison for the benefit of those who unacquainted with this 1970 classic because it’s STILL rollin’ in sight. With that said, it is a truly amazing piece of torrential musical downpour, a total freak out that made me feel stoned the first time I heard it when I wasn’t, and despite its title is truly EPIC in the same way that “Yeti Meets Yogi” is EPIC, that “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is EPIC, and that “Supper’s Ready” was merely...epic.) “Poème Non Épique,” man -- it’s heavy yet begins with the lightest Farfisa organ touches that waft in like evening fog. Moullet’s extraordinary cosmophone enters noncommittally but steadily amasses through excruciating wah-wah-ing as rattling tom toms of darkening, apocalyptic skies work the distant background as they take various cues from Nick Mason’s drumming on “Set The Controls For The Heart Of the Sun” and “Syncopated Pandemonium.” Snare drums start to rap out a pattern, fall away and then re-appear as the cosmophone continually gets wah-wah’d throughout a series of shock corridors until five or six minutes inside this irregular construction, Moullet’s background vocals rise to a patch of heightened alarm with brief, nasally declarations as the rolling tom-toms and irregular snare patterns begin to rise above the holding pattern of just scuttling around the studio floor. Moullet rises in tandem, unleashing strafing wah-wah’d runs in contrapuntal strikes against the devolving musical breakdown at hand. Seven minutes in, the erection of high pitched cosmophonic needling quickly switches to a series of deliberately slow and loudly strummed strikes against the cosmophone that cracks through the crust of the horizontally-inclined music as if to signal of the entry of Catherine the Great. “Ahhhhh...” she enters, deceptively soft. The abrasive strums continue in their predetermined underscoring of her utterances but then the accusations soon fly fast and furious as her hoarse and cracking voice starts to intensify and occasionally plummet into fits of screaming. The juxtaposition of her voice against the wah-wah’d cosmophone and the unchanging tom-toms rolls plus snare patterns repeating at odd instances throw anticipation off-kilter and serve to reinforce the gravity of Ribeiro’s delirious, hair-tearing and head-rending banshee wailings...which have only just begun. She regroups her composure, only to freak out again to punctuate the backing rhythmic undulations with further tortured wailing and screams. Breathless and deathless she continues, hoarse with desperation and screaming of love, creaming for love, dreaming in the loss of love...Her throaty and sardonic tones then switch into unnerving bouts of hysterical laughter. Her bare fingers now bloodily claw at the gates of release, leaving deep furrows in its bolted door shivering with rivulets of blood and broken nails. Deep inside “Poème Non Épique,” things are getting hairy: the band now follow Ribeiro’s lead and she’s leading them through a broken trail of travail as feedback, wah-wah, cymbals that crash in anguish to weave a vortex of discordant waves that threaten to drown all as the emotional floodgates have now burst. White cat heat cries aloud, her guts strung out over an open fire as a descending scale is plucked out on it. The cries of “MON AMOUR!” “MON AMOURRR!!” “MON AMOUUURRRRRR!!!” are more agonised than the last, as if Ribeiro is seeking to wring herself dry of the distraught, heavy ocean coursing all around and in her veins. Repeating a raspy condemnation of “HOMME!” over and over, it finally collapses into a pit of deep echo with a final “Aaaarrrrghhh!” to end it if signalling all clear for her personal phoenix to rise from the now smouldering flames of her heart, her mind and her soul.

Needless to say, there’s not much to say after “Poème Non Épique” finally curls up back into the silence except to let its trauma ebb from your head of its own accord. (As a footnote, Catherine Ribeiro+Alpes would reprise “Poème non Épique” on two later, separate occasions: The first being the sole redeeming moment of their patchy 1974 album, “Le Rat Débile Et L’homme Des Champs” while the second variation appeared on the following “Liberties?” album. However, neither approaches nor can touch the original’s power or primal outpouring of grief and pulsating anarchy.)

Bringing the album to calm closure is the brief “Ballada Das Aguas.” Accompanied by the Portuguese 12-string acoustic guitars of Pires Moliceiro and Isaac Robles Monteiro, Ribeiro sings in her parents’ tongue a specific type Portuguese ballad concerning itself with the regrets of working class existence. Referred to as a ‘fado,’ its essential ingredient is in the expression of what is known throughout the Portuguese-speaking world as ‘saudade.’ A term unique to that culture with no English equivalent, saudade is probably best described as a desire for something loved and lost in the past to return to the present some time in the future. An undying yearning for the impossible and usually based on an irrational feeling of passion for affairs that could never come to pass, Ribeiro encompasses it as it encompasses her while its innate sense of loss and impossible reclamation is more than obvious. And with this sad tale of woe from the western-most reaches of the Iberian Peninsula, “No. 2” finally steps down to its conclusion. You don’t need subtitles to relate to this or any other song on “No. 2” and to comprehend its artistic breadth of vision or feel its bottomless reserve of emotional depth, one only need to listen.