To put it simply, the debut Alco Frisbass album goes from good the first time through to fantastic on repeat listens. The French duo of Fabrice Chfab Choutte (INSERT INSTRUMENTS) and Patrick Paskinel Dufour (INSTRUMENTS) with a sprinkling of guests (Archimede De Martin, Thierry Payssan and Jacob Holm Lupo), combined with the production work of Pablo Ske Botta (Yugen) make for an absolute feast of Cantebury style prog. While the influence of classic acts like Soft Machine and Hatfield is clear, make no mistake; Alco Frisbass are not a cheap imitation, and their debut demonstrates that Fabrice and Patrick can hang with the best of them.
While the variety of violin, frantic riffing, and rhodes of “La suspension etheree” made for a solid opener, it was really the second track, “Pas a pas,” that got my attention and sucked me into the album. Starting off with a analog synth theme and then bringing in an absolutely jarring mellotron brass acompaniment followed by low piano chords, this song is dark, menacing, and quite frankly, strange. The atmosphere is mesmerizing, the repetition is catchy, and the arrangement is well thought out. As the band starts to go into a jam we see a lot rhodes, which surprisingly moves to comping under atmospheric chord changes and an eventual return of the main theme from the beginning (this time much less dark). Around the 4 and a half minute mark we get a surprise: solo piano plays a slow, rigid pattern which is built on by violin. It has a modern avant feel without the tonality. The mechanical nature is actually quite eerie, and the uncertainty as to where it’s going is a great tension builder. The answer: it goes nowhere as it leads us to a nihilistic ending.
If the last piece was dark, “Induction Magnetique” is its light counterpart. Immediately this track is drenched in groove and the alternating pattern of instruments just spices it up more. At about 1:15 the entrance of ‘dah dah dah’ vocals made me grin as it added an even stronger Cantebury element to the song. As the track continues, a catchy new theme is introduced that centers on a falling pattern followed by a slow rising pattern based around the upbeat. From here we go back to full groove in a solo section before the glorious entrance of Mellotron 3 violins. Next up is the classic tron flute bringing in that decrepit bit we all need. And perhaps the coolest moment: the final melodic section which introduces a synth lead that is so vocal like that it made me think we were back to another scat vocal, at least initially. It made the guessing game the first time around fun, and in the long run just leaves the listener some killer synth tone. The next piece, “La danse du Pantin” starts off with a conventional jazz approach before finally going prog at about 1:45 when we get some vintage organs riffing through a number of key changes (reminiscent of The Flower Kings!) before going back to the main groove, (and a marvelous groove it is!). This track contains one of my absolute favorite moments of the album. At about 3:05 an incredibly decrepit keyboard lays down an eerie melody; it’s not quite scary, but it’s not quite happy; sort of that surreal dreamlike uncertainty. In terms of the other instruments we get light support from the bass and a chorusy guitar lead floating on top as the section moves towards a more stable melodic line and eventually melds back into the main groove. Ultimately, it’s a bit unclear how this section fits into the feel of the whole piece, but these guys still pulled off making it feel like it fit in.
At this point as I was listening to the album and reading the liner notes I finally realized the drums are programmed. What??!! Once I realized it I could tell, but seriously, Alco Frisbass did such a good job at it to where it doesn’t even make you bothered by it at all. Still in shock (and admiration for their ability to maintain juicy groove with programmed drums), I continued on to “Escamotage.” This track is super mysterious, like the kind of thing from an espionage movie. De Martini’s violin lead section makes me think a bit of Mahavishnu, and the subsequent ‘brass section’ with its slow moving melody which is flanked by growing synths is really quite marvelous in its simplicity. The layering that follows is solid and really features Ske’s great production job. When things finally slow down and the drums fade we get another one of the most surprising and satisfying moments of the album as lush chords under a brass solo is absolutely stunning; the uncanny nature of all the analogs and tron really do the trick to make it alive. The follow up where the brass melody gets rephrased with the groovy drum beat makes for great variation; and I must say, the groove is soooo good! Even on repeat listens I can’t get my head to stop bobbing. And to my delight we follow up with an 8 voice tron choir section that leans a bit dark as a brief interjection before returning to jazzy form before eventually taking over with a synthy-accordion-feely thing with whistling going on over the top, producing a menacing atmosphere that breaks up the piece very nicely. All in all, “Escamotage” is a track with a plethora of surprises, resulting it it being the highlight of the album.
The Alco Frisbass debut manages to capitalize on at least two essential (and complimentary) concepts: smart composition and variety. There is rarely a moment on Alco Frisbass where I didn’t feel excited as a new section appeared or a new instrument was added. The songs all have their own identity, but within any given piece there are so many little details in terms of instrument changes or mood that the band keeps the listener constantly excited. The band manages to avoid common pitfalls like repetitive jamming or instrumental egotism, and instead chooses to focus on melodies that really get under your skin and give you an emotional ride. Alco Frisbass is certainly a fine addition to Altrock’s already impressive catalog and will be, similarly, a fine addition to any prog-head’s collection.