Graded on a Curve: Heldon, Interface

Though I’m aware of no conclusive surveys on the matter, it’s safe to say that current record store racks aren’t exactly overflowing with prime ‘70s Franco-prog. If mentioning this puts you in a funk, then perhaps alerting your consciousness to Superior Viaduct’s fresh reissue of Heldon’s ’77 LP Interface will deliver you to a much happier place. It’s got the excellent guitar playing of Richard Pinhas, Moog synths out the wazoo, loads of burning trio interplay, an overall sensibility that’s detectably punkish, and even a stylin’ cover photo to boot. Interface can be described without hesitation as a true experimental gem, and its reappearance on vinyl is just dandy.

In the encapsulated version of the music’s lore, progressive rock was effectively dead by 1977, encumbered by the loftiness of its own excesses and then pounced upon and rendered lifeless by the great stylistic cleansing that was punk rock. And naturally the reality is far from that simple, with this historical falsehood bandied about by folks that in other situations are quick to define punk as at best a briefly necessary convulsion and at worst a disruptive failure, with this last perspective assessing it as merely a poorly behaved guest at a posh dinner party.

And yet it seems that dishevelment and general surliness are faux pas more forgivable than perceived showboating and self-indulgence, because ‘70’s prog-rock has for the most part been denied substantial revisionist vindication. Punk, disco, fusion, hard rock, Countrypolitan, Adult Contemporary singer-songwriters, and even soft rock have all undergone varying levels of retrospective reassessment, but prog still seems to make a lot of people fidgety and the label is often wielded like a dirty word.

This is partly because much of the prog rock playing field gets conveniently splintered off into other areas, the biggest one being the massive fount of ‘70s German bands that fall under the descriptor of Krautrock. And similar circumstances are presented by the Soft Machine-instigated Canterbury scene and the late-‘70s Rock in Opposition movement. Furthermore, heavily jazz-oriented rock like Mahavishnu Orchestra gets branded, along with significantly rock-informed jazz ala early Weather Report, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, and of course electric Miles, as fusion.

Hawkwind’s hard rock/heavy psych merger is deemed as “space rock,” and Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, and The Moody Blues seem to have been awarded a pass labeled “Born in the ‘60s” (though all are hybridized examples, Tull playing an earthy folk-prog blend and the other two specializing in symphonic rock.) Then we come to post-Mothers of Invention Frank Zappa, post-Roxy Music Brian Eno, and post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd, with all three, especially the Floyd sorta existing as entities unto themselves.

But when the issue gets forced, nearly all prog-deniers will admit amidst the pouting that everything mentioned above fits pretty comfortably into the style. However, so bad is prog’s reputation that the subject hardly ever gets seriously broached. This basically leaves a solid core of high-profile groups idling under the prog-rock banner; Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant, Kansas, Yes, and King Crimson.

And they all continue to support a passionate fan base, but of the six only the last really seems to have permanently clinched a level of support (critical and otherwise) that transcends the air of condescension, though I’ve certainly encountered brutal Crimson-inspired scorn on numerous occasions.

To these ears though, King Crimson’s work, at least up to 1975, emphatically launches the other five right out of the prog rock swimming pool. While Yes and to a lesser extent Genesis both reveal agreeable moments across their ‘70s discographies, sustained pleasure has always been elusive, and the scenario is even bleaker in regards to Gentle Giant, Kansas, and ELP.

It might read like I’m not making a particularly strong case for prog rock thus far, but there are quite a few lesser-known acts that take up the slack. For instance, please consider The Nice, Keith Emerson’s band prior to ELP, and then mull over Daevid Allen’s Gong, the Greek outfit Aphrodite’s Child (featuring a young Vangelis Papathanassiou, later famous for his Academy Award-winning film soundtracks), underrated Brits Van der Graaf Generator, and the solo work of their vocalist Peter Hammill. But hey, don’t let’s forget the excellent French group Magma as led by drummer Christian Vander.

Name checking Magma leads us directly to the other noteworthy ‘70s Franco-prog unit. They were spawned by guitarist/electronics specialist Richard Pinhas in the mid-‘70s after exposure to sci-fi author Norman Spinrad’s novel The Iron Dream inspired him to change the name of his band from Schizo to Heldon. And along with the switch in moniker came a major adjustment in musical direction.

Schizo knocked out a pair of singles that are highly rated (and for good reason) by fans of twisted Continental psych-rock obscurities, but Heldon’s sonic thrust immediately fell under the sway of Robert Fripp. The influence was so deep that Allez Teia, Heldon’s second disc from 1975, contains a track paying explicit hommage to the guitarist titled “In the Wake of King Fripp.”

Indeed, during this period the source of Pinhas’ inspiration was most well-known for his membership in King Crimson, but lending an ear to any of Heldon’s first three very worthwhile albums, ‘74’s debut Electronique Guérilla, Allez Teia and the 2LP It’s Always Rock ‘n’ Roll (also from ’75) show that he’d dug a little deeper, getting heavily blown away by Fripp’s collaboration with Brian Eno on their ’73 beauty No Pussyfooting.

The sound of that record is so intriguingly individual that some may be thinking Pinhas had fallen under a problematic spell. But he was far from a blatant copyist, with the results revealing the early stages of an extraordinary musical thinker. Furthermore, Heldon’s debut arrived before the second Fripp and Eno effort Evening Star even hit the racks, so he was also an early responder.

But influence came from more than one place and was interestingly extra-musical; side one of Electronique Guérilla referenced William Burroughs while the flip gave thanks to Spinrad, but most important is the LP’s collaboration with the late French philosopher (and one of Pinhas’ teachers) Gilles Deleuze on the track “Ouais, Marchais, Mieux Qu’en 68 (Ex: Le Voyageur).”

‘76’s Agneta Nilsson found Pinhas and associates venturing into a deeper blend of rock and electronics and delivering the first of Heldon’s classics. And the same year’s Un Rêve Sans Conséquence Spéciale, the first release under the moniker to feature the celebrated core lineup of Pinhas, keyboardist Patrick Gauthier, and drummer Francois Auger is even better, one in a pair of startlingly intense and fully-formed platters that while surely reflective of their time were also far ahead of it.

The other slab in that duo of masterful statements is Interface, and if not better than its predecessor, it combines with Un Rêve Sans Conséquence Spéciale to depict a rigorous intersection of prog invention, punk intensity, and extended forays into the electronic future. The first side of the LP holds five tracks, and they show that Pinhas’ work had quickly moved (with six Heldon long players and two 45s plus his first solo album Rhizosphère in roughly three years, very impressive) considerably beyond that initial heavy impact of Fripp.

Brief opener “Les Soucoupes Volantes” offers a tense Moog weave that manages to be quite prescient of later developments in experimental electronica, but it’s in Auger’s aggressive and extremely precise drumming that Heldon gets revealed as a leading exemplar of late-‘70s prog. That his boisterous athleticism strives for heaviness over highfalutin grandiosity is a welcome turn of events.

The longer bi-sectioned track “Jet Girl” finds the guitar rising into the fray, and if a Frippian derivation is still detectable, Pinhas’ tone is invested with distinctive ache and roar as Gauthier establishes an unwavering Moog line and Auger gets wild on the kit. The second portion of the cut slows the pace and raises the aura of menace, with the emissions from the synth suggestive of dark wave music and Pinhas brushing up against noisy textures that make his later collaborations with the likes of Merzbow and Wolf Eyes easily understandable.

With “Le Retour Des Soucoupse Volantes” comes another succinct piece that’s similar in orientation to Interface’s opener, though the nature (and prominence) of the synths makes me think of a highly potent and more rocking early Tangerine Dream. This vibe is extended in the subsequent longer song “Bal-A-Fou,” with the selection also including bass, notably the only addition of an outside contributor on the album.

That Interface is essentially the work of a wickedly talented and severely ambitious power trio is probably its best overall quality. And side one’s closer “Le Fils Des Soucoupes Volantes (Vertes)” provides a short taste of this, with Pinhas wailing through a dense mess of drum and Moog like a champ. But the flip’s sole nineteen minute title track is without doubt the centerpiece of this exceptional release.

“Interface” builds slowly, with its atmosphere lending much credence to Heldon’s frequent associations with the discomfiting milieu of early industrial music, and the cut’s nearly half over before guitar even enters the equation. But as the piece evolves it starts shaping up a bit like pre-crud Mahavishnu Orchestra meeting up with some non-crap IDM practitioners under the strict supervision of Conny Plank. It’s a ride of truly blistering aural invention, with the last half-minute supplying such a delightful twist that I’d be a rotten spoiler if I revealed it. So I won’t.

What I will relate is that approaching Interface under the erroneous notion that “punk prog” started with math-rock or The Mars Volta will be a quick study in the listener getting handed their own ass. And taken along with This Heat, Heldon do a great job of eradicating the idea that the arrival of punk inspired progressive rock to offer up its last cursed death rattle and give up the ghost. Instead, a crossroads was presented; this album, along with Un Rêve Sans Conséquence Spéciale and ‘79’s final Heldon document, the lesser but still very strong Stand By, are an expedition upon the road less traveled.

For years the excellent Cuneiform label has done a great job of keeping Pinhas’ music available on CD, but in giving Interface its first ever vinyl reissue, Superior Viaduct has once again brought the extra panache. It’s an all-around excellent job and hopefully more Heldon, and perhaps even a solo Pinhas release or two, will follow.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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