Atonalist feat. Gavin Friday
Well, this is certainly a heady brew. The debut project from multi-instrumentalists Renaud-Gabriel Pion and Arnaud Fournier under the Atonalist moniker features elements of power noise, jazz, trip-hop, and the artsiest side of prog. Handy comparisons include Scott Walker’s nightmarish latter era, P·A·L, Tweaker, and the lighter side of Miles Davis. Oh, right: it also features vocals from stone legend Gavin Friday, who throws himself into a melodramatic mode he’s rarely delved into since the Virgin Prunes dissolved some thirty years ago. Hashing out the sound of Atonalism‘s a momentous task in and of itself, let alone evaluating it, but its often chaotic appropriation and quick abandonment of forms simultaneously makes for riotous fun and some serious abrasiveness.
I can’t speak to Pion and Fournier’s backrounds in free jazz and general experimentalism (though Pion’s done session work for the likes of Siouxsie, Anohni, and Dead Can Dance), so I can’t place Atonalism on any sort of historical continuum. That said, the sheer range of sound on display speaks to their versatility with instrumentation. Hell, even just sticking with the handful of different clarinets which are used on the record, it’s easy to track how the woodwinds move from mournful klezmer passages (while accompanied by death industrial buzz on “Final Prayer”) to more impressionist and evocative modes on “The Philosopher’s Argument” which bring some of David Sylvian’s later work to mind. There’s plenty of more directly rhythmic and noisy material for industrial purists, as well; the tense, mechanized pulses and breakdowns of “Spin 2.0” put the listener through a number of paces in just two and a half minutes, and the penultimate “Massacre Of The Pretenders” smashes walls of industrial metal rhythms scrubbed nearly clean of all harmonic elements against skronking sax.
Gavin Friday’s vocals on the record are worthy of a column in and of themselves. His post-Prunes career’s made a virtue of restraint; his solo records, few and far between, have him establishing a second life as limbo’s lounge singer, a simultaneously Luciferian and Christian apologist figure who his boyhood friend Bono cribbed for his Macphisto persona. Friday revels in this role on Atonalism, curling up around the smoother string sounds on “Gottesanbeterin” and pensive opener “Different To The Others”. But a more stark and brutal side of Friday’s past is also mined here. The half-Dalek, half-Grand Inquisitor warble he adopts on the demagogue-deriding “Our Fearless Leader” sounds like a Bacon painting come to life. Even when he takes on a slightly more confessional role, as on early highlight “The Road To Perdition”, Friday is still working himself into an anxious froth. Despite only appearing on about half of the tracks, Friday’s turn on Atonalism feels like a full-fledged (and very welcome) return from a legend who clearly has so much more left to offer.
I won’t lie; despite growing up in a jazz-heavy household I’m well out of my critical depth when evaluating Atonalism‘s jazzier material on the basis of that genre’s history and conventions. But given that there’s just so damn much happening in this record, that doesn’t give me much pause in endorsing it. Its softer acoustic elements scratch as much of an itch as its metallic stormers, and having as capable a presence as Friday to guide one through either climate only sweetens the deal. Recommended.