ISSUE #2          NOVEMBER, 2000
page 6 of 8


IS HELDON FRENCH FOR "INCREDIBLE HAIR"? In my unending and downright obsessive quest to hear all good music, I've even come across a band like Heldon. Who in the Sam Hill is Heldon??, I can hear you asking right now. Well, they're a French space rock/prog band whose prime years were 1974-1977 or thereabouts. For most intents and purposes, Heldon was/is one man, Richard Pinhas, a Parisian guitarist, synth-player, sci-fi maniac, Robert Fripp worshipper, and one-time possessor of perhaps the most incredible Caucasian afro of all time.On the left is Georges Grunblatt, no slouch in the hair department OR the mellotron, ARP, and VCS3 department Some of their albums come highly recommended from Forced Exposure, and the "avant" shelf at the co-op radio station I volunteer at has all kinds of releases by Heldon, and solo releases by their leader Richard Pinhas, along with all sorts of other prog/space dreck also released by the Cuneiform label. (The Cuneiform label is a weird one - there are definitely some great releases in their catalog, but you have to have your "prog/space dreck" meter on at ALL TIMES - you never know when a lame title is going to hit, because the covers all look the same….)
        Anyway, just last night I borrowed the first three Heldon albums, my introduction to this group that has been called "the most important prog rock group from France." For some reason the first and the third are on one two-disc set, while the second has its own release. You know, this really isn't my kind of music, but at the same time it's not too bad. It's about the best use of 'cheesy' synthesizer tones you're gonna come across, right up there with the Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co. CD (also on Cuneiform!)…in fact, the track "Moebius" on Heldon II: Allez Teia sounds a lot like Mother Mallard's, although it's less than two minutes long. However, Heldon's cheese-tones just can't compare with the groups that probably directly influenced them, like Cluster, Harmonia, Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, and early Kraftwerk. These groups took cheesy antique synthesizer sounds and somehow literally strained all of the cheese out of them, creating lean and mean classics of electronic space rock. Of course, they were from Germany, and something very magick was happening there that just didn't seem to migrate to anywhere else in the world (and especially not France).

Woh, hold up, I just can't believe I'm writing an article about "French space/prog"! It's amazing! French music in general….I was just in Paris, and as lovely as the city was, while I was walking around I started to get a distinct impression that nobody in the entire city cared about music at all….sure, they listened to it, and there were junky CD stores everywhere filled to the brim with all sorts of international pop discotheque music, and there were street musicians wearing berets playing maudlin tunes on accordions, but I got the sense that music just wasn't important there. Of course I was just in the wrong neighborhoods because I didn't know the right people, because there's an exciting underground in France just like there's an exciting underground EVERYWHERE. (All you need is a shovel and a stethoscope.) After all, one of the finest CDs of 1999, Tony Allen's Black Voices, was produced in Paris. And one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time, Sunny Murray, has lived in Paris for years. But in some 'hoods, like the East Village in NYC, or the Berlin Mitte, or Chicago's Wicker Park, the streets just brim and vibrate with music, and around every corner you can hear something interesting or see an interesting storefront to wander into. In Paris, everything was brimming and vibrating, sure, but as far as music specifically, it all seemed to be about international pop discotheque fashion-model fluff. And damn, the locals in Paris really are rude when it comes to English-speaking hicks, even the polite ones like my wife and I....
         Tangent finished. These Heldon albums are all right. The main reason I wanted to write this piece was to show off Richard Pinhas's afro, which I have done. However,
I will discuss some of the better tracks on these three records….like this one here, track five on Allez Teia, with the excellent title "Fluence a) Continuum Mobile b) Disjonction Inclusive." This is a long 12-minute track made up of several tracks of cheesy synth tones that pulse and tickle and wind all in and out of themselves. A pulse-density is built up, not exactly asserting itself, but there like a rock, like Phillip Glass but more ambling, more laid-back, more like Mother Mallard's (if not quite Terry Riley)….still, 'bad-asses' like 'myself' still may find themselves wincing a bit….these tones truly are CHEESY. The next track, "St-Mikael Samstag Am Abends" uses cheese-tone to create a somewhat darker mood -- when dusted guitar arpeggios come in near the 3-minute mark it's pretty nice. Still, Heldon II is a rather bucolic and rustic sounding album, pretty in the way that a lot of mid-period Popol Vuh is pretty, which makes the 'urban revolt' imagery on the cover rather ironic. Hell, you want bucolic and rustic, the last track, "Michel Ettori," is four minutes of just two acoustic guitars playing pretty chord-and-solo stuff. It would sound lame on an album by, say, Six Organs of Admittance, but here it's a nice contrasting closer. Not a bad album, really, not bad at all. Actually, I've got it on repeat in my CD player and it's played about five times in a row now. And I still don't want to take it off. Those cheesy synth tones and fat overdriven electric guitar solos are starting to feel like warm blankets, and it's pretty damn cold outside (November in Nebraska can be a bitch). Now, I'm back on track one, which is actually called "In The Wake Of King Fripp"! Pinhas thanks Robert Fripp on almost every album; he's not shy about wearing his influences on his (record) sleeve. The sound of the track is indeed very No Pussyfooting, with pretty phase-tone guitar arpeggios, pretty synth washes, and pretty melodic-phat guitar soloing.
         Another thing
besides the incredible hair that elevates Heldon beyond prog/space typicalities is a cool literary sci-fi wrinkle running throughout. Pinhas doesn't just thank his guitar heroes in the liner notes, he also thanks Philip K. Dick, and the third album closes with a 17-minute track named after the Dick novel Doctor Bloodmoney. What's more, the name Heldon itself is taken from a Norman Spinrad novel (so no, it's not French for "incredible hair"), and just recently Spinrad has actually been collaborating with the group. (See the official Pinhas/Heldon website for more on this…) Pinhas's home studio is called "Schizo Studios," and the I/III reissue has credits for "Stage management," "Gou-roux management," "Dope management," "Love management," and "Psy management"! And check out the album covers -- wouldn't look out of place on a DAW paperback -- Psy Phi indeed!

        What about those other two Heldon albums I borrowed? Well, it took me quite a while to get Allez Teia out of the CD player, but I finally did and managed to spin the others....and they're good too. Maybe a little more primitive and harder-edged than Allez Teia -- both are primarily solo works by Pinhas where Allez Teia is credited to the duo of Pinhas and Grunblatt. More drug references on the third album ("It's Always Rock'n'Roll") with titles like "Cocaine Blues" (a killer nine minutes of foreboding pulse-tickle that has no trace of the old 12-bar blues progression but is certainly as dark as a lot of old blues music) and "Cotes de Cachalot ala Psylocybine" (a great restrained undercurrent of synth pulse with the usual Frippadelic guitar soloing coming in after a while). Rather lovely artwork by one Géniaux de Meguet, probably from the first album, as pictured. click on to see much largerAnd about that "home studio" thing as mentioned before -- at some point during the eighteen-minute "Aurore," the close listener can hear a dog wailing away
in the next room. Well, the Cunieform reissue does have this note on the inner sleeve: "Electronique Gorilla and 'It's Only
Rock'n'Roll' were originally recorded on home equipment. While we have taken every step to insure that this CD will sound as good as possible, defects on the master tape, such as distortion & hiss, are audible." Well hell baby I'll take a little bit of distortion & hiss if it means I might have a chance to hear a real live dog barking in the background of one of the songs...

        .....Okay now it's over a week later and I've borrowed some more stuff, notably Heldon 6: Interface from 1977. This might be my favorite Heldon LP yet....judging from the inner sleeve photo, Pinhas has adopted a Neal Schon/Neal Geraldo/Loverboy look (complete with athletic headband!), but fortunately the music has developed inversely to that, getting meaner and more punk-rock. Now Heldon are a full-time trio; Pinhas and Patrick Gauthier build up the trademark moog/guitar interlocking electro-pulse fields, while François Auger comes in and out of the drones with live drums. His approach sounds raw and improvisational, and when he kicks into a Bonham-esque beat, all kinds of jagged rhythms start baring their teeth from within the drone. On "Bal-A-Fou," this electro-stew almost has a lilting 'world music' feel, while on the 19-minute title track they go through all kinds of permutations of the electro-drone, imbuing its robotic precision with a jam-band's sense of flow. Still no vocals! And, the greatest sci-fi Heldon cover of all, looking like a still from some Kubrick-directed cross between Barbarella and THX-1138.
         So I've grown to kinda love these guys...the earlier albums, even with their cheese-tones, still create such a pleasant field of pulse-tickle that I just tend to leave 'em in the CD player on repeat. And the dense punk trance-grooves of Interface represent a whole new variation on drone-rock. The solo CD by Richard Pinhas that I borrowed, East/West, is in fact too cheesy, but Heldon transcended cheese beautifully. My first beloved French band!



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