ISSUE #3          NOVEMBER, 2000
page 6 of 7
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Okay, last issue's article about Heldon just wasn't that great. It was written in my oft-bogus 'as it's happening' style. I think it was a fine example of that style, but hey, the thing about oft-bogus styles is that they're often bogus. What's more, the article ended before I had really listened to the 5th, 6th, and 7th Heldon albums (Un Reve Sans Consequence Special, Interface, and Stand By respectively
), which are crucial pieces of the puzzle. While the article did have some great pictures, its premature ending did not clearly state any real thesis at all except a vague "I might quit making fun of this stuff because the more I listen to it I realize that I like it." Now that I like it so much I'm listening to it every day, I would like to offer this revisitation of the Heldon topic, in order to state two theses of a more well-considered nature, which I have arrived at after said ongoing study.
           THESIS ONE: Though often described as a 'prog rock' band, Heldon is better described as one of the first 'drone rock' bands. Off-kilter Euro-prog elements can be felt in Heldon's music, most overtly with the 7th and final album, Stand By, and in Heldon founder/leader Richard Pinhas's later solo work, such as the rather dreadful East/West. However, I equate 'prog' more with the complex multiple-riff music of early Genesis, Gentle Giant, Yes, King Crimson, and et al, as well as with their more underground contemporaries, the 'Canterbury' school of bands, and Heldon isn't even vaguely comparable to any of the above. Of course prog has a broader definition than this, but I think most will agree that for something to be 'prog' it should exhibit skilled musicianship of some kind along with multi-part 'suite-like' song forms. In short, an extensive fusion between rock,
classical, folk, and jazz music(s), and believe me, the end result usually sounds just as stuffy. Heldon is barely any of these genres. Heldon does have Pinhas's electric guitar soloing, which is in fact very prog, but every other element of the band, especially on the first three discs, is much more primitive, as in the very first rumblings of something new kind of music, that is barely even rock and roll, even though that's Heldon's final description of it. (See their second album, "It's Always Rock & Roll".) With supreme millenial irony, the primitivism comes almost entirely from a once-futuristic ARP synthesizer, as most Heldon pieces are centered around one simple synth drone, more of a cybernetic cycle given sound-form than the 'suites' and 'movements' and 'arias' that most progressive rock bands depend on.
           THESIS TWO: There are two phases to Heldon's oeuvre. The first phase was a more serene and dreamy solo approach by Pinhas. On the 1974 debut Electronique Guerilla, there are only two tracks that are not Pinhas solo. On the second album Allez Teia, Heldon has become a duo with the addition of Georges Grunblatt on guitar, synthesizers, and mellotron. The third album, the double LP "It's Always Rock and Roll", is Pinhas solo for 4 of the 9 tracks. All of these albums are heavy on the aforementioned cybernetic synthesizer drone, but despite its inherently cold and menacing machine-sound, there is an overriding 'pastoral' quality about these records, what one webzine referred to as something like "an odd serenity at the center." This is because this is largely solo music, just as immediate 'future-pastoral' predecessors like Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream (mach 2) were centered around solo dronescapes crafted by Florian Fricke and Edgar Froese respectively.
            Heldon moved far beyond these preliminary influences with its fifth and sixth albums,
Un Reve Sans Consequence Special and Interface. Here, Pinhas's revolving cast of supporting characters started to firm into a power trio lineup. All but 8 minutes of Un Reve were trio works, and all tracks featured Pinhas's drones and solos pinned down by enormous John Bonham backbeats by one Francois Auger. All but 2 tracks featured one Patrick Gauthier playing monster Mini-Moog basslines. On the next album, Interface, this trio played 6 of the 8 tracks. (Both albums feature a sizzling Pinhas/Auger duo as well as one track on which Gauthier is pinch-hit for by the splendidly named Didier Batard (of legendary zuhl rockers Magma) on bass.

L-R: Patrick Gauthier, Richard Pinhas, and Francois Auger

          These albums display a sound incomparable to anything that had come before. Heldon didn't abandon the droning layered electro-pulse, but developed it into a much heavier future-shock sound that has actually been called 'electronic punk,' also described by Jimmy Johnson on the Forced Exposure website as "an intense jamming throb" and "a crushingly dense synthesis of loud sounds." The hard edge that could always be felt in Pinhas's psybernetic drone-patches was fully accentuated by Augier's monstrous disco breakbeats. Gauthier, with what Pinhas described as "his brilliant sophistic mind," made the cybernetic interweavings of Heldon's sound more complex and dizzying than before by adding angular low-end melodies that overlapped hypnotically with Pinhas's layers of electro-pulse.
          This increased complexity can certainly suggest a 'prog' tag, but that Heldon drone never goes away. Rather than having multiple 'movements' on several different vocal and instrumental themes, Heldon creates their multiple movements only out of the barely different psybernetic combinations that can occur within one single 'aumgn' tonality. When this dense machine stew is underpinned by the life-force of Auger's stunning free-form Bonhamesque power drumming, Heldon achieve a swirling density that has been described as "frightening" and "violent" more than once, most memorably (on some website that I didn't bookmark and can no longer find) as staring into the open mouth at the spinning, whirling teeth of a dangerous android! (This just in: by doing a search for "heldon teeth" on Google I found it, the exact description (by comic artist Matt Howarth) being "like falling into a huge mechanoid maw full of gleaming patchcord teeth." Turns out to be from Sonic Curiosity, an extensive experimental music website by Howarth.) In addition to this "gleaming mechanoid maw" approach, Heldon also developed a strange sort of lumbering rubbery low-end robot-elephant funk -- Interface is weirdly funky like this throughout, but for a blatant example listen to "MVC II" from Un Reve Sans Consequence Special, with Pinhas on various Moogs, Auger on drums, and Didier Batard's bass guitar pinch-playing for Gauthier's Mini-Moog. In either case Heldon sounded like a gang of robots come to life, or like Robocop mechanically marching down some inner-city alleyway as he bears down on a criminal. (And maybe that's an even earlier robocop pictured on the cover of Interface?)
           Stand By, the seventh and last album bearing the name of Heldon (although a new one with lyrics by Norman Spinrad is apparently in the works), is a favorite among prog heads. This is understandable because it is the only Heldon album to de-emphasize the drone in favor of actual rock riffs, even if their end result is still a near-hurricane of mad jazz-prog fusion. It is certainly a heavy-ass album, but something isn't quite right for me -- I miss the earlier albums when a Heldon track was just 'one' Auger and Pinhas duking it out, as pictured in the Cuneiform CD of Interface. Despite the Neal Schon/Neal Geraldo look Pinhas is pioneering here, the music is incredibly great. riff, a tranced-out bubbling/interweaving drone stew. The more actual 'riffs' and 'movements' and 'changes' I hear, the more my 'prog dreck' flag goes up. Simply put, I miss the primitivism. If you're a wealthy primitivist, you should buy all seven Heldon albums in order, definitely saving Stand By for last. If you're a wealthy prog head, you might want to go in reverse order. And, if you're poor like most of us and don't volunteer at a community radio station well-stocked with Heldon discs like I do, go straight to either Un Reve Sans Consequence Speciale or Interface and you will find a sound like no other. (Interface might be about two percent better than Un Reve Sans Consequence Special, and anyway it has the best cover art of any Heldon album .)
            Pinhas has made statements that suggest he's no longer all that proud of the early albums. I find the first phase of Heldon quite mesmerizing and certainly in the same league as the work it is inspired by, but I can see why Pinhas would be down on it. Upon analysis, it could actually be described as 'derivative,' where the later stuff is its own original monster, for and of and from the space-age.


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