This may well be my album of the year. Figures was released back in May, so I have given it a while before scribbling about it, to let its gorgeous and beguiling wonkiness thoroughly infuse itself into my weary cranium.
Who are this “Aksak Maboul” you may be asking? Well, they formed in 1977 in Belgium around Marc Hollander and Vincent Kenis. They released their debut album Onze Danses Pour Combattre la Migraine that same year, and followed it up in 1980 with Un Peu de l’Âme des Bandits, both albums featuring heady cross-cultural mash-ups and intriguingly playful experimentation, which remains their trademark. In 1979 they were one of the three bands in the second tranche of groups who joined the then new Rock In Opposition movement, a loose supportive collective of like-minded music biz outliers, initiated by Henry Cow the previous year, shortly before that band split up.
In the early ’80s, Aksak Maboul entered what would become a three-decade long hiatus, during which time Hollander devoted his efforts to running his Crammed Discs record label. Marc Hollander re-appeared in the studio in 2014, completing the hitherto unreleased third album, logically entitled Ex-Futur Album, under the name “Véronique Vincent & Aksak Maboul”. Vincent (of Honeymoon Killers) and Hollander thus became the core of the band we now hear on Figures, also writing the album, with Hollander writing and arranging the music, and Vincent writing the lyrics and supplying the album artwork. The LP version comes with a sumptuous lyric book, offering the original French texts, along with translations into English for us dumb Anglos. Oh, and a rather nice poster is in there too. A lot of thought and care has gone into this, and it shows.
Assisting the core duo are the current live band, plus several distinguished guest players, three of whom come from the equally fabulous Aquaserge, as well as a couple of more well-known names from the avant-garde scene.
Apologies for the lengthy intro, but this band occupy an important place in left-field European music making, and so a smidgen of context was necessary, and I hope, helpful!
The music and lyrics are a glorious mix of left-field pop, wonky café jazz, avant rock moves, breathless attraction, and impish humour. The first track proper, C’est Carl, illustrates this perfectly. Figures, a welcome surprise out of left-field to all of us except those in the know, is a sprawling double album of boundless creativity and joie-de-vivre, and a lovely and lengthy trip into the kaleidoscopic imaginations of Hollander and Vincent. After C’est Carl, we head off into the six-minutes of rollicksome turbulence that is Taciturne, built on an insistent and hypnotic rhythm, and a cyclical musical figure that intrigues and beguiles. This is the sort of music that hits you on first listen, but unlike a lot of “instant” albums, it easily bears repeated listens, each time round revealing more insights into its deep character. This music is a flirt, as well as being huge fun, and is sexy without trying. Witness the slinky Silhouettes enticing you from the other side of a crowded bar with its knowing smile. Damn, I think I’m in love!
I will spare you and essay on every song, it would only lessen the surprise and delight you will experience when you buy it for yourself as I know you will, for you are a discerning music lover. However, here’s a few highlights: Spleenetique is a marvellous Gallic art-rock romp with a fabulous off-kilter guitar break from Lucien Fraipont, and Véronique effortlessly swings through Retour chez A., and the following Dramascule features a call and response vocal between Véronique and Tuxedomoon’s Steven Brown. Sony and Cher it isn’t. This may be my current go to track, as it dances round the room to the protagonists’ tale of teasing infatuation:
Climb into my arms
Fall on the floor”
Hey, you’re hanging me by the left foot
It’s dumb, but it’s funny”
There are several short musical interludes, some with, some without vocals, all under two minutes, spread though the album like thin layers of very tasty filling in a limitless cake of surprises, that make the whole listening experience akin to an arthouse movie for the ears. Figures is a very ambitious work, but as the players have skills to spare, they pull it off with an accomplished ease. The album distils more ideas in under 65 minutes than some bands manage in entire careers. Figures is a joy to behold, and a treat for the ears, put together by a group of musical non-conformists who know what they want. Aksak Maboul epitomise the free-thinking inherent in all the best art, which makes the band a natural bedfellow for the open-minded listener. Closed-circuit thinkers and musical conservatives (small “c”) need not apply. As I said at the start, Figures may well be my album of the year, as it will take something very special indeed to knock this beauty of its perch.
Have you bought it yet? Eh? Eh?…
01. Among The Naeporu (0:28)
02. C’est Charles (4:20)
03. Taciturne (6:54)
04. Silhouettes (4:39)
05. True, False, Fictive (1:25)
06. Histoires de fous (5:32)
07. Sophie La Bévue (1:57)
08. Formerly Known As Défilé (3:20)
09. How Should One Read a Book? (0:28)
10. Spleenétique (5:47)
11. Sgraffites (4:20)
12. The Untranslatable (1:32)
13. Retour chez A. (5:00)
14. Dramuscule (6:42)
15. Excerpt from Uccellini (1:16)
16. Un Caïd (5:26)
17. Martial Arts for Boys (0:16)
18. Un certain M. (1:26)
19. Ins Bleistiftgebiet (1:33)
20. Fatrasie pulvérisée (3:33)
21. Qu’est-ce que c’est “mot”? (1:01)
22. Tout a une fin (8:35)
Total Time – 66:48
Marc Hollander – Keyboards, Saxophone, Clarinets, Percussion, Programming, Field Recordings, etc.
Véronique Vincent – Vocals
Faustine Hollander – Bass, Backing Vocals
Lucien Fraipont – Guitars
Eric Heestermans – Drums
Michel Berckmans – Basson
Steven Brown – Vocals
Fred Frith – Viola, Guitar
Julien Gasc – Vocals
Audrey Ginestet – Backing Vocals, Field Recordings
Benjamin Glibert – Guitar, Backing Vocals
Jordi Grognard – Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Flute
JF Jones Jacob III – Tabla
Martin Méreau – Drums, Percussion, Vibraphone
Sebastaan Van Der Branden – Guitar, Percussion
Record Label: Crammed Discs
Catalogue#: CRAM 300
Country of Origin: Belgium
Date of Release: 22nd May 2020