After reviewing the recent Cronofonía release, I found myself wondering what else Pablo Ortíz had been doing all these years (as Cronofonía had been in the making since at least 2013. It turns out that while Ortíz is Mexican, he has been living in Europe for many years, and since 2007 has been a member of Flairck, who I am surprised I have not come across before as they have been around since 1978 and play a type of music that is particularly appealing to me. Still, even if I’m slightly embarrassed not to have heard of them before now, I’m glad to have made their acquaintance. Even though the band’s most recent release is from last year, I feel it is definitely worth reviewing, on the chance that there are others like me who had not heard of Flairck, and will enjoy their music.
So with that in mind, what is Flairck’s music like? That’s quite a difficult question to answer, as while there are a number of bands I can draw comparisons to, none sound quite like Flairck. Essentially, to me, they play a sort of Canterbury-esque mix of prog folk and jazz fusion, but presented as a sort of chamber music that gives it a feel similar to some neo-classical and RIO bands, while never reaching either of those extremes. The music is acoustic, fresh and energetic. Despite being a band from Western Europe (based in Belgium), there are often passages that remind me more of Eastern European music or, even further afield, Asian music, so there is an element of “world” music to Flairck, too, I guess. In terms of bands that Flairck remind me of (even if they don’t necessarily sound that similar), I’d go for Gong (for the Canterbury), Jethro Tull (for the folk), or Maneige (for the fusion – particularly the first two Maneige albums having a similar chamber feel).
The band was founded by Eric Visser and Peter Weekers, the former remaining for many years the nucleus of the group, through various line-ups. As I mentioned Gong, in a way Back Alive! is an album similar to that band’s, Rejoice! I’m Dead, in being an all new band, with the blessing of the now absent founder. Ortíz has been leading the band, on Visser’s commendation, since 2016, and with Back Alive! it seems to have been a wise appointment, assuring that the characteristic acoustic/chamber sound is kept whilst allowing new blood to take it in new directions. The title is apt, not just because it proudly proclaims the band is still in existence, but because Back Alive! is absolutely full or vitality, verve and vigour. I haven’t (yet) listened to every Flairck release, but from what I have (and my apologies to Visser), this is my favourite. (Again, harking back to Gong, where my favourite release from that band – despite some absolute classics in their back catalogue – is The Universe Also Collapses.)
The album begins with one of three tracks titled Sick Muse, and the first notes are almost those from a horror soundtrack. There is an amazing degree of dramatic tension from quite sparse instrumentation, before it is broken and a quite beautiful tune ensues. The two sounds then tumble against and over each other, throughout, Beauty playing with the Beast, or perhaps, the Flower and the Fire (when the subtitles for the next two Sick Muse tracks are taken into account). The Sick Muse tracks comprise three of the numbers solely composed by Ortíz. The other principle composer in the new Flairck is Joris Vanvinckenroye, whose name some will recognise for being the main composer for fellow Belgian band Aranis. It is possibly his influence that brings the RIO approaching sound to this new chapter of Flairck, that I mentioned earlier (with Aranis clearly influenced by one of Belgium’s most famous musical exports, Univers Zero).
Vanvinckenroye’s first composition on the album, Nepeta Cataria, follows Sick Muse, and it’s both irresistible and irrepressible. Ortiz’s guitar on this track has a feel that surely has its origins in his native Mexico, but it’s only one sound of many in a busy number that pulls in several directions. The dynamics provided by the strings of Vanvinckenroye, Anouk Sanczuk and Zhazira Ukeyeva is magical. The percussion is amazing, and all too soon this rousing number is over. But that’s fine, as one of my favourite tracks is next, the beguiling Storm Waltz, which highlights Jeroen Goossens woodwind playing. While he has definitely already made an impact, I just love what he adds to Storm Waltz. As to where the storm is, well it is clearly on the way when the track begins, but there is no doubting when it hits as the music takes a dramatic turn. There is some respite as we enter the eye of the storm, but the ephemeral nature of this peace is overt. The track, for me, ends too soon – right as we’re back in the full force of the storm.
After another menacing, yet compelling, Vanvinckenroye composition (presumably titled for his solo music released under the BASta! name), it’s a relief to have the second Sick Muse piece, which begins delicately and beautifully, unfurling its layers slowly and gently like the flower for which it is named. It’s a languid and melancholic introduction, but the tempo is soon raised, and the mood changes entirely. Well perhaps not entirely, for Sick Muse (The Flower), even while it becomes more energetic, remains subtle and discrete – almost restrained, but certainly never constrained. The final two minutes are a real delight, as the flower is in full bloom.
Sick Muse (The Flower) is followed by Back to Bass, which (given he is the bass player) you might expect to be a Vanvinckenroye composition, but it’s actually another Ortíz, and you get the feeling that Vanvinckenroye and Ortíz are yin and yang – each bringing something quite different to the table, and it’s that swirling mix of styles that provides so much of the energy and edge to this new Flairck. As if to prove the point, we have The Stoned Wedding, composed by both. It is however based on a much older Flairck piece called The Wooden Wedding, composed by Erik Visser and Peter Weekers, so The Stoned Wedding and the following Peter’s Weekend (composed by Peter Weekers) are a really nice touch in connecting this new chapter of Flairck to what came before.
The album finishes with another of my favourite tracks, Sick Muse (The Fire), which begins sounding as if it is more of the Ashes and Smoke of the opening number, before flickering into life. The fire of this piece is definitely warming and comforting, and clearly well under control. What this track really exemplifies, for me, is how this album as a whole is all about the composition, rather than the virtuosity of the musicians. Their ability is never in any doubt, but this new line-up clearly doesn’t need to show off to show how good they are. From what little I’ve heard of Flairck so far, Back Alive! is the band’s most adventurous album yet, and is a brand statement that the band is far from a done deal. Flairck is dead. Long live Flairck!
01. Sick Muse (Ashes and Smoke) (4:51)
02. Nepeta Cataria (7:00)
03. Storm Waltz (7:35)
04. Basta Suite (7:02)
05. Sick Muse (The Flower) (6:54)
06. Back To Bass (5:04)
07. The Stoned Wedding (5:54)
08. Peter’s Weekend (5:25)
09. Sick Muse (The Fire) (9:06)
Total Time – 58:50
Pablo Ortíz – Guitars
Joris Vanvinckenroye – Double Bass
Jeroen Goossens – Flute, Bassoon, Woodwinds
Zhazira Ukeyeva – Violin
Anouk Sanczuk – Violin, Viola
Record Label: HOMERECORDS.BE
Country of Origin: Belgium
Date of Release: 9th October 2020