Like British progressive rock group Jonesy
, the equally short-lived French group Vortex deserved wider exposure. Unlike Jonesy's more accessible Crimson/Yes-informed symphonic approach, however, Vortex leaned farther left of center, bearing more in common with groups like Soft Machine, Henry Cow and Univers Zero. 1975 - 1979
collects both of Vortex's self-releases albums1975's more improvisation-centric and smaller ensemble Vortex
, and the more ambitious, complex and larger group release from 1979, Les Cycles de Thanatos
. Nicely remastered, the set features additional bonus material from the time of each recording, making it the definitive document of a group still relevant three decades on.
Co-founded by brothers Jacques (bass) and Jean Pierre Vivante (keyboards), Vortex began as a quintet fleshed out with sax, flute and drums. The writing was almost entirely collaborative between the two brothers, with Jean-Pierre creating basic structures and Jacques providing melody and arrangement. While there's no shortage of idiosyncratic compositional constructs on the group's self-titled debut, there was also plenty of solo space, largely from saxophonist Gérard Jolivet (the only other charter member to stay on until the group's 1980 demise) and flautist Jeff Trouillet. Early Vortex, it seems, owed much to middle period Soft Machine, although its approach was generally lighter and avoided the free jazz trappings of Elton Dean-era Softs. Still, it's not a big surprise, given that one of Jean-Pierre's early bands was, in fact, a Softs cover band.
As good as Vortex is, it's Les Cycles de Thanatos that's the set's knockout disc. By the time work on this album had begun, the Vivante brothers had discovered 20th Century classical composers like Bartok and Messiaen, and Les Cycles's more through-composed material reflects an expanding scope. Vortex was now an octet, with another saxophonist, two percussionists (tuned and untuned), and an oboist/English hornist who also played Fender Rhodes, at times lending Vortex the same swirling, minimalism-informed feel as twin-piano Soft Machine, especially on the jazz-tinged "God is good for you, John."
Both extended piecesthe nearly 12-minute, rhythmically propulsive "Prolégomènes" and the texturally dense, long-form, dark and classically-informed 25-minute title trackare remarkable achievements that stand alongside some of Univers Zero's best work. These pieces combine seemingly disparate styles into a whole not only greater than the sum of its parts, but into innovative compositions that deserve to be considered as repertory sources for forward-thinking 21st Century chamber groups.
While Vortex's evolution would lean it more towards the classical, it was still a group with undeniable allegiances to the progressive rock and jazz worlds, as the two bonus tracks from Les Cycles demonstrate---the quirkily funky "Hipopotalamus Negrus" and Canterbury-tinged "Ivanoe." 1975 - 1979with extensive French liner notes and abbreviated English ones by Aymeric Leroysheds light on the kind of important music being made beneath the radar that simply proves there wasand still isoften far more going on than any of us can ever really know.