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Jean-Luc Herve Berthelot: Echoes from the Last Fairyland

AAJ Staff By

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This French import is quite a surprise. The packaging, with its hokey fantasy themes ("fairies, elves, and gentle wizards live in vast forests, where white unicorns and iridescent dragons frolic peacefully"...) leads you to think that this will be just more pretty-sweet New Age fluff. But ignore the words and listen to the music and you will find a surprisingly thoughtful and inventive set of synthesizer pieces. The musical language is the same basic repertoire as the famous Euro-synth players like Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, or especially Jean-Michel Jarre: modal harmonies, with a modal melody carried on smooth synthesizer lines, accompanied by a repeating synthesizer sequence as well as "special effects" sounds. In fact Berthelot, in places, sounds quite a lot like a somewhat more leisurely transformation of Jean-Michel Jarre.

But it's worth going through to catch the unusual passages. Though Berthelot usually stays with a solidly modal harmony, every so often he swerves off suddenly into avant-garde atonality. From Vangelis to Stockhausen in two minutes! When Berthelot is in avant-garde mode, he's very interesting listening. Like the German experimentalist, Berthelot uses heavily modified voices, speaking unidentifiable syllables that may or may not be derived from French or English. Track 3, "The Wizard of all times," and track 4, "The perfect wand," are a good example of this; they range from glassy, tinkling electronic ambient and perky, cruising synthesizer rhythms, to weird moments with spooky voices in incomprehensible dialogue.

Most of the album, though, stays fairly strictly with the familiar Euro-synthesizer styling we listeners are used to. Berthelot's music, despite its modern instrumentation, is almost entirely derived from European culture - except for a very attenuated Indian raga-harmony in a couple of pieces, it shows hardly any influence from Oriental, African, Aboriginal, or American music. This Eurocentrism - which is not necessarily a disadvantage - holds true whether Berthelot is playing pop or avant-garde. It's almost as if this were, in some ironic way, "classical music."


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