French percussionist Pierre Moerlen, who passed away at the all-too-young age of 52, may never have garnered the attention he deserved, but amongst fans of the British Canterbury movement he was a renowned presence. If he'd done nothing more than play on the psychedelic jamband Gong's Radio Gnome Invisible
trilogy, he'd have been assured a place in the annals of progressive rock history.
The history of Gong is long and complicated, with a plethora of related projects, including most notably Planet Gong, You 'n' Gong, University of Errors, Acid Mother Gong and Gongzilla. The latter is perhaps the only offshoot that would have any consonance with the instrumental jazz-rock direction of what became known as Pierre Moerlen's Gong, also featuring younger brother and regular collaborator Benoit on assorted tuned percussion.
Pentanine, a 2002 recording that would turn out to be Moerlen's last, may have only a loose affiliation with other incarnations of PMG. Moerlen is the only recognizable facethe rest are Russian players who had enticed Moerlen to come to their country to record. But it's still immediately recognizable as a PMG album, and it's a fitting eulogy to Moerlen the writer, player and bandleader.
Moerlen's drumming may provide the pulse, but his use of vibraphone and xylophone in a jazz-rock context has always given PMG a unique complexion. From the funky grooves of "Airway to Seven and "Classique to the more hypnotic Spanish inflection of "Montagnes Russes and the atmospheric "Lâcheur, all the music on Pentanine shares Moerlen's trademark use of elliptical patterns on vibes and/or xylophone. The way they cross bar lines is similar to Mike Oldfield's use of repetitive patterns as anchors on albums like the classic Tubular Bells (Virgin, 1973) and Ommadawn (Virgin, 1975; also featuring Moerlen).
This use of cyclical conceits, despite Moerlen's French background, tie him inextricably to the Canterbury tradition. Like some of keyboardist Dave Stewart's writing for Hatfield and the North and National Health, Moerlen's patterns are layered over (or under) complex, polyrhythmic and often irregular metered lines that create challenging contexts for the soloists. And yet, despite the complex intertwining of the various parts, Moerlen's writing remains strongly melodic, lean, and without any kind of instrumental excess.
While guitarist Arkady Kuznetsov, keyboardist Meehail Ogorodov and bassist Alexei Pleschunov are solid enough players, they're also a little generic. The result is that, while Pentanine fits comfortably in the PMG oeuvre, it lacks the kind of muscular distinction of Allan Holdsworth's work on Gazeuse! and Expresso II (Virgin, 1978), or even lesser-known guitarist Ake Ziedén's playing on Full Circle Live 1988 (Outer Music, 1998).
Pentanine is a well-played album. But if it focuses less on instrumental prowess, then it clearly draws more from Moerlen's writing, whose memorable themes rule the day. As a last recording, Moerlen could have done far worse. Pentanine makes an apt and consistent conclusion to the work of an artist who deserved more recognition than he has ultimately received.
Visit Pierre Moerlen on the web.
Arkady Kuznetsov: electric guitar; Alexei Pleschunov: bass guitar; Meehail Ogorodov: keyboards, hand drum, percussion, recorder, underwater voice; Pierre Moerlen: drums, vibraphone, xylophone, programming; Alexander Lutsky: muted trumpet (12).