So declaims the mission statement on this, the reissued tenth French TV offering, originally issued last year, now coming at you with a tasty bonus disc recorded live at ProgDay 2009, and who am I to argue with such a concise nailed on statement of fact?!
Inhabiting a strange dimension somewhere between Zappa at his jazziest and on the outskirts of Canterbury while flirting with RIO and possibly mental trauma, the band have been going since 1983(!), and push out some fine complex ensemble playing. Quirkiness permeates their music, as you can guess from the track titles, along with Hawking-defying impossible time signatures and strange musical scales that make one’s feet subconsciously tap asymmetrically. If cats could dance methinks they would cut a rug to this groove.
Playful and willful in equal measure, leader Mike Sary anchors things on his trusty bass guitar, as far as that is possible, with some unobtrusive yet no doubt difficult playing. The rest of the band are no mugs either, and with talent like this burrowing down so far underground even a Chilean mining rescue team would have problems locating them, it makes me despair of mainstream tastes. Or maybe I’m just weird?
Anyway on to the album. Seven Rusty Nails starts by plumbing a funky groove before shifting gear with swelling organ (no snickering at the back) and sax playing, setting the tone for the brainiac French TV experience. Just a casual glance at the track titles gives big clues as to what butters these guys’ bread. National Health or Frank Zappa would be proud to have come up with titles like ”Conversational Paradigms” or “With Grim Determination, Terrell Dons the Bow Tie”, such is the licence given to the makers of instrumental music. Listed as contributing vocals to the latter track, “young” Andrew Katsikas’ appearance is awaited with anticipation while we soft shoe shuffle through a minefield of dazzling complexity, including snatches of the Batman TV theme put through a wringer..ah, there it is I think…some subsequently synthesised toddler gurgling at around five minutes in? I could be completely wrong of course!
The live album, recorded in what looks like the idyllic setting of ProgDay 2009 in front of a crowd of tens, is the French TV live experience where things get stretched, tweaked and, nay flogged to death. How they remember all this weirdness when playing live is beyond me, or perhaps some of it is scored? Featuring tracks from this album and earlier smash hits, it makes me want to fly to Louisville, Kentucky now, as I can’t see how I’m ever going to see them in the UK*, but we live in hope. Keep up the good works, fellas!
Not for the faint hearted or for lovers of regressive musics (boy, I like that term, first coined on this site I do believe), but definitely for those of us who like something shall we say, a bit musically perverse. Floss your brain and get your noggin dancin’ along to this little beaut, it won’t be disappointed!
*Mike has asked me if I could put him in touch with any UK promoters who would pay “more than beer money”. If you are that person, or you know who they are, drop me a line in the Comments section, and I’ll forward any forthcoming helpfulness to Mike.
Prolusion. Led by bassist and composer Mike Sary, FRENCH TV has existed since the mid-‘80s and is one of America’s best progressive rock bands ever, at least to my mind. “I Forgive You for All My Unhappiness” is its tenth release to date. The reviews of its other albums can be reached by clicking here.
Analysis. Unlike most of the post ‘70s outfits, whose music is fairly-to-highly derivative, mining the veins of musical gold discovered by Black Sabbath, Genesis, King Crimson, Soft Machine, Univers Zero (all of which I regard as the most influential bands ever) and other original innovators, French TV seems to exist in a world of its own, most of the time either avoiding any outside factors or mixing those in such a careful way that the end result is barely definable. (So please don’t take any reference points that are available in this writing otherwise than as very relative ones, except for those concerning some of the keyboard leads – to be mentioned in due time.) First of all, however, I think it’s the band’s poly-stylistic approach or rather its ability to easily manipulate several different musical styles simultaneously that makes it especially unique. That’s why I refer it to the Fifth Element, a self-invented term, which I’ve been using as a stylistic definition for more than ten years already – since I realized that some innovative artists’ work (French TV’s one in particular, of course), while embracing all the main progressive genres, Art-Rock, Jazz-Fusion, Prog-Metal and Rock-In-Opposition, exceeds the frontiers of the resulting whole, at times defying any genre barriers in general. Six moderately long, all-instrumental compositions form this album, and all of those fully suit the idiom, albeit this time the band’s main object – at least as I see it – is to eliminate the border between the first two of its ingredients by using the others (along with elements of neoclassical music) as contributory features. The players do so throughout the first two tracks, Seven Rusty Nails and Conversational Paradigms, and also the concluding one, Mosquito Massacre, while the core pieces, March of the Cookie Cutters, You Got to Run It out Dawson and With Grim Determination Terrell Dons the Bow Tie, all additionally contain sections with lush orchestral arrangements, with ones referring to classical chamber music in particular. The main thing that comes to mind when listening to what is done in the album’s primary style is that the arrangements are ever-changing; woven of several solos, all of which are vectored differently, they also very frequently shift in key, tempo, structure and theme. At the same time, however, the music is striking for its absolute inner-coherence, which is certainly because it is thoroughly composed, at least basically. While the number of players is comparatively little (the majority of the tracks are performed either by a quartet or a quintet), there is so much going on here that it’s often difficult to grasp the entire palette, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if one would compare the music to Univers Zero’s. Instead, I’d say it is much closer to classic Yes when-jamming :-) with However and – occasionally – with Etron Fou Leloublan (due to a sense of humor that characterizes quite a few of the pieces). Adam Huffer’s saxophone brings in elements of jazz, Warren Dale’s clarinet melodically supplies classical parts, drummer Jeff Gard tirelessly provides the music with complex rhythms, Shawn Persinger’s guitar playing is always effective, and Mike Sary’s bass is just the perfect basis for all the other instruments to express their voices on top of. Steve Katsikas plays either a vintage organ or modern keyboards (some orchestrator included), always putting in a sophisticated as well as virtuoso performance, albeit some of his synthesizer leads are reminiscent of Rick Wakeman’s. As for the sections with orchestral arrangements, all of those seem to be totally composed: expect fascinating trips into some serious classical areas, with hints of neoclassical hiding around every corner. French TV is a truly versatile band!
Conclusion. Like any of its predecessors, “I Forgive You for All My Unhappiness” has its own specific aura, and breathes with freshness and inspiration. With all of the tracks available being gems of progressive rock music, this surely is one of the very best releases of 2010.