Mark Jenkins profiles one of the labels actively keeping the classic electronic music scene alive
France has always been a leading region for innovation in electronic music, with many musicians working in the pop and dance music fields. And of course there’s the pioneering of Jean-Michel Jarre, whose album “Oxygene” brought the country into competition with Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream from Germany, Pink Floyd and others from the UK.
Less widely known and currently celebrating 50 years in the French music business is Richard Pinhas, whose band Heldon formed in 1974 and spectacularly fused electronic, jazz-rock, and avant-garde music. The photo at the top of this story, by David Elliot, shows Richard Pinhas and band at the Bobino in 1981.
New issues and re-issues of Pinhas and Heldon material are appearing on the Bam Balam label, which also champions other French electronic music acts.
Bam Balam formed in 1982 and is run by JJ Arnould, who has been searching out both new material and classic concert performances for release, including on vinyl. One such release is “Heldon – Live At The Venue London 1982” taken from a performance at the now closed Virgin Venue in London, and featuring a frightening array of electronic gear.
On early Heldon releases like “Electronique Guerilla” Richard Pinhas played electric guitar and an EMS Synthi A synthesizer. Moving label, he spent the advance on a Moog Modular system, and many subsequent pieces consisted of slowly modulated sequences on the Moog alone. Increasingly on albums like “Interface” other musicians contributed drums, bass, and Minimoog lead lines to create a unique fusion of minimalist synth music, ambient experimentation, and jazz-rock.
I was lucky enough to be at the Virgin Venue concert in 1982, and on stage this combination of styles was devastating. For this show Pinhas also took along a rare E-Mu modular synth, and the stage was crammed with synth and guitar gear. Bernard Paganotti was impressive on bass as always, and although this album is obviously from an audience recording, there’s plenty of fine detail audible. There are recognisable Pinhas and Heldon tracks like “The Western Wail” and “Stand By” as well as much jamming and improvisation.
Also on the label are other Pinhas and Heldon releases “Metz 1977,” “De L’Un et Du Multiple,” and “Live At Bam Balam” (tracks from 2016 and 2018), as well as collaborative albums with Merzbow, Tatsuyo Yoshida, and others. After the original Heldon lineup split, Pinhas relesead several wonderul synth/guitar solo albums including “Iceland” and “Rhizosphere” before taking a long break. His more recent albums including “Live At Bam Balam” mostly drop the synthesizers and consist of guitar loops, distortion, and sampled sounds, partly in the style of Pinhas’ great hero Robert Fripp. Most recently (including on the album “Sources”) Pinhas has been performing with his son Duncan, named after the character Duncan Idaho in “Dune.”
Pinhas isn’t the only experienced synth musician on the Bam Balam label. Laurent Perrier’s “Plateforme 3” with David Fenech uses Buchla, Serge, and Eurorack modular synthesizers along with guitar and percussion to create abstract, rhythmic soundscapes sometimes like the sound of ethnic percussion ensembles. Fenech also pops up on the album “Aahh!” which merges modular synth drones and bleeps with toy drumkit percussion. The closing track “Conrad” is presumably inspired by Conny Schnitzler, a German pioneer of electronic music who had passed away the year before work started on the album.
There are other bands on the label too, including an album by the Japanese improvisers Acid Mothers Temple, who are often compared to Can and Faust. More prolific on the label though is Robert Rough, known as RG Rough, who appears on several collaborations. His solo album “60” comprises two long improvisations using ambient sweeps, looped samples, voices, toy and full-scale drum kits, and more, with many of the sounds dating from the 1960s. This is a good one for fans of tape cut-ups and musique concrète, and a follow-up album “70” is due in 2022.
It must be said that much French electronic music from the past has tended towards the cheesy pop area, but the Bam Balam label is concentrating more on the avant-garde side of music. The label also prioritises vinyl release (great quality vinyl too, and very heavy), though there are some CDs too, and a full catalogue of releases on the website. It’s great to see labels like Bam Balam actively keeping the electronic music scene alive.
Richard Pinhas: www.richard-pinhas.com
RG Rough on Bandcamp: https://rgrough.bandcamp.com/album/60-2