I don’t know what’s going on with these French bands, I just can’t get them of my mind. My last year’s in-depth study of Soleil Zeuhl catalogue has given me so much material that even though I’ve moved on to different musical styles since then, I still find it important to remind you about this stunning and surprisingly little known hatchery of music innovation.
Unit Wail is another prominent member of SZ family. Currently their discography includes two full-length albums: Pangaea Proxima (2012) and Retort (2013). Both exhibit very distinct and well developed sound. This is actually one of the trademark features of Soleil Zeuhl bands (and French bands in general): even new ones seem to have a well defined purpose and meaning to their music. Sadly, this cannot be said about vast majority of the bands that start these days. Most of them sound like a copycats of some other bands, or a plain mix of some well known ingredients at best.
Non of this can be attributed to Unit Wail. This is particularly surprising, since the founding member of the band, Frank Fromy, was also involved in creation of other well-known Zeuhl band Shub-Niggurath. Although I’m not a great fan of Shub-Niggurath, I’m well aware of their sound and in my opinion they share very little in common. I personally appreciate artists that are not limited to one particular style and with this band Mr. Fromy proves that he’s of that kind.
Now let’s get to the point, and the point is that this band sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. It’s like a crazy deep-space, Sci-Fi horror movie. Not a bloody carnage or dramatic fight-for-survival kind of horror, rather a reckless adventure into strange new worlds. For those familiar with fantasy literature, it reminds me of Celia Friedman’s “The Coldfire trilogy”. For the record, it tells a story of a planetary system on the far end of our galaxy where a group of human colonists were forced to settle. There they have encountered a strange force (“fae”) that manifests itself only at night and has the power to materialize human’s thoughts, particularly the bad ones (fears, nightmares). In Celia’s trilogy, the night and the evil are threatening, but eventually become somewhat familiar and comprehensible, and so is Unit Wail’s music. At first, the mood and the sharp sounds might seem disturbing and unpleasant, but observant listener will soon realize that it’s just for fun. And indeed, in a short while it becomes just that: plain pleasure to listen.
This intriguing effect is achieved by cleverly chosen means of expression. It’s not that all the instruments sound spooky or robotic, it’s in the way they interact. I don’t know much about theory of music, but the word ‘counterpoint’ often comes to my mind when I listen to Panaea Proxima or Retort. Every instrument is opposed to every other at different times and the changes come unexpected. Nevertheless the most frequent, and effective for that matter, is the ‘confrontation’ of rhythm section versus keyboards and/or synthesizers. In general the guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and synthesizers all have more or less equal share in the overall airplay time and importance to the development of scary/high-tech mood of the albums. Every musician has a lot of space to boast, but deliberately resigns to do more than is needed in order not to spoil the unprecedented atmosphere of the music, which apparently comes from the the interplay; really disciplined quintet indeed. But, however proficient they might be, they wouldn’t do without flawless compositions and for that you need to give credit to the other founding member – the outstanding Vincent Sicot Vantalon.
Unit Wail took a bold step into an uncharted territory of musical landscape and claimed it. I always have, and always will approve such stance. But the phenomenon behind the band is not only that they tried something new, it’s also because they have managed to make it sound consistent and complete. They have found a new space, new formula to express themselves without compromising virtuosity and improvisational temptations. The result is challenging, yet genuine and exciting to discover, layer by layer. Highly recommended to all adventurous listeners.