Let’s start with hurdy gurdy. It’s a medieval music instrument that is basically made of a lyre, a crank and some buttons. You might occasionally find it in museums and even less frequently used by quaint artists. I have learned about it just recently and although I know that in other circumstances it wouldn’t make much of an impression, in skilful hands of Thierry Bruneau it has blown me away.
The name Pienza Ethnorkestra might give an impression that we are dealing with a folk band, and that’s partially true, but it’s certainly not a typical one. Three musicians that form it’s core: Thierry Bruneau, Daniel Jeand’heur and James McGaw are very active individuals who are mainly known to the public through their other projects. For example Daniel and James come from a Jazz/Zeuhl background. These two gentlemen along with Philippe Bussonnet and Emmanuel Borghi form an excellent Zeuhl band named One Shot. Thierry, on the other hand, is a dedicated hurdy gurdy virtuoso who has created his own musical world of electric ethno jazz by collaborating with vast array of musicians from around the world.
Together the three formed Pienza with the intention of exploring… Bulgarian and Hungarian folk themes. “Indiens d’Europe” is their first and, as of today, only record. Actually it’s a live recording from one of the band’s concerts in France. The CD features 6 tracks. Some of them are interpretations of traditional melodies, other are band’s own compositions made in similar vain. All arrangements are done really well as the whole album feels consistent in every aspect.
The sound is… unforgettable. Upfront is the hurdy gurdy. It bites into your brain like a screw driver. It has a sharp, relentless tone and a unstoppable drive that’s just impossible to resist. You just follow it and there’s nothing you can do about it. Thierry Bruneau does with listener what skilful fakir makes with cobra. This record is my first encounter with his talent but it’s hard not to recognize genuine mastery in his playing and a hypnotic quality to it that I’ve never heard anywhere else.
Then there’s the rhythmic section that punctuates Thierry’s reckless ride with sudden bursts of drum and bass. I’m a great fan of Daniel’s drumming, but on this record, he just makes my jaw drop. There are times he gets carried away so much that I cannot keep up without risking my sanity. James’ playing is also top-notch. I admire his daring style and ability to step out of the shadow and play like a soloist. Maybe it comes from the fact that Mr. McGaw normally plays the regular guitar and he’s accustomed to being in the spotlight. Anyway, it works great for this band.
Although the music is fast-paced and sharp-edged, the folk themes feel quite familiar and pleasant. Throughout the record we are being constantly faced with this bizarre collision of ethnic traditional music with frenzied Zeuhl trance-like improvisations. It feels difficult when you experience it, but you keep coming back to challenge yourself again and again.
The whole sonic construction is just awesome, like a new incarnation of traditional Zeuhl. Everything feels in place and fits like a glove: hurdy gurdy, bass, percussion and drums. And why not? After all, the original Zeuhl movement was also layered upon tribal music. As I recall, Christian Vander mentioned in one of his interviews that one of his inspirations was aboriginal music of Africa. Pienza has reforged Zeuhl, replacing African backbone for Central European. For me it’s very revealing, a revelation of sorts.
I’m quite surprised that this excellent release from Soleil Zeuhl is so scantly commented over the Internet. It didn’t get the hype that it certainly deserves and now after eight years after it’s première it’s hard to image that it ever will. Let’s hope that we haven’t heard the last from Pienza Ethnorkestra and while we wait for a follow-up, let’s enjoy what we already have.