Nice pun, guys.
My monolingualism strikes again. Ange is a band that’s been active for fifty years and released dozens of albums and is considered one of the titans of seventies prog…but they’re from France, sing in French, and aren’t very well-known within the Anglosphere. This means there are basically zero online sources about the band in English, and very, very few sources that talk about the 70s prog scene in France for more than a few paragraphs. This means that we have a band that we need to invent the universe to make full sense of, but the necessary contours of this universe remains elusive.
There were three different tastemakers in French progressive rock in the early to mid 70s, each of which we’ll talk about in turn to get an idea of precisely where Ange came from. The first is Gong, a collective whose prime mover was Australian expatriate village eccentric par excellence Daevid Allen. Allen had spent the early-to-mid sixties in England, playing in a few bands before finally winding up with Soft Machine and becoming an influential figure in the Canterbury scene, a loose group of musicians who were playing broadly the same kind of music, upbeat psychedelic rock with whimsical lyrics, a sense of exploratory wonder, and the good kind of jazz improvisation. In 1967, Allen was denied re-entry to the UK because of a visa overstay and was exiled to France, bringing the Canterbury sound sensibilities to the Continent with him.
In Paris, he would assemble what would become Gong, an international group of musicians who would play goofy concept albums influenced by Canterbury-style psychedelia and jazz, but with more of a cosmic, transcendent, polysyllabically hippie-spiritual feel to them. The most essential Gong albums are the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy: three albums (Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg, and You) released in 1973 and 1974 built around the consciousness-expanding adventures of Zero the Hero, featuring stuff like cats that are actually witches, propeller-headed pixies who fly around in teapots, a massive concert during which everyone’s third eye will be switched on, and the trilogy’s thematic centerpiece: the great Planet Gong, accessible only through mind-expanding Substances, home to the One Invisible Center and the ultimate source of human self-actualization. The words draw heavily from Buddhist themes, not just enlightenment but also the search for self, the denial of absolute reality, and reincarnation, while the music sounds like if someone mashed up The Piper at the Gates of Dawn with a more developed version of Porcupine Tree’s demo tapes.
Allen left Gong a year after the trilogy was released, and the band moved in more of a jazz-fusion direction without him. He would eventually return in 1992 and continue to perform with a reunited Gong (whose revolving door of members would include Theo Travis and Dave Sturt) until his death in 2015. I personally appreciate Gong more than I like them, but the way the band drew from both English and Continental musical traditions cemented their cross-cultural appeal and their legacy as one of the most unique and important progressive rock bands in history. Although their music is not quite to my taste, they’re light and fun and I’m glad they’re around.
In contrast to the unequivocally positive feelings I have about Gong, I’m honestly rather mixed about Magma, which is frustrating because they’re easily the most influential of the three bands we’re surveying here. Magma describe their general sound as “zeuhl,” a term which would eventually describe an entire subgenre drawing from their musical style. Zeuhl is bombastic, symphonic, and theatrical, more or less what would happen if a rock band were commissioned to write an opera (and not, like, a rock opera, but an actual opera). That’s actually kind of appropriate, as Magma albums are all space-opera epics sung in an invented language (think Simlish or Hopelandic) about a group of refugees fleeing a doomed Earth and settling on the planet Kobaïa, and the struggles and conflicts they experience during their time there. Their third album, Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh, is generally regarded as the pinnacle of their musical style and a cornerstone of not just French prog but prog music period.
Would that Christian Vander, Magma’s founder and main creative force, wasn’t a fascist.
To be clear, I’m not drawing this conclusion from the music itself. Yes, the operatic elements are distinctly authoritarian, with all the choruses and militaristic drumbeats and shouted faux-German, so it’s easy to say “they’re fascist because their music sounds fascist” and call it a day, but that’s lazy. Laibach and Rammstein do the same thing, and the former band is satirical and the latter is left-wing. When I say Vander is fascist, I’m talking about what Vander got up to offstage, like having Nazi flags in his bedroom and saying things about black people and Indians so horrifically racist they make Clapton’s infamous “keep Britain white” rant sound level-headed and reasonable.
At least Clapton–who supports Enoch Powell to this day–has just enough self-awareness to pretend he isn’t racist when called on it. When Vander was called on his past he (through his wife) attempted to dodge the question by going on this long spiel about how Magma’s about life and the struggles of life and how horrible it is that these censorious SJWs are attempting to crucify him for things he might have said when the music is brilliant and what actually matters, man. No denials. No retractions. Fuck that noise.
(To those who say Vander couldn’t possibly be fascist because his wife is Jewish and he’s an admirer of John Coltrane; you sound like the people who defend Milo Yiannopoulos because his partner is black. Cut it out.)
Moving on to less bile-inducing waters, Ange themselves. Of the Big Three Of French Prog, these guys, fronted by brothers Chrstian and Francis Décamps, are probably the most conventional, opting for a style of prog more influenced by medieval and folk music than anything more arcane or psychedelic. One listens to Ange and gets the sense that unlike, say, Gong, these are more intellectual musicians who’ve never touched a mind-altering chemical in their lives. As a consequence, they sound more or less like the sort of music Jethro Tull was making–and mocking–at roughly the same time, all mandolins and flutes and violins and classical guitars. That said, they do have one huge trick up their sleeve: Christian Décamps’ pipes. That man can belt and wail and howl like nobody’s business. This elevates what would typically sound like normal wizardshit (which, to be honest, it still does at times) into something with all of Magma’s operatic pretensions but none of the latent authoritarianism. This is music for the theatre, yes, but less the Paris Opéra and more the Globe.
(I have also been informed in multiple places that Décamps’ lyrics are pretty good, too, but since I haven’t found a place that translates them to English, I’ll just take that on faith.)
In a lot of respects, Ange are a typical progressive rock band. They reached the peak of their popularity with 1974’s Au-Delà Du Délire, which also just so happens to be the fullest realization of their sound at the time. This, coupled with the way their sound went out of its way to be progressive but not alienating, catapulted them to superstardom, becoming the most popular progressive rock band in France. (Of course, because they sung in French, they had trouble breaking into the Anglophone market; their one stab at releasing an album in English flopped horribly.) Then, as the 70s drifted into the 80s and progressive music entered a terminal decline, Ange entered a fallow period, with numerous lineup changes and albums that were, to put it politely, unfavorably compared to what they released in their prime, until they finally limped into a hiatus in 1995.
Something vaguely Ange-like reformed in 1997 as “Christian Décamps et Fils,” with Francis replaced by Christian’s son Tristan and a mostly new (and quite stable!) band lineup, before dropping all pretensions and taking on the name Ange in 1999. This version of the band still tours and records, albeit to a smaller but more devoted audience, and seems to have found a balance between pushing their sound forward but not so forward they’ll alienate the core group of people who know them for what they did in the 70s. (Contrast Wilson, who does what he wants and doesn’t care who he alienates.) This is not a second imperial phase, but it is that period in a prog band’s history where it reassembles itself and finds its footing in a world where the mainstream doesn’t care about them anymore. (e.g. pretty much everything Marillion did after Fish left.)
Here’s where Steven Wilson comes in, tapped to mix two tracks off 2001’s Culinaire Lingus. On this outing at least, Ange’s music has become darker and harsher, to the point where in certain cases (Jusqu’où Iront-ils ?, Cueillir Les Fruits Du Sérail, the title track, Univers Et Nirvana, and parts of Gargantua) it’s practically metal. Décamps, blessed with a vocal style that ages like wine, isn’t theatrically bouncing his vox around the stage as much as he did before, but his voice has compensated by becoming deeper, fuller, and more controlled as he got older.
This doesn’t mean the whole of Culinaire Lingus is doom and gloom, of course. Cueillir Les Fruits Du Sérail crashes into Adrénaline, a jaunty Celtic tune that lays on the fiddle thick and is almost Riverdanceable. Two thirds of Farces Et Attrapes sounds like a children’s song. Intérieur-nuit is a haunting lonely piano ballad. Les Odeurs De Cousine is clearly an excuse for Tristan Décamps to show off on the keyboard. And, of course, Décamps and Caroline Crozat clearly had a lot of fun tag-teaming On Sexe (although given the subject matter I can’t help but imagine them both naked while singing this). Although “heavy” is the album’s baseline, it’s clearly one of those records that’s more interested in showing off the band’s range than sticking to one particular atmosphere.
But, again, Wilson only mixed two tracks from one album out of twenty-two. Ange never shows up again on Wilson’s radar. But they’re worth mentioning not just for completion’s sake, not just because they’re our connection to the parallel universe of French prog, but because they’re one of quite a few connections Wilson has amassed that go off the beaten path a little bit. Yes, it’s cool when Wilson and Fripp or Alex Lifeson or Ian Anderson or some other mainstream prog luminary show up together, because Star Power, but those collaborations are expected. What’s really interesting is when Wilson shows up on the record of someone in a part of the music world we’d think he’d have absolutely no interest in.
This will pay a dividend in two years’ time.