A Trip Through the World of French Psychedelic Music

August 3, 2015 | By French Culture

Psychedelic music isn’t defined by stylistic tropes; such expectations would suffocate a genre dedicated to pushing boundaries. Instead, psych rock is defined by an attitude — a commitment to taking artistic risks and forging new sonic frontiers. French musicians from Alpes to Melody’s Echo Chamber have been psychedelic pioneers since the genre was born in the 1960s, and while the sounds presented here range from brooding trip-hop to airy ambience, all embody psychedelia’s innovative spirit.

Moodoïd, "Je Suis la Montagne," from Moodoïd (2014)

Formed in 2013 by Melody’s Echo Chamber guitarist Pablo Pandovani, Moodoïd are everything a modern psychedelic band should be. Their airtight grooves will get even the most reluctant of heads nodding, and their rock-solid rhythm section propels their songs slowly through towering underwater forests of echo-drenched vocal harmonies. Whirring synths, flanged drums and shimmering guitars make for a satisfyingly spacey aural cocktail with overtones of 1969, and that Moodoïd formula is on display in slow-burning rocker “Je Suis La Montaigne.” Don’t let the tongue-in-cheek video fool you: these guys have a sense of humor, but they know what they’re doing.

Orval Carlos Sibelius, “Good Remake,” from Super Forma (2013)

Moodoïd listeners won’t be able to resist nodding their heads. But those listening to Orval Carlos Sibelius (Real name: Alex Monneau) risk actually dancing. Upbeat and energetic, Orval’s songs grow on skeletons of tight drums and sunny surf-rock guitars, which the multi-instrumentalist Monneau drapes with dense layers of half-whispered vocals and lush, trippy sound effects. The Guardian’s Paul Lester compared Orval’s 2013 full-length debut, “Super Forma,” to “a somnolent team-up between the Beach Boys and My Bloody Valentine in space.” And like the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, Monneau is a perfectionist whose unified vision holds his music together.

Aquaserge, “Tout Arrive,” from Tout Arrive (2014)

Aquaserge’s music is definitely psyched out — but is it rock? With its exotic chords, smooth-voiced backup singers and languid, reverb-laden vibe, “Tout Arrive” seems to have more in common with English trip-hop à la Portishead than with any other genre. Not that that’s a bad thing. Just the opposite, in fact.

M83, “Midnight City,” from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011)

Ah, you knew this song, but you didn’t know it was French, did you? Both a smash hit and critical success, M83’s 2011 Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was the latest in a long line of stellar releases from this Antibes band. The first in that lineage, “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Ghosts,” opened with a Radiohead-esque Microsoft Sam voiceover that soon gave way to walls of smoldering guitar and warbling synthesizers. And although M83 have since recalibrated their music to fill arenas rather than earphones  — prior to Hurry Up’s release, frontman Anthony Gonzalez promised that it would be “very, very, very epic” — the band has nonetheless maintained their instincts for ear-widening sonic innovation.

Zombie Zombie, Rocket #9” from Rituels d’un Nouveau Monde (2012)

Taking cues from their fellow trip-hop scientists in Aquaserge, Zombie Zombie’s “Rocket #9” is a modal, bass-heavy groove track. As voice repeatedly intones: “Rocket number nine, take off for the planet/ for the planet venus,” the words themselves gradually lose meaning, becoming just another color in the band’s dark-hued sonic painting.  Given the song’s jazzy tonality, it’s unsurprising that Zombie Zombie’s oeuvre includes reworked songs by avant-garde jazz pioneer Sun Ra.

Cheveu “Charlie Sheen,” from 1000 Mille (2010)

A pleasant guitar riff and an almost video-game like keyboard figure propel this song forward until it explodes into a wall of fuzz, only to fall quickly back into its groove. Perhaps this sequence is meant to imitate the volatile actor for whom the song is named. Delivered in a woozy drawl, singer David Lemoie’s lyrics ask Sheen: “What can I do for you Charlie? Anything to go with your fries?”

La Femme – “La Femme,” from Psycho Tropical Berlin (2013)

“La Femme” is the eponymous Biarritz band’s flagship song — a manifesto, a declaration of independence, and a tour-de-force all in one. Reviewers generally throw a laundry list of genres at La Femme’s music before throwing in the towel and giving up — a testament to the fact that La Femme are one of the most original bands around today. Their music is trippy yet danceable, sinister yet ebullient, and exemplified on this irresistible jam that sees lead singer Clémence Quélennec’s precise, enticing vocals interspersed with bongos and canon blasts.

Beach House, “Sparks,” from “Depression Cherry,” due out August 28, 2015

The first single from Beach House’s new album is more muscular than much of their misty, ethereal previous work. At the song’s opening, a searing slide guitar pierces a veil of hushed chanting, only to be enveloped by the powerful organ riff around which the song is built. But even with that more forceful approach, the band — French-born Victoria Legrand and Baltimore native Alex Scally — still manage to create their trademark washes of sound, for an effect both delicate and driven.

Melody’s Echo Chamber, “I Follow You,” from Melody’s Echo Chamber (2012)

In 2010, Melody Prochet’s Paris-based band My Bee’s Garden supported Tame Impala on tour, and the rest is history. Prochet crafted Melody’s Echo Chamber with the help of Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker, and from the first shimmering guitar arpeggios of “I Follow You,” it’s clear that her music possesses the effortless, dreamy ambiance that much psychedelic rock strives for.

Alpes, “Paix” (1972)

Those who know French psych-rock speak of Alpes in hushed tones. The band formed in 1967 when lead singer Catherine Ribeiro met multi-instrumentalist Patrice Moullet while both were acting in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Les Carabiniers.” Their music consisted of wide-open spaces across which Ribiero could howl beat-style poetry in her distinctive Portuguese accent, one of the most distinctive voices in French rock. Slow-burning and grandiose, their 1972 epic “Paix” swells and breaks multiple times throughout the course of its 15 minute runtime, as Ribiero calls out in a voice caught halfway between awe and fury: “To those who scream because they see clearly! To our sick spirits and our burst hearts! To our degenerated generation!” 

"Paix," by Alpes, is not available on Spotify.

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