Review Summary: Incredibly talented French duo create a math-rock masterpiece3 of 3 thought this review was well written
If there is one criticism I hear with regards to math rock, when discussion of bands such as Don Caballero or Ahleuchatistas come around, it is that often times said bands (and many others among them) create highly technically proficient works which showcase stellar musicianship and a keen sense of timing, and yet they are oh so void of emotion...
And indeed, sometimes I am inclined to agree. Often times structure and skill are placed at the forefront of math rock. The genre's name gives credence to this notion. I've sat through many a drab experience trying to decipher why exactly composition is at the helm of these musical adventures when the most important quality - soul - seems largely absent.
Cheval De Frise - a french duo who have now since broken up - transcended this common association of soullessness with their self titled record. What is it about this band that separates them from the pack, and how does a competent, emotional math rock record warrant classic status?
Cheval De Frise are undoubtedly masters of composition. From the very first seconds of the opener 'Noblesse de L'echec (1)' it is undeniable that the two musicians (Thomas Bonvalet on guitar and Vincent Beysselance on drums) have a rare synergy. They are keen to experiment as much with the silence between notes as with the notes themselves. They possess a sense of structure which I have not found to be successfully paralleled even by renowned math-rock groups such as Tera Melos and the aforementioned Don Caballero.
Comparisons aside, how does one describe the cryptic, eerie music of Cheval De Frise?
Take what you love most about math rock, the musicianship and the structure and the transitions: add to this an underlying, brooding, highly anticipatory feel - a sense of mystery, if you will. The music explodes, simmers down, and resurfaces in manners both steady and jagged throughout the album, though never in a fashion which can be said to have a recurring theme. They switch between disjointed acoustic passages, and semi-distorted almost hardcore-esque jams where the emphasis is placed on heavily accented drumming and an overall sense of urgency.
The eeriness of the music overall is worth noting further. A part of what makes this album such an experience for me is that, even after all this time where I am now able to recognize and anticipate passages of the album with relative ease (though the technicality still throws me off occasionally), I still find myself awaiting - nay, dreading - the moment where the band's more spastic qualities will emerge and thrust me into an awe-struck state.
The more relaxed melodies throughout can be highly misleading; be very wary of the light-hearted passages on this album, for they inevitably lead into dark places, the likes of very few 'brutal breakdowns' or 'doomy' atmospheres achieve. Indeed, this band manages to create an intensity and alertness which many composers strive for, but cannot achieve in a way so intangible and elusive as the way Cheval De Frise manage to do.
This band also experiments frequently with changes in volume in order to add to the build-up of the more progressive sections. There are points on the album nonetheless where the band does not make any attempt to be progressive, and where the songs (of course being highly technical as is signature of most math rock) keep a frenetic pace for the entire duration. These songs are few are far between - for the rest of the time the band is traversing dark places in ways both melancholy and assertive.
If I consider an apt description of this particular breed of math rock to be difficult in creating, certainly the listener foreign to this band's works will have even greater difficulty in deciphering just what it is about this duo which is so oozing of emotion and skill.
If you appreciate musicianship, this is a must-have.