Richard Pinhas and the Heldon International
Imperium Holding Company: A Retrospective
From Aural Innovations #36 (May 2007)
It is better to fail in doing a new thing than repeat something.
If you repeat something, you repeat the social order. But if you do
something new, even if you’re not revolutionary, you try to change
the social order. Even if it’s by one millimeter, you commit a
violence on reality.
Richard Pinhas (1)
It’s been well over a quarter of a century since Richard Pinhas (b. 1951) dissolved perhaps the most extreme of France’s “new music” groups—the entity known simply as Heldon. And despite a perhaps ill-advised “comeback” album in 1998 (Only Chaos Is Real), even today both Pinhas and his promethean creation are barely known outside of a relatively small group of aficionados of contemporary electronic music. Though never as influential or musically accomplished as Magma, Heldon nevertheless deserves note as one of France’s first post-Hendrix musical alchemists, skillfully sublimating the elemental passion of rock with the calculated logic of the synthesizer. Heldon’s willingness to explore that undiscovered country where the marriage of man and machine is complete and indissoluble can be seen in retrospect as a fulfillment of Nietzsche’s prophecy that the music of the future would successfully reconcile the universal antinomy of the Apollonian and Dionysian—or the mechanical and lyrical—elements of human existence.
Pinhas’ own influences on his earliest recordings (first with Blues Convention and later with Schizo) display a pattern of broad diversity within the limitations of traditional rock arrangements. With Schizo in the early Seventies the accent was on crude electronic experimentation and esoteric guitar inventions that bore more than a passing resemblance to Robert Fripp’s exploratory work with King Crimson: Pinhas obviously had not yet found his own voice. But if Schizo and Blues Convention were no more than pale reflections of Pinhas’ embryonic genius, then the sinewy avatar that soon followed proved a dynamic mirror image. For with the arrival of 1973 came also Pinhas’ wholly original conception of a new platform for the sound of music in the age of the machine.
While Fripp and Eno were both moving toward a more clinical approach to electronic composition, Pinhas was going in the other direction. He now began to consciously identify electronic music with the violent aggressiveness one would normally associate with rock ‘n’ roll. In Pinhas’ capable hands music that was once termed an austere mechanical exercise by its detractors was soon to become the expression of something that defines Western culture as a whole: the subliminal violence of a technological world order as it moves closer and closer to a complete integration of cybernetics and human beings.
In order to fully explore these notions of technological apocalypse, Pinhas devised the apparatus known as Heldon (derived from Norman Spinrad’s mythological metropolis in his post-holocaust novel The Iron Dream) and later created the Heldon International Imperium Holding Company in an attempt to further define the mechanistic rigidity of his concept (2). As Pinhas was to point out later, Heldon was never intended as simply another collective of individual musicians, but rather as a concrete synergistic entity “directed against the fixed identity of a steely mechanism” (3). As the grand architect of this neo-Laplacean hell, Pinhas was content to play the role of an enigmatic guide through its sinister labyrinthine structure, holding up a mirror to the peremptory imperium of a despotic technology.
The liquors that had been fermenting in Pinhas’ iconoclastic mind bore a strange, violent wine early in 1974 with the release (on the newly formed Disjuncta label) of Electronique Guerilla. Almost entirely self-realized with a Revox A77, Electronique Guerilla “anticipated the whole movement of home-recording and self-production among French musicians” (4). From the first pulsating assaults of his AKS synthesizer and Gibson Les Paul on “Zind” and “Back to Heldon” to the final synth crash of white noise on “Ballade pour Puig Antich,” it was evident that Pinhas was more interested in pulverizing one’s synapses than lulling them into the kind of narcotic dreamscapes Philip Glass and Terry Riley were then becoming famous for creating. But while Pinhas had established the martial terrain he would later map fully on subsequent Heldon albums, he also showed he was capable of exhibiting a fair amount of grace under pressure: the stark, near crystalline beauty of Northernland Lady,” with its cascading guitars and waves of static synthesizer, remains a sublime example of Pinhas’ quest for elegance and symmetry in a radically schizophrenic world. Electronique Guerilla is also notable for its reprise of Pinhas’ classic paean to the student revolution in Paris in 1968. “Quais marchais, mieux qu’en 68” (originally recorded with Schizo in 1972 as “Le voyageur”) seems somewhat dated today but is still an archetypal statement of radical French politics.
Arising out of the general context of the student revolution and the simultaneous development of a new European post-industrial sensibility, Electronique Guerilla elaborated an aesthetic that was at once both ideological and technological. Invoking the concept of machine intelligence to account for the exhaustion of all forms of human enlightenment, Pinhas celebrated a stylistic “hardness” that attracted both bureaucrats and technocrats alike. It was a strategy, however, not immediately apparent on Heldon’s second release, Allez-Téia.
Allez-Téia, released in late 1974, was more self-consciously restrained than its highly volatile predecessor, a fact due perhaps to Pinhas’ further absorption of Fripp and Eno’s experiments in repetition and looping. Allez-Téia (recorded with guitarists Georges Grunblatt and Alain Renaud) is easily the most atypical work in Heldon’s oeuvre, featuring as it does some oddly folk-inspired duets for acoustic guitar (“Aphanisis” and “Michel Ettori”) and an uncharacteristic simplicity of musical diction. Not surprisingly, the high points of Allez-Téia are its extended pieces, which leisurely develop a variety of aural moods and atmospheres suitable for waking dream states and other transient moments of cerebral suspension. “In the Wake of King Fripp,” an almost disarming synthetic pastoral, contains some of Pinhas’ most effective mellotron work, while “Omar Diop Blondin” features his soaring guitar in bold relief against a superstructure of wire and corrugated steel. In the latter especially, the repeated blues figure, carried by the murky bass line, is paradigmatic of Pinhas’ approach to the medium of electronic composition. By taking blues and rock out of their traditionally defined context of a naïve, pre-technological mentality and redefining them within the new context of an enlightened post-industrial consciousness, Pinhas identified the essential connection between technological sophistication and a new mechanized street class sensibility.
If Allez-Téia comes off today as somewhat muted and restrained, then thirty years’ hindsight can clearly discern that it was only because of the raging firestorm that was gathering momentum just over the horizon. It’s Always Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975) comes on like the menace of a new Enola Gay racing desperately toward a zero moment of epic grandeur and cataclysmic annihilation. The title of the disc (actually a two-disc set) reaffirmed Pinhas’ solid commitment to the interface of Western technology and the amateur passion of rock ‘n’ roll. Even the tongue-in-cheek song titles seemed to evoke this sense of the strange hybrid of machine and human flesh. But it was really the brutal arrangements of It’s Always Rock ‘n’ Roll that carried the force of Pinhas’ mesmerizing assault. This malevolent pièce de résistance was like a technophiliac’s audio nightmare come true: troubled mood music for robot minds. Side one (“ICS Machinique,” “Cotes de cachalot á la psylocybine,” “Mechammment Rock,” “Cocaine Blues”) is a grueling initiation into the mysteries of the modern Prometheus, and a celebration of the cyberactive violence characteristic of much that would later come to be known as “industrial” music. “ICS Machinique” and “Cotes de cachalot á la psylocybine” crackle with a nervous energy appropriate to the postmodern age, their phase-shifted ARPs threatening to drown the listener in a storm of electronic sound. The disturbing rhythmic frenzy of “Cocaine Blues” and “Mechammment Rock” (the latter featuring Gilbert Artman on drums) precipitates a relentless dragonnade of screaming electrons, while the repetitive Hendrix-inspired psychedelia of “Aurore” and “Virgin Swedish Blues” seems perfectly designed as a tension-release curative for synaptic overload. This much needed respite however is short-lived. “Zind Destruction” features a parade of violent guitars (each with slightly different distortion and modulation parameters) ripping through empty space like a flying column of twisted metal figures advancing toward some imaginary citadel for a final, decisive assault. “Dr. Bloodmoney” reflects Pinhas’ developing interest in extended synthetic suites, an idea he would explore in greater detail on later Heldon discs, as well as on his own solo works. An hallucinatory denouement to this otherwise stormy, picaresque epic, “Dr. Bloodmoney” propels the listener through a turbulent vortex of shifting synthetic textures. Wide washes of ARP synthesizer eddy into an undertow of sequenced arpeggios, creating the surreal landscape for some virtual reality of a computerized consciousness.
It’s Always Rock ‘n’ Roll presented the apparatus of Heldon as both a vehicle for and a logical extension of the schizophrenic visions of apocalypse that so enamoured Philip K. Dick in such novels as Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Agneta Nilsson, however, proved to be a turning point in Pinhas’ career, and proved ultimately to be the first tentative step that would lead him into a direction as unexplored as it was enlightening.
In many ways Agneta Nilsson (named after Pinhas’ Sweedish-born wife) reflects the continuing influence of Fripp and Eno; but at another level it initiates the movement to the foreground of the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and its influence on Pinhas’ radical ideas of schizophrenia, political defiance, and the primacy of the imagination. Deleuze himself (who, incidentally, appeared on Electronique Guerilla reciting the text to “Le voyageur”), a highly eccentric though widely respected interpreter of Nietzsche, promoted his ideas of philosophical nihilism and social anarchy through his lectures at the Ecôle Normale in Paris. On Agneta Nilsson Pinhas mobilized his forces (including Patrick Gauthier and Coco Roussel) under the direction of Deleuze’s more extreme policies and produced a highly politicized example of socially anarchistic music. Most of the pieces took the form of “perspectives,” ostensibly concerned with current political and ideological events of the day, such as the meaning and scope of the practices of the extreme leftist Baader-Meinhof Group. The music itself became even more rigid and mechanical than before, with Pinhas’ use of sequencer reaching Archimedean proportions. Dark and foreboding, the music of Agneta Nilsson concerned itself with the physical process of cosmic entropy and its mental analog as manifested in schizophrenia or the break-up of the “self.” Like Deleuze, Pinhas saw the immediate political and social consequence of such a radical entropy as an unconditional acceptance of nihilism—the only legitimate and indeed only available political response to a radically disintegrating universe. The opening track of Agneta Nilsson, “Où comment procéde le nihilisme Actif,” is a masterpiece of controlled fear, exhibiting with icy calm the sense of the gradual dissolution of an ordered cosmos as it moves inexorably to that final horrifying moment of total anarchy—a chilling synthetic largo for an apocalypse of collapsing empires.
The rest of Agneta Nilsson, with its crashing percussives, powerful sequencing and Pinhas’ cyclopean guitar structures, creates a similar effect—premonitory collages of scorched metal and synthetic polymers fused into an unsettling tableau of the human condition, its vital signs fading like the flickering digits in the display of a liquid crystal wristwatch. The monolithic guitar 5ths of “Perspective IV” are alone worth the price of admission.
Agneta Nilsson can be seen in retrospect as a kind of blueprint for what Pinhas would subsequently achieve with the later Heldon discs. The thematic focus of the band would become more overtly political and the music more violent, more rigid, more structured. As a transitional work Agneta Nilsson would move Pinhas from the raw experimentalism of the first three Heldon records to the calculated self-assurance of his final, jarring triptych.
Late 1976 saw the release of Un rêve sans consequence spéciale. The title was Pinhas’ French rendering of the famed King Crimson bootleg A Dream without Reason. With Un rêve, Pinhas coalesced the group identity of Heldon into what could be described as an electronic power trio, not dissimilar to the nexus of King Crimson that recorded that group’s last testament, the galvanizing Red. With the addition of the brilliantly anarchic drummer Francois Auger and the continuing presence of the formally-trained pianist/synthesist Patrick Gauthier, Heldon went on to record three final, definitive discs of incendiary electronic rock. “Marie Virginie C.” and “Toward the Red Line” established once and for all the new direction: Pinhas’ roaring guitar savagely stalking the metalized tundra like an antediluvian mastodon in heat; Francois Auger’s stochastic drumming, creating dramatic percussive contrasts between menacing bursts of violent force and refined subtleties of rhythmic intensity; and Patrick Gauthier’s angular yet pulsating synthesizer lines, weaving their way through this surreal architecture like a serpent through a new cybernetic Eden. In an interview in late 1981, Pinhas himself commented on the situation at that time:
It was during this period that Heldon took on a more solid character with
Francois Auger, Didier Batard, and Patrick Gauthier. With them the
records became more serious, more solid, and out of this came Un rêve
sans consequence spéciale, which was a turning point. From this [record]
Heldon drew up the first outlines of industrial music and the cold wave, by
which the Germans and Americans came to identify us. We had been the
first to achieve a very hard, mechanistic style…This was a grand return
to rock, while at the same time transcending it. (5)
If Un rêve sans consequence spéciale was the marriage of guitar and synthesizer—of desire and mechanism, of the passionate Dionysian and the coldly rational Apollonian—then Heldon’s next disc Interface (1978) was surely the dark night of its consummation. Like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, few words can adequately describe the intensity of the experience itself. With Pinhas on guitar and synthesizer, Gauthier on Moog bass, and Auger on percussives, Heldon drafted a stormy manifesto of high energy electro-rock. Dense and metallic in its ambitious design and wholly electronic execution, Interface is a catastrophic assault on the central nervous system.
From a purely technical point of view Interface can be seen as a further refinement of Pinhas’ peculiar concept of the meaning and significance of “trio.” With Gauthier and Auger forming a vicious rhythm section, trading powerful salvos of dense Moog bass and adamantine-like percussives, Pinhas engineered a defiant counteroffensive of gyrating guitars. But in the grim war of attrition that ensued it was Pinhas’ deployment of his modular Moog 55 that carried the day. At times it seemed as if he was consciously using his Moog as a surrogate for the traditional rhythm of guitar 5ths, a phrasing usually associated with blues-based rock and power-chord structures. The effect achieved was nothing short of revolutionary. “Jet Girl,” with its sweeping synthetic rhythms and its electrostatic build-up of diatonic 5ths, is almost a textbook example of Pinhas’ radical approach to synthesizer methodology. “Interface,” comprising nearly 20 minutes, was a riveting encore—like a trip through the electronic subconsciousness of Alfred Bester’s murderously maniacal robot in “Fondly Fahrenheit.” While torqued waves of Doppler-shifted drums whipped across the edges of an artificially fabricated magnetic field, Gauthier’s Moog bass pummeled the central interiors like a massive truncheon of cobalt steel. Swirling on the peripheries of this heady metal wall of sound were Pinhas’ serpentine guitar patterns, leaden obbligatos that twisted with the destructive force of an army of feral tornadoes. Even so, the thundering 12-bar blues riff that brings Interface to a grinding halt showed that Pinhas really did have a sense of humor after all.
In between Un Rêve and Interface Pinhas found time to record his first two solo discs, Rhizosphère (1977) and Chronolyse (1978). Rhizosphère was something of a departure for Pinhas, emphasizing sequential rhythms and repetitive harmony over improvisation and dissonance. Though not a fully realized work, Rhizosphère is nevertheless notable for the hypnotic “A Piece for Duncan” and the rondo-like title piece. The latter is especially noteworthy for its incessant use of shifting tempos and rapid octave changes. Side one of Chronolyse continued Pinhas’ exploration “d’une dimension singulière abstraite du movement” with more eventful results. But while the shorter pieces of “Variations sur le theme des Bene Gesserit,” with their pastiche of melody and rhythm, often evoke the textured minimalism of Glass and Reich, “Paul Atreides” foments an atmosphere of lyrical violence, clearly inspired by the savage gestures of King Crimson’s “Fracture” or “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.” Didier Batard’s malevolent bass lines are particularly impressive as an anchor to Pinhas’ atmospheric mellotron work and Francois Auger’s chaotic percussive fills. “Paul Atreides” thoroughly bristled with the kind of menacing urgency that would make Heldon’s final disc the major statement of France’s contribution to electronic music in the late seventies.
By the end of 1978 Pinhas and Heldon were obviously at the peak of their compositional powers. 1979 however saw the release of what proved to be the band’s epitaph. Stand By was a brilliant coup de grace and saw the spirit of Heldon out in a final blaze of glory. With the addition of bassist Didier Batard, Heldon effectively adopted the posture of a quartet. Francois Auger however thoroughly dominates Stand By, at times upstaging Pinhas with his colossal drumming exhibition: the twenty-three minutes of “Bolero” feature some of the most purely ballistic drumming ever committed to French vinyl. Auger’s technique was such an overwhelming force that it tended to obscure the otherwise stellar contributions of Batard and Gauthier. He even threatened to overshadow Pinhas, but in the end their interplay—a precise mesh of infinitely sustained guitar and bone-crushing percussives—was more complimentary than competitive. The martial spirit of “Bolero proprement dit,” with its resounding toms and a battalion of snares marching in 8-beat measures to the shrill reveille of filtered sine waves, is an ominous dress rehearsal for the rest of Stand By. Klaus Blasquiz’s electronically coded basso profundo serves as a dark preamble to the second half of “Bolero,” a crushing litany of dissonant guitars, swirling synthesizers and accelerated prestissimo drumming. The playful insanity of Gauthier’s “Une drôle de journèe,” with its more obvious jazz accent, is one of the few lighter moments on Stand By. Its atypical syncopated piano rhythms offered further evidence that the Heldon International Imperium had indeed reached a zenith of synergistic awareness. The remarkable finale—the title track—was a blistering attack of guitar and drums fused into a triumphant anthem of twisted metal and detonated steel: a last fanfare for the cadmium man.
By the beginning of 1980 it was clear that Pinhas had little interest in continuing his Heldon persona. He insisted in interviews around this time that he had “outgrown” the specific rock format he had implemented for the Heldon mainframe(5). It was hardly surprising then that by the time of Pinhas’ third solo release, the immensely successful Iceland in late 1979, Heldon was a functionally dead unit. In many ways Iceland can be seen as a sequel to Adonia (1978), the disc on which Pinhas collaborated with the French musician and critic Hervé Picart under the moniker Osé. The graceful lyricism of Adonia, with its impressionistic multi-keyboard textures and its nouveau-romantic sarabands for guitar and synthesizer, provided Iceland with an elegance of purpose that had rarely seemed suitable within the context of Pinhas’ more violent overtures with Heldon. But what made Iceland such a stunning aural experience was Pinhas’ complete mastery of the resources of the modern electronic recording studio. Iceland is not only a seamless voyage through the frigid landscape the title signifies but also a remarkable exploration of the limitless possibilities of electronic music technology. All flashing neon and icy starkness, the austere beauty of the three-part “Iceland” suite seems effortless in execution and design. Pinhas’ imaginative use of vocoder on “Iceland, Part 3” should be an object lesson for anyone desirous of utilizing that terribly misunderstood instrument as something more than a one-dimensional gimmick. Iceland’s shorter pieces (“Iceland, Part 1,” “The Last Kings of Thule,” “Indicatif Radio”) recall the surrealist ambience of Eno’s Another Green World, while the vaguely haunting “Greenland,” with its almost Satie-esque insistence on unresolved chords, was an early premonition of Pinhas’ increasing fondness for a softer, more reflective approach to the medium of electronic composition. (One should also note that the CD reissue of Iceland contains the previously unreleased track “Wintermusic,” a numbingly spacious coda of processed guitars and twittering synthesizer effects.)
After the brilliant artistic triumph of Iceland, it was evident that Pinhas’ star was in the ascendant. But, curiously, after two more solo discs (East-West and L’Ethique) a lengthy silence ensued. Apart from one memorable contribution to a cassette compilation in 1983 and a retrospective LP on Heldon the following year, Pinhas seemed to disappear entirely from le souterrain francais. According to Pinhas,
The main reason for my departure from music was that I simply had no
musical statement to make. I had reached a point where I would merely
be repeating myself, and so I preferred retiring. It was a deliberate
Throughout the rest of the eighties, Pinhas remained quiescent, though he returned with new solo albums in the mid-nineties (DWW and Cyborg Sally) and would eventually reform Heldon toward the end of the decade. Though not as incendiary as the original group, some critics have found the newer, streamlined version of Heldon to be both a rendezvous with Pinhas’ turbulent past and a departure for the placid—though uncertain—future. Recent Heldon releases reiterate Pinhas’ education in oblique harmony but retain a harshness of diction characteristic of the grizzled veteran’s lingering disenchantment with empire and conquest.
But even a cursory assessment of the Heldon oeuvre bears out the judgment that Pinhas and his compatriots may well have altered the course of electronic music to such an extent—how we think about it, how we make it, and for what reasons we use it—that there is now no turning back to the time when such music was simply a de rigueur exercise for “serious” musicians. Pinhas effectively showed that such music is as much a part of our lives as the chromium cars we drive, the synthetic foods we eat, or the steel and concrete high-rise apartments we live in. If his attempt to translate the language of mechanization and superindustrialism into its aural equivalent was not always entirely successful, he at least succeeded in what is ultimately the most desperate mission of any revolutionary—to change the social order. “Even if it’s by one millimeter, you commit a violence on reality.”
(1) From an interview with John Gill in Sounds (July, 1980): 23.
(2) In the satirical parallel world of Spinrad’s novel, the neo-fascist anti-hero Feric Jaggar leads a successful military coup against the decadent Heldon regime and eventually conquers the imperialist Zind nation, a biologically enhanced racial group synonomous with mechanization and superindustrialism.
(3) Eurock 7 (Spring, 1977): 18.
(4) Dominique Grimaud, “Postscript to Un certain rock francais, “Bad Alchemy 4 (1986): 4.
(5) Eurock 19 (Fall, 1980): 17.
(6) For instance, see Pinhas’ remarks in the interview with Hervé Picart, reprinted from Best in Eurock 19 (Fall, 1980).
(7) Audion 22 (July, 1992): 8.