Pinhas / Heldon / Urban Sax:
Directions In French Progressive Rock
(Part III: 1980-1999)

by Doug Walker

From Aural Innovations #9 (January 2000)

If 1970 dawned bright with promise, developments during the decade lead to Western society engaging in retrenchment and conservative impulses by 1980. Many musicians involved with progressive rock music were either fading from view or adopting the commercial constraints of a collapsing, oil-starved music/industrial complex.

Yet by 1980, the Synthesizer as an instrument was maturing, and could be heard as the basis for much of the music of the period. Coupled with the energy of the "punk/new wave" ethos, artists as diverse as Gary Numan, OMD, Prince, and Michael Boddiker were able to put the machine to work, and familiarize it to a wide audience via pop music hits or big budget movie soundtracks. Many of the Synthesizer innovators of the 70's period found they had to make more and more concessions to popular music aesthetics in order to maintain positions in a shrinking market. The dynamic was such that only a few were able to withstand the commercializing trends of the period.

Richard Pinhas released the LP "EAST/WEST" in November 1980 on the independent "Pulse" label worldwide, as he had garnered much attention in the US, Britain and France over the release of "Iceland" & "Stand By". The LP is an eclectic mix of genres, reflecting a keen understanding of how to strike a balance between veteran listeners and newcomers. Curiously, it is the only release in Pinhas' career that contains cover versions of "pop" tunes!

The side opens with "Houston 69.The Crash Landing", a group piece featuring the killer rhythm section of Didier Batard, Francois Auger and Patrick Gauthier. The piece intros with a strong sequencer pattern (played on a recently acquired E-MU synthesizer), and serious crunch guitar chords from Pinhas. Guest vocalist & Science Fiction writer extraordinaire Norman Spinrad vocalsprechts the voice of a panicking pilot who knows he's "going in hard" as the band's aggressiveness creates great tension. There is a bridge, and Pinhas plays hot solo on the ostinado, but unfortunately it is mixed quite low, and the tune is faded before reaching a solid conclusion.

Originally recorded on the groundbreaking LP "LOW", David Bowie's "Sense of Doubt" gets an interesting ride in the hands of a Synthesist of Pinhas' ability. The tune is concise, and the minimal melody is stated with punch and aplomb. "Kyoto 3" is a short study involving percussion, Emu Keyboard Computer and Moog 55, and utilizes many facets of traditional Japanese tonalities, but in a strictly Western context.

"La Ville sans Nom" is a duet with old compatriot Georges Grunblatt on Polymoog, and Pinhas' guitaring. They continue on the next track "Ruitor", based around a sequence reminiscent of the works on "Chronolyse". "West Side" is Pinhas' bid for a "Synth pop" hit, with a rather amusing vocal from one Dominique E (who sounds like a French John Foxx in his UltraVox period) and OMD type basslines and Kraftwerkian Arpeggios. "Beautiful May" is another duet with Grunblatt, and sounds the way one might expect a city like Paris would feel, basking in the Spring sunshine of a bright May afternoon. "Keflavik. The Whale Dance" is a short solo, an introduction for the last bit, "Houston 69 Part 2", which features the blazing percussion of Francois Auger, and Pinhas' "Blitz Guitar" sound. Norman Spinrad appears again on this track, unfortunately even more tunelessly than the first take displays.

Many criticisms could be leveled at this release, many it's lack of substantial music, and seems like Pinhas' attempt to "commercialize" the Heldon sound with vocals and short tracks. But in fairness there's more than a few flashes of brilliance on it.

On 4/19/81, and again on 5/19/82, Pinhas performed in both London and Paris, his shows based around the music released in Spring of 1982 on the "L'Ethique" LP. Both shows are very much in the late 70's Heldon style, with Pinhas playing ace Guitar, fronting a grouping of Drummer Clement Bailey (ex-Zao), BassGuitar wizard Bernard Paganotti (ex-Magma), and long standing Keyboardist/Synthesist Patrick Gauthier.

Cassette recordings of both shows reveal hot, energetic musicianship from all the players as they run "L'Ethique"'s tunes down at very brisk tempos, while Pinhas grinds out great guitar stuff la Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and James Marshall Hendrix. I have heard that the 4/19/81 date was issued as a double Bootleg LP in Holland around 1986, but part of this show turns up as filler material on the "Rhizosphere" CD. This show is quite good, and deserves to be cleaned up and issued in it's entirety.

"L'Ethique" appeared in stores in June of 1982, and continued to mix short solo synthesizer pieces with long power Guitar/Rhythm section workouts. Opening with the title tune, one hears the growth of Pinhas' approach to "Synth-Pop". Wisely the vocals have been ditched, instead whole-note chords on PolyMoog mark the melodic activity until Pinhas' Guitar blazes into the mix, and the slowed down-voices return as the track is faded into "Dedicated to KC".

It is obvious that Pinhas has always stated the influence had on him by Robert Fripp and his structure known as KING CRIMSON. Pinhas has learned his lessons well, constructing a piece reeking of "Red"-era KC, Pinhas layering atonal chords across the Bass ostinado, while the band is steady behind. Pinhas serves up modal chords that resolve in a tight 4/4 by the band (Bailey, Paganotti, Gauthier). Another riff is introduced, taking a strong reference to '73 Mahavishnu Orchestra, this powered by heavy Guitar Synthesizer as they fall into a more up tempo "Lark's Tongue Pt2" type riff. "Melodic Simple Transition" sounds like yet another outtake from "Chronolyse" with a sequenced rhythm track that sounds like an analog Drum Machine. "Belfast" is built from a synthesizer Ostinado, and odd meter riffing from the band, with yet another gorgeous Guitar break from RP.

The "Western Wail" is the stand out track here and was a mainstay in the live performances of this period, It possesses all the attributes of late period Heldon in the blazing Guitar solos, deft unerring rhythm work from BassGuitar & Drums, and serious counterpoint from the sequencer. Unfortunately, the tune is edited and broken up by another version of "L'Ethique", and the release closes with a different version yet again.

Curiously, the CD release is padded out by a jam from the Olympia Theater (Paris) concert in 1978. This track also appears on the Warner's "Retrospective" double LP. This is yet another concert that should be released on one CD, rather than be spread across three different CDs and still incomplete. Mysteriously, Richard Pinhas was to fade from music after this release, and issued no recordings from 1982 to 1991.

In 1985, Warner Bros records France released a Double LP entitled "Retrospective" in Europe. This poorly edited "greatest Hits" collection was worthy of purchase due to the presence of live cuts from the 1978 Olympia theater show. The rest was cruelly cutup excerpts from a number of Heldon and solo LPs, but did succeed in attracting an audience unfamiliar with Pinhas music. The original Heldon/RP recordings became quite valued in the pre-CD era of the 1980's, some (like Heldon III) offered on the collector's LP market for around $175.00

Gilbert Artmann's work with Urban Sax also continued throughout the 1980's, with noted performances in London, Berlin, and an internationally televised broadcast (seen in the States on Public Television) 1/1/84, and concerts in Malaysia in 1986.

"Catalogue", which displayed his FreeJazz roots (issued on Hat Hut Records, and considered VERY RARE), and in 1985 recorded an Urban Sax LP for Phillips Records with Electronic Music Composer Pierre Henry, "Paradise Lost". The LP consists of the well-known Urban Sax cyclical composition techniques treated randomly in post-production by Henry's Electronics. The band is so strong the Electronics are just overpowered if still intrusive and distracting.

Urban Sax culminated it's activities on a warm June night in 1989, when the group appeared at a free concert held in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC. Having had the good fortune to reside here, this writer was able to witness the visual power and musical cataclysm of the band first hand, and nothing could be said or written that will adequately describe the experience. This was a spectacle never seen here before (and we NYC folks think "we've seen it all"). The band played for about 80 minutes, filling the huge space to overflowing with its pure sound, but totally in tune with the vibe of the city. The finale was unbelievable, with the crowd following a snake line of Saxophonists (over 30, with 20 vocalists/dancers) out of the building and onto Columbus Avenue, stopping traffic, and so thoroughly frightening the Police who were in attendance that they were unable to keep the sizeable crowd from completely blocking the street. The usual stoical NYC residents were thoroughly perplexed by the sight of the White-swathed, silver-masked "Aliens" with Saxophones, who quickly disappeared into a side entrance of the Cathedral (more than a few listeners claimed they saw craft taking off from areas of Central Park). Easily the most interesting show seen in NYC in years, and a perfect close to a decade which saw derision and criticism heaped onto most forms of musical experimentation by Rock music-based composers.

1990 began with the appearance of a bootleg LP version of the 6/26/75 radio date. The LP featured clear sound and had the tape speed corrected (it was always a bit slow), although the pressing was horrible. Included on the disc was an unreleased track alledgedly recorded in 1982. The tune displays many of the attributes of the "New Age" (New wage??) music movement that began to develop by the mid-1980's, but is much more tonally aggressive.

Record collectors had succeeded in generating interest in Heldon/RP recordings during the rise of CD technology (1984-1990), yet the material was unissued until 1991, when Cuneiform Records announced that they would reissue the previously released material, and that the release of new material by RP was imminent.

Part IV of this series will detail RP's work in the 1990s, including his return to live performance, and his visits to the USA in 1999.

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