Monday, February 8, 2016

Aphélandra - 1976 - Aphélandra


01. Airs (17:58)
02. Belladonne (4:52)
03. Pat (5:25)
04. Aphélandra (3:34)
05. Corinthe (2:50)

- Philippe Grancher / piano, organ, electric piano, mellotron, clavinet, synthesizer
- Pierre Videcoq / vocals, flute, tenor sax
- Gérard Perret / electric guitar
- Philippe Herbin / bass
- Dominique Iroz / drums, percussion
- Clément Duventru / drums

- Didier Lockwood / violin
- Cyrille Verdeaux / piano, synthesizer

Moments of great beauty in an album that sounds half-finished.
The story of Aphelandra is an unfortunate one and yet a familiar one. A budding musician is allowed to make an album at the tender age of 20 and you can hear the wide-eyed enthusiasm all over this music. The musician was the French keyboardist Phillippe Grancher and he had the benefit of being friends with Clearlight's Cyrille Verdeaux who appears on this album as a special guest. Also making a guest appearance was Zao's Didier Lockwood. So Grancher records the album in the Spring of 1976 but decides that the offers made by the record companies are too low, and thus shelves the project rather than put it out. There it would sit, gathering dust, for a generation. In the years since Grancher abandoned progressive rock for blues music and with the exception of drummer Iroz, the rest of Aphelandra apparently left the prog scene as well. Grancher is said to be one of the first French musicians to employ the synthesizer and he has left us a keyboard heavy '70s prog rarity that has the exuberance of a "kid in a candy store." Mellow Records released the album on CD in 2001. The material was written by Grancher with the band members working out their own parts. The name Aphelandra was chosen by drummer Iroz who has stated that the members of the group were not exactly thrilled to have played on an album only to see it shelved, but are now very excited it finally made it to the public.

"Airs" begins with the sound of blowing winds panning nicely across the stereo. The first part features a bit of everything including acoustic guitar, piano, vocals, good bass, and fair drumming. Atop of this is the fancy violin work of Didier Lockwood. In the next part you will hear solo piano for a bit before some wonderful flute enters and the two provide a warm and inviting extended section. This is the best part of the song though so don't get your hopes up! Suddenly things get a bit darker with a tempestuous riff leading to a vocal section, accompanied by synth. A laid back jazzy interlude follows. At 13 ½ minutes the solo piano returns and the band comes back around 15 minutes with a stock beat but some nice synth colors complimenting the piano. A bit of Mellotron here in the stretch before the unremarkable fade-out ending. It's a long track that never quite achieves its promise. "Belladonne" has a feisty intro leading to a jazzy section with sax and piano, leading to an electric guitar solo. Nice percussion work. Out of a rather jerky rhythm comes a wild violin lead as the track gets even wilder, approaching King Crimson mid-70s territory. "Pat" begins with a spacey, eerie lead guitar part played over another picked guitar for about a minute until it is overtaken by a big organ wash. An extended organ section goes for a while until it changes to some playful synth. The final minute or so is given to some dissonant sax and guitar noodling. "Pat" is fun although a bit compositionally challenged, it's just a bunch of different noodles pasted together with little holding them together. The title track begins with some very pleasant organ. The band comes in about 50 seconds later and the piece shifts to an embarrassing funky romp. At this point why not? Everything else has been thrown at the wall to see what sticks! Then comes another melodic section that takes the song back from the silliness before again fading out with little accomplished. "Corinthe" features a cool echoed vocal effect over organ, quite mysterious and goth sounding. This last short piece was actually the best moment with a nice build-up that should have been further developed.

The Aphelandra album is an interesting spin for French symphonic fans but it is hardly a masterpiece. While there are some moments of beautiful performance it's a real hodge-podge of little ideas stapled together without much compositional cohesion. In my opinion this work is not even close to the quality of the better material from Ange, Arachnoid, Ripaille, or Atoll to name but a few from the French scene. Without question there is potential here, there are some very nice moments where I enjoy individual performances and sections but there is not enough consistency to the work. It may be something for keyboard and French scene fans to check out but not until you've acquired all of the acclaimed French albums. I can be quite a fan of pretentious music but it depends on how well the material supports it- good ideas that are underdeveloped or haphazard do not guarantee a great album and Aphelandra is an example of such a case. Had Grancher remained on the scene and put together a lasting band developing his ideas, strengthening the better ones and discarding the weaker stuff, he could have made a better album I'm sure. I love his enthusiasm and great cover art, but some of the music feels like it could have used another hour in the oven.

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