Band: VAK | Album: Budo | Year: 2018 | Genre: Zeuhl
From: Paris, France | Label: Soleil Zeuhl
For fans of: Return to Forever, Ozric Tentacles, Eskaton, Birds and Buildings
Budo is VAK’s first proper album, having released a pair of EPs earlier this decade. VAK draw upon France’s deep tradition of strange, cosmic strains of progressive rock. Magma are probably the best known of this bunch, having invented the zeuhl genre (pronounced sort of like “tsoil”). But bands like the bizarre, theatrical Mona Lisa and the umlaut-abusing symphonic metal act Öxxö Xööx have helped to carve out some uniquely French sounds in the world of rock music.
Where do VAK fit in all this? They’re much more at the Magma end of the spectrum, as opposed to the aforementioned Öxxö Xööx. They’re perhaps most comparable to the 1980s zeuhl act Eskaton. Both feature chanting female vocalists, both rely on an array of synthesizers to be the backbone of their sound, and both feature sprawling, jazzy suites. That’s not to say VAK are Eskaton clones, but people who know they already like zeuhl will appreciate the context. Self-described zeuhl fans are a pretty small group, so those readers unfamiliar with the genre may need some overview.
Budo is a lot to swallow. It’s 59 minutes of music spread out over three songs, 51 of which comprise the first two. The title track leads off the album, beginning with an immediate, bouncy, jazzy bassline before quickly adding layers of synthesizer and electric piano. The vocals enter around the two-minute mark and are yet another trademark of the genre: operatic, dramatic, and ritualistic. As far as I can tell, the vocalist doesn’t sing in French, but it’s unclear if it’s just scat-style organized gibberish or if the band has some sort of Kobaïan-style art language.
The intensity of “Budo” does ebb eventually, turning into a more meditative piece of gradually-building tension. The song then slides into a chaotic series of solos, trading off between guitar, electric piano, and some rather Van der Graaf Generator-inspired saxophone. As the solos end, the song drifts to a spacier place, with the keys lending an expansive atmosphere. As the song nears its end, intensity builds briefly, only to dissipate once more.
“Hquark”, the second song on the album, is a little less immediately inviting. It quickly dives into strange chords and warbling, high-pitched synth lines. Before long, the song is lurching into a flurry of jazzy piano and pounding drums. However, this musical storm eventually breaks onto gentler shores. As happens multiple times in these suites, the song builds to big, irregular riffs before crashing back to earth and repeating the cycle. This is not repetitious music, but there is definitely a pattern to VAK’s songwriting. “Hquark” ultimately builds to a more satisfying climax than “Budo”, but the path to get there is a bit bumpier.
The closing “Au Fond des Creuses” is a relatively brief eight minutes long, but it’s a nice encapsulation of the band’s sound. A flautist is enlisted to play on this slow burn of a track, as the music gradually escalates from gentle murmurs to something which wouldn’t sound terribly out of place on an early King Crimson record.
This review does drop a lot of old bands’ names, but that’s meant more as a framing device than a direct comparison. VAK sound modern, but their influences are not difficult to suss out.