Band: PoiL | Album: Sus | Genre: Progressive rock, Zeuhl, RIO | Year: 2019
From: Lyon, France | Label: Dur et Doux
For fans of: Magma, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Ni, Frank Zappa
I’ve written before of France’s unique place in the world of progressive rock. Of the countries with distinct national sounds, theirs has always been the most unashamedly weird, fusing progressive rock with jazz and avant-garde music. Zeuhl was an almost-exclusively-French genre for the first twenty or so years of its existence, and two of the five founders of the Rock in Opposition (RIO) scene were Francophone. (Univers Zero were from the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium.) PoiL, the experimental Lyonnais trio, are one of the most prominent contemporary bands carrying on this tradition.
Last year, PoiL fused with the band Ni to become three-sevenths of the supergroup PinioL. Ni’s particular brand of experimental rock music has frequently bordered on metal, and on Sus, it sounds as if some of that may have rubbed off on the guys in PoiL. PoiL lacks a guitar player, but that doesn’t stop the band from laying down their heaviest music to date. The bass on this album crunches and snarls; the electric piano pounds out weird, dissonant chords; and the drumming is downright virtuosic.
Sus is nominally split into five songs, but functionally, it is more accurately described as a pair of 20-minute suites. “Sus la peìra” opens the first of these two suites with thundering bass and squealing synthesizer while the drums and a steady electric piano arpeggio keep the intro from devolving into an unfocused morass. The lyrics, sung delicately in contrast to the instrumental bombast, draw from Occitan poetry. The gentle vocals eventually become more of a somber chant in between moments of instrumental weirdness that almost sounds like a bizarre, jazzy version of Rage Against the Machine with its sudden starts, stops, and octave-wide oscillations.
After that 12-minute salvo, the brief “Lo potz” acts as breather. It’s barely a minute long and a cappella. It’s a nice glimpse into just how pretty the Occitan language is, sounding closer to Italian or Spanish than to French. This opening suite ends on “Luses Fadas” and showcases PoiL’s most obvious Magma influences. Ostinato bass and hypnotic piano lines undergird chanting vocals. The bass and piano lines gradually grow more complex in the instrumental moments, and the vocals alternate between Spanish-flavored chanting and rapidfire, funky, babbling syllabics.
“Grèu Martire” opens the second suite with off-kilter instrumental interplay. It’s something I’d expect from a daring math rock band, with its uneven, jerky rhythm and atonality. That song acts as a setup to the real meat of this suite, “Chin fòu”. The vocals are dramatic and once more tinged with Spanish/Moorish influences. Despite a continually-odd rhythm, the song flows well, with the vocals trading the spotlight with some impressive soloing.
With Sus, PoiL have released a challenging, yet engaging, work. The music here lurches and roars in fits and stops, and the harmonized vocals contrast and complement it. They’ve channeled France’s long history of artistic experimentalism and avant-garde leanings in rock music. To that history, they’ve added a modern, metallic edge, and that intensity is what really makes this such an enthralling album.