How do you know what music is about? It seems like a silly question, but the answer often strongly influences how one experiences a given piece of music. The easiest clue is usually lyrical: if the music has singing, what is being sung? For instrumental music, there’s no such context, so visual presentation might be the next source of information. But barring any meaningful visual content, the next recourse might be in the title, or the names of the songs. Strip all of that away, then, and eventually you get to the raw nerve: does the music bear within itself its own meaning?
Think about it this way: the fact that Beethoven’s third symphony includes the label “Eroica” (“heroic”) is a useful signpost, but go into it without that knowledge and the music carries the message just as plainly.
On its latest album, the French trio Aluk Todolo reduces the extra-musical clues to a single word: voix (which is French for “voice” or “voices”). And while that might seem like a bit of a knowing wink by this all-instrumental group, it actually invites the listener to consider the properties of speech that each player brings to the album, and to focus on the way in which the dizzying trance of the music is raised, syllable by unspoken syllable, into a constantly shifting conversation between the three instrumental voices.
That conversation is a wide-ranging one, because Voix touches on (but rarely settles down into) krautrock, post-punk, goth, noise, psychedelic rock, free jazz, and the ghostly afterimage of black metal. It’s a head-spinning amount of variety made all the more impressive by the fact that there is no extraneous instrumentation beyond drums, bass, and guitar. Voix is a single, forty-three minute piece split across six tracks, so although each section has something like its own theme, moods and motifs are repeated (or perhaps more accurately warped and reflected) throughout the album to give it a truly unified feeling.
Aluk Todolo has few true peers. Chaos Echoes and Oranssi Pazuzu are likely their closest contemporaries, though Voix is more tightly honed than recent albums from either. Voix is also handily Aluk Todolo’s finest album to date. It echoes much of what made 2012’s Occult Rock so excellent, but by cutting back on the overwhelming sprawl of that double album’s running time, Voix‘s efficiency makes it all the more potent.
Crucially, though, Voix‘s title is suggestive but hardly prescriptive. Depending on how you experience sound, Voix may speak like the hushed and desperate muttering of a seance by the fractal dance of glass-scattered candlelight, summoning the dead to stand near us though they may never report from their country of wakeful silence. It may speak like the electric stillness of a rain-battered city hurrying to shut tight the windows and ride out nature’s attempt to reclaim its primordial wildness from the usurpers. It may speak to you (as it does to me) like the ship’s log of an exploration of deep space, the travelers transfixed by awe and wonder even as they know in their bones it is a journey from which none shall return. Aluk Todolo’s music is both cosmic and firmly grounded, as if each sound is dredged up bodily from the unyielding soil while the player aims it at distances measurable only by parallax.
Genre policing is boring and unproductive, but it shouldn’t be controversial to point out that Voix is much closer to a jazz album than a metal album. In truth, it’s neither, but if ECM Records had an alternate universe psych-goth imprint, Aluk Todolo would be a shoe-in for its flagship act. Voix is taut, brooding, surging, contemplative, twitching, and harrowing, and although often dense it is never exactly difficult.
Knowing full well the risk of hyperbole, Voix is also marked by genius-level input from each of its three players. Not only does each have a startling command of his own instrument, but the sympathetic – nearly telepathic – interaction between the three of them is what produces bristling tension and catharsis throughout the album. The opening track “8:18” flits and swerves in a pulsing 5/8 meter, and when the guitar swells to the front about 5:20 in, it’s as a freakish doppelganger of Nine Inch Nails‘s cover of “Lost Souls.” Although the early momentum in second track “7:54” comes from Antoine Hadjioannou’s irrepressible kick drum, it soon transitions to a subtly searching, not-quite-cyclical guitar lead.
Given that the album is an unbroken composition, it’s a little beside the point to highlight individual moments, but the pacing of Voix is a large part of its success. The opening of the third track “5:01” convulses with disorienting sheets and fragments of guitar noise while Hadjioannou keeps a free but steady pulse with toms and snare rolls, but soon the piece evaporates into openness, slowly built chords hanging in the air like the penumbra of an unseen satellite. The album’s first half reaches a nervy climax near the end of the track, when all three instruments lock in for a few brief moments of high-fret acrobatics in a spindly, nearly uncountable meter.
After that great cresting wave of the third movement, the fourth section of the album pulls way back, letting the bass frame an eight-bar minor chord motif against a backdrop of lightly skittering cymbal work. In fact, nearly all of the fourth track’s seven minutes are scene-setting: Shantidas Riedacker’s guitar tosses off quietly unnerving, effects-laden demonstrations while Matthieu Canagueir’s bass stalks patiently, waiting for its cue about a minute from the end to break that pattern and dig waaaaaay in for a thickly elastic riff that locks in with Hadjioannou’s snare to cage the guitar in a prism.
For the first two minutes of “5:34,” the band is both locked in and fighting with itself, the tumbling bass line egging Riedacker’s guitar on into tighter, choked-off phrases that eventually fracture and spill into the most outright surf black metal riffing of the album. But it’s Canagueir’s bass that truly carries the piece, reprising the third movement’s theme to shepherd the album into its final shape. For the last movement, the bass and drums take their cues from each other, with Hadjioannou’s accents tagging Canagueir’s insistent bass in a manner reminiscent of Miles Davis‘s Nefertiti while Riedacker plays a slowly unfolding drone symphony like an iron sun cresting the horizon. And the final coup is the mark that the whole band hits at 4:57. It’s the sort of thing that sounds small on its own, but in the context of the album it’s a huge, world-ending landing.
I’ve been listening to this album fairly obsessively for the last couple months, and I still don’t know exactly what it’s about. But each time I listen I’m pulled in a different direction, and each time I hear new detail, new nuance, new shading in what could have been a monochromatic exercise. But then again, maybe this is an exercise after all: an interlocking set of etudes written in a shadow clef; the mapping of an uncharted territory where compasses fail and the cartographer resorts to a dark geometry; the recitation of a story in a language no one speaks for an audience no one remembers.