Ólafur Arnalds/Shinichi Atobe/Daniel Bachman/Nicolas Jaar/Roland Kayn/Bamba Pana/Various Artists – bblisss
The very act of change is a natural state. In the twelve years since I last held a valid British passport, pretty much everything has changed for me: I am no longer a drunk; I am no longer HCV+; I am no longer a single parent. Children grow up, children leave home. Shorn of the responsibility of family holidays, and with a newly issued passport in pocket, I duly set sail for France, and the promise of two idyllic weeks with la nouvelle Madame Encoule.
We sailed from Dover, on the early afternoon tide, bound for Calais, and the beckoning tolls of the French motorway system. By the time we’d hit out first service station, somewhere near the Somme, I’d readapted to driving on the wrong side of the road, and reacquainted myself with the kind of rudimentary French involved in ordering ham baguettes, coffee and muffins. In summary, French motorway service stations are ostensibly the same as here in the UK, except they serve decent coffee, don’t smell of weed, or feature coach-loads of drunken office staff returning from team-building exercises in the Forest Of Dean.
With a couple of hundred miles worth of UK motorway already under our belts that day, we sallied forth only as far as Rouen on the first night, some three hundred miles short of our ultimate destination: Concarneau. Armed with the wonders of smart phones and roaming data agreements, we were able to make a reservation in Rouen in plain sight of the actual room we would be staying in that night, whilst still a hundred miles or so away, travelling at 80mph, in a large metal tin, on wheels. Technology has come a long way in the last twelve years, changing the art of travelling on possibly every level imaginable. Directed to the hotel with the pinpoint accuracy of a MGM-51 Shillelagh missile by our on-board sat-nav system, we were duly installed and loose on the streets of Rouen, refreshed and pizza’d, in time for the stunning light projection of scenes from Rouen’s history, beamed onto the outside walls of the city’s cathedral. We stood in awe, agog at the spectacle, filming furiously on our mobile devices, whilst simultaneously broadcasting to various social media platforms at will. With hundreds of years of history literally crumbling in front of our eyes, this was surely the finest acid trip I had ever experienced without the use of hallucinogenic substances. With flashbacks indelibly stamped on our retinas, we strolled the balmy streets of Rouen in search of the river, and the ten thousand steps each we required to keep our blood pressures in line with European Standard Blood Pressure regulation #12826-2. In summary, Rouen is ostensibly the same as any historical city here in the UK, except it serves decent coffee, doesn’t smell of weed, or feature coach-loads of drunken Celtic supporters returning from a Champion’s League qualifier in Moldova.
Arising bright and breezy at around 7am the following matin, we breakfasted like children amok in a croissant factory, slurping delicious coffee, cramming in mini-pastries and multiple yoghurts, buttering pain traditionale without recourse for confiture. On the road for 8am, we began eating miles like Pac-Man eats Pac-Dots, Madame Encoule co-piloting and DJing ambidextrously, whilst carrying out her own research on the type of cars preferred by French drivers. She soon felt confident enough to publish her findings, concluding that French drivers typically preferred to drive French cars. 7-out-of-the-next-10 cars to overtake us all turned out to be German, and the research method was returned to the drawing board of reflection, for reconsideration and refinement. The soundtrack to the journey featured Nubya Garcia, Burial, Sons Of Kemet, Nathan Salsburg, François Tusques, Daniel Bachman, Mikey Dread, Black Lodge, Topdown Dialectic and Iceage. As the toll roads turned to dual carriageways, and the terrain altered accordingly, we crossed the regional line into Brittany, mid-afternoon, eventually picking up the N165, the thoroughfare that would become our Route 66 for the ensuing fortnight. We rolled into downtown Concarneau at around 4.30pm, collecting the maison keys from the letting agency, before venturing back up over the bridge that spans the gorge at the head of the town, to reach La Passage on the east side of the dock. Our maison, located dockside, directly opposite the citadel of Concarneau, could best be described as halcyon: the Otis Reading of holiday homes. As we entered the 3-storey building, filming furiously, amazed at the luxury our money had secured us, we were filled with the kind of child-like joy that only wonderful surprises can bring. We had our own citadel, our own fleet of French naval frigates guarding our docks, and our very own ferryman, who for 1-Euro a pop would ferry us from our local jetty to the sea gate of the citadel, daily, from 8am till 11pm. We’d hit town in the midst of festival season. Over a hundred years old, the Filets Bleus festival takes place every August, when it gives the town and its inhabitants an opportunity to go back to their roots: a typically Breton-flavoured costumed parade, dancing, games and the 24-hour drone of massed bagpipes, percussed by the constant click of le clog. As we swam around town through the sea of brasseries in search of bière sans alcohol, we were soon ensconced quayside at Les Grand Voyageurs, Desigauled-up, sipping ice-cold Jupiler, munching moules, omelettes and frites. Wandering the citadel later that evening, cafe ice-creams in hand (deux scoops), we found what would become the ice-cream bench, where we sat, licked, and watched le monde drift by into the night. In summary, Concarneau’s citadel is much like any English citadel, except they serve decent coffee, don’t smell of weed, and aren’t rammed with hordes of sunburnt infidels who overdid it on the first day, singing: “Torremolinos, Torremolinos”.
In the course of the next seven days, week one saw us traverse the N165 in search of the standing stones of Carnac, one of Brittany’s greatest attractions. Three fields, Ménec, Kermario and Kerlescan, contain around 3,000-aligned megaliths, dating from 4000BC. These granite stones were erected on the spot where they were dug, hence the differing sizes, and although it is not known why they were put up, it is thought they had a religious or cultural significance. Some of the latest theories suggest that they formed a barrier between incomers from the coast and the heartlands of the interior, but I prefer to think they were erected to channel energy towards the Tumulus Saint Michel, the enormous burial mound at the centre of the modern town of Carnac, originally built to house a single grave. The concept that the entire complex was constructed in honour of a single human being is as mind-bending as the tangible sense of flowing energy we felt wandering illegally in and out of the stones. Nearby, the megalithic site in Locmariaquer contains three of most emblematic monuments of Breton megalithic architecture: the ‘Er Grah de Locmariaquer’ tumulus, the broken standing stone (menhir), and the ‘Table des Marchands’, or Merchants’ Table, dolmen. These enigmatic stones were erected between 4500 and 3700 BC, and bear testament to a period of prehistory that saw the sedentarisation of man, and the beginnings of primitive farming. The rest of week one was balanced out with local pottering: costal reconnoitres, plage testing, lighthouse spotting, hyper-market evaluation, cycling, and a whole bunch of walking. We even found a record shop, in Brest, Bad Seeds Records, but sadly it had an extensive Death In June section, so we made our excuses, and left. By the end of week one we’d become accustomed to our environment; could speak fluent parodic French; could hear bagpipes in our sleep; and had found the beach beneath the pavement. In summary, French archaeological sites are much like English archaeological sites, except they serve decent coffee, don’t smell of weed, and aren’t troubled by phalanxes of Time Team t-shirted Phil Hardings shouting: “come and have a look in this here trench, Tony”.
Week one’s holiday reading matter: ‘The Gallows Pole’ (Bluemoose Books), Ben Myers: “An England divided. From his remote moorland home, David Hartley assembles a gang of weavers and land-workers to embark upon a criminal enterprise that will capsize the economy and become the biggest fraud in British history. They are the Cragg Vale Coiners and their business is ‘clipping’ – the forging of coins, a treasonous offence punishable by death. A charismatic leader, Hartley cares for the poor and uses violence and intimidation against his opponents. He is also prone to self-delusion and strange visions of mythical creatures. When excise officer William Deighton vows to bring down the Coiners and one of their own becomes turncoat, Hartley’s empire begins to crumble. With the industrial age set to change the face of England forever, the fate of his empire is under threat. Forensically assembled from historical accounts and legal documents, ‘The Gallows Pole’ is a true story of resistance that combines poetry, landscape, crime and historical fiction, whose themes continue to resonate.”
Week two felt more relaxed from the get-go. Orienteered and settled, we began to push the envelope to explore the full potential of N165. We hit the north and Pontivy, a quiet market town where the River Blavet meets the Nantes-Brest canal, once the seat of one of Brittany’s most powerful families before becoming one of Napoléon’s ‘new towns’. We ventured west to Quimper, the administrative capital of the Finistère department, also generally regarded as the cultural heart of Brittany. The town is known for its cathedral, atmospheric old quarter and museums, and we spent hours wandering its impressive streets, furiously photographing, irresponsibly consuming coffee. Midweek saw us head east, back along the old N165, for a booked excursion to Gavrinis, home to what is arguably Brittany’s most impressive Neolithic site: a pyramid-shaped stone burial chamber, whose interior walls are covered with artwork. The island is accessible via a guided tour by boat, from Larmor-Baden. The structure is a tumulus (earth mound) covering a cairn (stone mound) covering a dolmen (stone burial chamber), and was built around 3500BC. To reach the burial chamber, visitors must walk down a low, narrow 46ft-long passage whose walls are decorated with intricate carved patterns and symbols, such as axe heads, horned animals and swirls. At Winter Solstice, the sun shines down the passage and hits the back wall, a la Newgrange (Eire). It is strictly forbidden to take any photographs inside the chamber, and following advice and guidance gleaned from social media stone-worshiping pages, we planned an approach of guile and cunning involving the strategic positioning of Madame Encoule in the guide’s eyeline. Our plan was helped enormously by a smaller-than average party containing a few small children, one of whom was frankly far too young to be interested in neolithic burial practices, and a combination of stealth, a healthy disregard for authoritarianism and sheer bloody-mindedness resulted in a simply stunning set of shots that only served to improve my kudos on social media pages with a stone worshiping bias. The day was further capped by a (slight) return to Carnac, where the late afternoon sun and thinning tourist crowds meant a sweltering three-hour illegal wander through the stones of Kermario and Kerlescan, taking in the Géant du Manio, an enormous menhir, and the Tumulus de Kercado (4500BC). Next on the hit list was the Cairn de Barnenez, the largest megalithic mausoleum in Europe, and also one of the world’s oldest, older than the pyramids of Egypt. Inside, there are 11-passage tombs. The cairn was restored between 1954 and 1968, and finds from this restoration including Neolithic pottery, axes, arrowheads and Bronze Age artefacts can be seen in the visitor centre. The remainder of the week was spent re-walking the streets of Concarneau and its environs, sadly without the aid of our own personal ferry into the citadel, which had been suspended from service unexpectedly due to a technical issue. This meant driving in and out of town for the last 48-hours, somewhat breaking the spell of the previous couple of weeks, but only slightly. Inevitably, we saw it as a precursor of change, an omen that two week’s of bblisss was soon to come to an end. On our last day in Concarneau, we took to the western coast we’d been reluctant to explore on our bikes due to the incline of the only climb onto that peninsula, and were amazed to find a plethora of incredible trimarans, catamarans and racing vessels nestled in the port of Fouesnant. In summary, French sailing communities are much the same as English sailing communities, except they serve decent coffee, don’t smell of weed, and aren’t overrun by people called Hugo dressed in sulphur spring coloured Musto BR2 Offshore Jackets.
Week two’s holiday reading matter: ‘Perfidious Albion’, Sam Byers (Faber & Faber): “Brexit has happened and is real. Fear and loathing are on the rise. Grass-roots right-wing political party England Always are fomenting hatred. The residents of a failing housing estate are being cleared from their homes. A multinational tech company is making inroads into the infrastructure. Just as the climate seems at its most pressured, masked men begin a series of ‘disruptions’, threatening to make internet histories public, asking the townspeople what don’t you want to share? As tensions mount, lives begin to unravel. Jess Ellis’s research into internet misogyny pushes her relationship with her over-exposed opinion columnist boyfriend Robert Townsend to breaking point. Robert’s championing of the inhabitants of the threatened estate begins to erode the edges of his fragile idealism. Local England Always politician Hugo Bennington finds his twisted loyalties catching up with him. At the nearby tech park, behind the utopian rhetoric, Trina James finds that something is dangerously amiss. A controversial tweet; a series of ill-judged thinkpieces; a riot of opinions. Suddenly Edmundsbury is no longer the peaceful town it has always imagined itself to be. Things are changing. No-one is quite who they appear. The future has arrived, and it is not what anyone imagined.”
Bidding au revoir to Conarneau, we hit the N165 bound for an overnight stop in Caen, en route to Calais, and the return ferry home. It was with much sadness that we departed our amazing maison, we’d become accustomed to the drone of the bagpipes, the constant hum of the fishing boat engines, the daily walk to the artisan boulangerie to collect our delicious pain tradtionale, the Heineken 0.0., the unbelievable range of produce available at E.Leclerc, the consistently incredible coffee and our constantly staggering citadel view. By mid-afternoon, we’d reached the medieval town of Fougères, situated on the Brittany-Normandy border. The town originally sprung up to the south of Fougères Castle, one of the finest fortresses in the whole of France, on the banks of the River Nançon, whose waters were used by cloth-makers, dyers and tanners. The prettiest and most atmospheric part of the old town is the Place du Marchix, lined with half-timbered houses. There has been a castle in Fougères for more than 1,000 years. The site, on a promontory sheltered by hills and surrounded by marshes, was first identified by the Duchy of Brittany as the perfect spot to defend its lands from the French. The current castle dates from the 12th century, consisting of three enclosures whose walls are dotted with towers, the most impressive of which is the Mélusine Tower. Approaching the castle from the car park to the north, it was impossible not to be daunted by the sheer size of the defences. I’ve been visiting castles for much of my life, but with the possible exception of Carcassonne (admittedly, more of a cité than a Château), Fougères was somewhat of a game changer. With the dying embers of our holiday sunshine topping up our already mildly impressive tans, we photographed and posted, drank coffee and munched frites, draining the last of our Frenching and touristing from the opportunity. We eventually hit Caen as the sun was falling, on both the day, and our great French adventure. Caen is a port city, capital of the Calvados department in northern France’s Normandy region. Its centre features the Château de Caen, a circa-1060 castle built by William the Conqueror. Madame Encoule had waited patiently all holiday to realise her ambition of an authentic French Château, and like a number 10 bus you’ve been waiting for for some considerable time, two come along at once! In the space of a couple of hours, we were wandering yet more ramparts, climbing towers, peering from battlements and marvelling at gatehouses. In the town’s restaurant district, later that night, I was reminded of distant memories of St Tropez and PGL holidays in 1978, the art of al fresco dining, and how the UK will never perfect the concept of continental approaches to alcohol consumption. The following morning, as we inched ever-closer to Calais, there was a significant increase in the number of UK number-plated vehicles overtaking us at speed in excess of 100mph. It was sudden manifestation of the depressing reality that we were once again amongst The Twitterati, a nation who seemingly relate their social status to the cubic capacity of their car’s engine in less than 280-characters. These fears were only heightened further whilst queuing for the toilets, dockside at Calais, piss-poor coffee in hand, nostrils offended by the stink of weed, conversations littered with gratuitous swearing and the threat of impeding violence. In the words of Jason Williamson: “Fuck England. Fuck my country”.
This month’s new releases are featured here as recommendations, rather than reviews, in the interests of brevity:
Ólafur Arnalds – ‘re:member’ (Mercury): Icelandic composer’s 11th full length in a career spanning 11-years is a lush and rewarding change-focussed journey of oceanic depth and tidal pull. All kinds of gorgeousness in liberal excess. Speaking of the album, Ólafur says: “This is my breaking out-of-a-shell album. It’s me taking the raw influences that I have from all these different musical genres and not filtering them. It explores the creative process and how one can manipulate that to get out of the circle of expectations and habit.”
Shinichi Atobe – ‘Heat’ (DDS): Japanese electronic music producer’s totally unexpected yet droolingly anticipated follow-up to 2017’s ‘From The Heart, It’s A Start, A Work Of Art’. Somewhat of a family favourite here in the Encoule household, undoubtedly his finest creation thus far, and a fairly obvious contender come close of play and list season. Genuinely, there is not a sub-par moment on this record, one that will keep spinning long into the future chez Encoule.
Daniel Bachman – ‘The Morning Star’ (Three Lobed Recordings): When word came down the wire from our American Primitive correspondent, embedded deep within the oft-forgotten land of Dark Folk, of the imminence of a new double album opus from Virginian wunderkind, Daniel Bachman, it was smuggled in almost undercover, in a cache containing recommendations for the likes of Gwenifer Raymond, Nathan Salsburg and Roslyn Steer. Accustomed, as I have been in recent years, to the work of William Tyler, Bill MacKay & Ryley Walker, the world of the solo acoustic guitar slinger can be both satisfying and frustrating, in equal measure. After all, it’s a thin line between the reinterpretation of traditional mores and parody, and in some senses, it could be argued, that records I own by all of the above straddle said divide on a tightrope, spinning through 360-degrees perilously, in the course of a single siting. To not only avoid such a trap, then, but to vault dextrously across it whilst performing triple somersaults, is surely a feat of some magnitude.
Nicolas Jaar – ‘Pomegranates’ (Mana): Palestinian and Chilean composer’s enigmatic alternate soundtrack to Sergei Parajanov‘s 1969 avant-garde film ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’, newly mastered, re-dressed and issued on vinyl for the first time by the impeccable Mana. An intimate hour and a quarter vision presented as cinematic epic that veers across genre boundaries with a gleeful nonchalance to stand alone in all its uncategorised glory.
Roland Kayn – ‘Simultan’ (Die Schachtel): Box-set re-issue of this truly groundbreaking set from ?founder member of legendary ensemble Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza and regular singular genius, Roland Kayn. Superlatives run rich on this incredible package everywhere you dig, issued as an edition of 100-numbered white wax copies, complete with 6-translucent paper score-sheets, extensive booklet, and printed inner sleeves. Remastered from the original analog master-tapes.
Bamba Pana – ‘Poaa’ (Nyege Nyege Tapes): Tanzanian grime-merchant Bamba Pana keeps the needle firmly in the red for the latest exemplary release from Nyege Nyege Tapes. Following last month’s praise for griot Ekuka Morris Sirikiti, Pana capitalises on the groundwork set out by the label’s ‘Sounds Of Cisso’ compilation to radically redraw the contours of BPM abuse. Highly recommended for anyone remotely interested in where repetitive beats are heading next. Exhilarating.
Various Artists – ‘bblisss’ (bliss): Originally released on cassette a couple of years ago, and now changing hands on Discogs for vast sums, Ryan Fall (uon) compiles a selection of West Mineral artists and associates to fashion possibly one of the finest ambient collections of this, or any other age. Featuring Pendant, Ulla Straus, Naemi, DJ Paradise and Billington & Tramposh, amongst others, this essential collection is worth sticking your neck out for and holding onto for grim death. Outstanding artefact, artfully pressed up onto doubt white wax in painfully limited numbers.