By Serdar Yegulalp on 2000-11-17 23:38:07-05:00 No comments
The word "influence" gets slapped around like a red-hot badminton shuttlecock among music critics. Talking about how "important" an artist is, say some, is only because they're important to other musicians, not to people who actually listen to music. Then again, a good many of the people who listen to music are also musicians, so charges of elitism can cut both ways. There's also the very good chance that the influential works in question are, in fact, really good.
Bernard Szajner was one of the largely unsung pioneers of the 80s synth movement since he started his career as a technician, not a player (he helped engineer the laser light shows later used by Klaus Schulze at his concerts). His first album, here reissued on the French Spalax label, is a moody and striking mixture of progressive rock constructions and electronic-music instrumentation. It's easy to see how it's influenced a lot of people, from Michel Polnareff to Aphex Twin. The connection to the prog-rock axis is more than passive: Bernard Pagniotti (a sometime member of Magma) chips in here on a couple of tracks, and Spalax has reissued more than a few Amon Düül records in its time. You could probably argue whether Larry Fast was an influence on him or was it the other way around? … but the same set of basic sonic ideas do come into play with both musicians.
The music's the album's strongest point; the weakest side is the governing concept. I have a slight prejudice against "concept" records in the abstract—it's often a way to lend a structure where one might not be needed. Both sides of the record deal with incarceration and the death penalty (hence the title), with one prisoner being executed on Side One and another coming to terms with life in prison on Side Two. There's quite a range of instrumental color at work here—the opening track's sequenced effects stand in pretty stark contrast to the VCO-sweep noise attacks at the end of Side One. Lyrics, too, but only the first and last tracks have words (in English), and they are more for atmosphere than coherence.
Unfortunately, putting the more emotionally explosive part of the record first means that a tremendous amount of energy is built up, then detonated, and never regained. Side One is taut; Side Two is passive. And saying that falls under the general umbrella of the concept (i.e., life in prison as ennui, etc.) doesn't really work. There's a difference between an album with a case of ennui and an album that's about it. Deaths never quite crosses over into that territory.
This is still a terrific record, though. In early part of the Eighties, electronic instrumentation started to leap ahead and really become an adjunct and an enhancement to a peformer's arsenal of equipment instead of just a fancy organ or piano. A library of music that shows the evolution of the synth would have a sizable hole if it didn't include this disc.