Album review: Alex Roven - Le Premier Moteur (2020)
French composer/multi-instrumentalist Alex Roven has a background in creating music for commercials and films and is the co-founder of the thirteen-member band Hitzak (‘words’ in Basque) with Scottish poet and lyricist Stuart Mudie. They’ve performed all around the Paris area and released their first album LITTLE BLACK BOOK, a combination of spoken poems, folk and prog with the usual instrumentation augmented by violin, cello, accordion and assorted percussion in 2015. They are working on the release of a new album this year.
Alongside the Hitzak project, Roven was working on his debut solo album LE PREMIER MOTEUR, which was released on streaming platforms at the end of 2020, utilising the talents of collaborators from his native France, from Iceland, Israel, Italy, and the USA. This cast of musicians is well-suited to the project and though all contributions are worthy, getting Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater, Alice Cooper, Billy Idol, Yngwie Malmsteen) to add a keyboard solo on the track LUMIÈRE was something of a coup. Also recruited were two members of Bent Knee, an art-rock band with prog, pop and industrial inclinations formed at the Berklee College of Music, Ben Levin (who sings a poem by Jessie Askinazi and adds guitar on SECCHI) and Jessica Kion, who sings on HERE TONIGHT and OUT.
Maya Belsitzman might not be a household name outside of Israel but the Tel Aviv-based cellist is respected around the world. Her link to prog and post-rock comes through Steven Wilson’s stellar guest vocalist Ninet Tayeb; Belsitzman played cello in Tayeb’s band. I get a hint of Wilson’s HAND.CANNOT.ERASE on NOT IN POWER, where Roven uses spoken word over post-rock and prog metal. There are a number of other spoken passages, reminiscent of Aphrodite’s Child, which confers a certain identity to the album.
The majority of the vocals are handled by New York-based actress Dafna Gottesman, a mezzo soprano fluent in English, French and Hebrew, used to great effect throughout the album, conveying a sense of uncertainty or innocence which fits nicely with the overriding concept, which revolves around the idea of agnosticism. Some songs are about the religious idea of agnosticism, with excerpts from the writings of Jacques Derrida and John Caputo while OUT and its companion piece HERE TONIGHT are more about the idea of uncertainty, including political uncertainty.
Though LE PREMIER MOTEUR isn't archetypal prog it is certainly well written and produced, and Roven should be congratulated on assembling an impressive cast of guests. Some of the songs are high quality pop-rock, though the overall piece best fits the post-rock category, typified by melodic album opener OVERTURE with its guitar and cello arpeggios. Roven is a cellist himself, so the cello parts are carefully thought out and really help to define the sound of the album. In fact all the instrumentation has been chosen carefully and Roven isn’t afraid to leave spaces, so there’s no threat of over-production. I'm a fan of the inventive rhythms, too.
There are times when I'm reminded of Brighton’s Servants of Science, especially on SECCHI, ALL SUMMER, OUT, and even ET L’INVISIBLE AUSSI which is sung in French! Another nod to Steven Wilson is WHAT DO I LOVE, which mixes experimental electronica, Middle Eastern scales and a sparse haunting melody, and experimentation is also present on the title track LE PREMIER MOTEUR which uses a sampled chant from the Polish all-female world/ethno/spiritual/mystic/folk music group Laboratorium Pieśni.
I’d recommend LE PREMIER MOTEUR to fans of post-rock bands like Yobrepus and Servants of Science, but also to fans of Bent Knee and anyone who liked HAND.CANNOT.ERASE
LE PREMIER MOTEUR can be found on Amazon and on Spotify https://open.spotify.com/album/7965hYD7tAsd26n3xv04wk?si=xkRscnoFROyuOV_Rt8GXrg&nd=1