In order to appreciate the composer, one must look past the superlative. The press release calls Franck Vigroux “France’s most singular contemporary composer,” a title that might also go to Eliane Radigue, Pierre Boulez, or a number of other contenders. Vigroux is a powerful composer who creates immersive and often pummeling works of art; this should be enough.
Totem is the latest offering, waiting only a second or two before exploding like a race car crashing into a bank of speakers at a heavy metal show. This isn’t gentle music, although it is intricate. Multiple layers are embedded in these designs, combining to form clouds of oppression. As Totem races across years of French history, one can hear the seeds of revolution, the battlefield cannons, the police sirens: a stone skipped across a sea of violent encounters. The drums add a tempering effect; without them, the sound spirals out of control. Lead single “Capaupire” is a perfect example, alternating between eruption and flow. A likely reference is Samuel Beckett’s Cap au pire (Worstword Ho), a satirical work that reflects the human tendency to descend. And this album does descend, heading straight down to the abyss.
“Chronostasis” refers to a temporal illusion in which a watched clock seems to stop. By playing with expectation, Vigroux extends his initial impressions, leaving aural echoes in his wake. After these echoes one might perceive, if only for a moment, a still, small voice, found in the opening of “Cris,” a crackling fire balanced by a rising series of tones. Imagine an entire bank of tea kettles going off one by one, producing accidental harmonies. Once again the absence of drums allows for disorientation, the closing seconds a chordal shock. When the rhythms are restored, the listener begins to wonder, “how much time was lost when I was unable to count?”
When Vigroux does use drums, his music turns industrial in nature ~ even, dare we say it, danceable. “Baron” would fill the floors in some underground clubs, its relentless bassline a nocturnal draw. But the album is neither a club disc nor a drone disc; alternating between strengths, Vigroux concentrates more on creating claustrophobic tension, most apparent in the nine-minute “Elephant.” It’s tempting to talk about “the elephant in the room,” but the track probably refers to the Elephant of the Bastille, a short-lived project sparked by Napoléon, playfully echoed in the giant mechanical elephant of Nantes. The density of the track rises along with its volume, producing the impression of a monolith.
Strange then that Vigroux chooses “Télévision” as one of his monuments, but fitting. Television pales in contrast to other symbols (most notably the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris), but Vigroux seems to suggest that this maudlin symbol has claimed an emotional spot once reserved for architecture. This indictment serves as a clarion call. As the Yellow Vest protests hit the half-year mark, Totem reminds listeners of the power of image: for better or worse, to inspire or to inflame. (Richard Allen)