A branch of minimalism, a sprig of folk, roots of drone, several tendrils of entrancement, maybe vines of electrical wiring: this is the family shrub of La Tène, a remarkable Swiss-French group, with its trunk of three and its, likely improvisatory, expansion of four more limbs. Ears might register their new album, Ecorcha/Taillée (Les Disques Bongo Joe), as a lurching toward electronic means, but as with many wondrous artists, it can be difficult to separate the rough textures of suspended notes, the percussive crank of a humanly mechanized beat, or the tonal swooping of a purposefully ratcheting riff.
La Tène’s tools are more in the analogue realm, with their central trio playing ruggedly amplified hurdy-gurdy, scarecrow percussion, and bronchial Indian harmonium. Their four guest extensions will usually bring their amplified acoustic twelve-string guitar, electric bass, and cabrettes—small French bagpipes originating in the Auvergne region.
The new album might at first glance appear to be an EP, but its pair of tracks are eighteen and fifteen minutes long, respectively. This is a band, or collective, that relishes gradual processes, the sustained raising and releasing of tension.
Your scribe quizzed hurdy-gurdy man Alexis Degrenier, who dwells in Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne. His colleagues D’Incise and Cyril Bondi hang out in Geneva, while most of the extended membership hail from Auvergne or further to the south of France. “All sounds, textures and electronic works were realized in real time, with no post-production by D’Incise,” says Degrenier, “except the mix he made with his home studio. So, we can admit that it’s the textures and amplified instruments that made all the particular sounds you can hear, with effects pedals on cabrette, hurdy-gurdy, and guitar.”
La Tène recorded the album live, in a barn that’s been converted into a ballroom, continuing what’s become their accustomed process. “We take a place, or studio, for three to five days,” Degrenier continues, “and try to record all the album in one session. The sessions aren’t public, so we applied the same process for seven musicians, and involved them in our way of working.”
Listeners will at first assume that this ensemble is re-working ancient folk material, shifting it into a modernized shape of hard repeats and cumulative evolution. “In fact there isn’t a ‘folk core’ to our working process, except that we listen, some of us, to a lot of ‘massif-central’ French traditional music, as well as other things. But this isn't really the ‘code’ that we try to transmit. The process is often together during the time we are, between us; at the beginning we discuss the ideas and frames in threesome, and we work on arrangements with all the band.”
The true lineage of the album tracks isn’t quite revealed, as the tunes apparently have their origins in a Christian song from 1883 (“La Passion,” collected by the French folklorist Félix Arnaudin) and a 2022 reggaeton single by Rosalía (“Saoko”). Degrenier believes that these songs have come a long way, transmuted by the band. “It can be a pattern or combination of some musical theme, or a bass line, and then we talk about its recurrence. I had the idea of this groove in my head, and was sure something could be possible with the bagpipe and an octaver. We tried and found some resonances with the other instruments, and the two sources have a hypnotic sense, and force, in them. Then there was music, and some surprises in the puzzle that we all made together.”
Your scribe can also vouch for the compulsive power of La Tène’s live performance, as witnessed at the Moers Festival, in Germany, 2021. There, we bathed in rugged systems folk, Degrenier’s hurdy-gurdy cranked to sound like some lung-bursting marathon monomaniac, as psychedelic guitar figures danced between the dragged-time drone zones. If a prospective listener admires the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, this was a rustic-edged pulsation that’s closer to Glenn Branca, relishing the already abundant drone overlaps present in the foundation form, exacerbating those via amplification and dogged layering. Forming a ritual circle, the players kneaded into a rusted-roots oneness of abrasive metallic-organic scurf. Tangled and clopping into a heavy head-bang industrial pony procession. There were also percussion extras, such as shell-crunching, glockenspiel hits, and woodblock clacks, along with a gong-like resonance. Instruments would seep forward, then recede, the acoustic guitar never actually sounding acoustic, but fed through heavy amplification, rearing up emphatically for the last “Danse De L’Ortha” section. La Tène provided a stunning start to the Moers festivities, and if there had been a crammed audience in place, rather than a field of trickling slow-arrivers, we would have slug-danced all afternoon, full of cidre and swirling uncontrollably.