Clearlight has taken me by surprise over the course of my exploring their catalog, and have established themselves as a personal favorite of mine. The band is essentially keyboardist/pianist Cyrille Verdeaux and a troupe of guest musicians on every album. Clearlight as a band entity was established in 1974 to facilitate the recording of the seminal Symphony album. This original incarnation featured Tim Blake, Steve Hillage and Didier Malherbe of Gong, along with numerous other French musicians. The Gong tie-in led to their signing by Virgin Records, as well as a worldwide tour supporting Gong. 1975 saw the follow up release of Forever Blowing Bubbles, another beauty, though this time without the Gong members but with the addition of King Crimson's David Cross. After the release of that album, Verdeaux set to work on a soundtrack for the film Visa de Censure #X; this album came out later in 1975 under the name Delired Cameleon Family. Essentially, this is another Clearlight release, featuring an overlap of musicians and falling nicely in the band's chronology. A label switch to RCA in 1976 brought about the release of Les Contes du Singe Fou, perhaps their most traditionally symphonic album, though still imbued with the distinctive Clearlight feel. Their final release was for Polydor in 1978. Visions featured violin extraordinaire Didier Lockwood, and was undoubtedly their most varied album, incorporating a huge array of influences, from sequencer-laden electronica to Eastern motifs, reflecting Verdeaux's growing fascination with Far Eastern religious principles.
Visions would be the final release under the Clearlight banner for the time being, as the traumatic death of Verdeaux's four year old son set him on a two year journey of self-discovery eastward, where he would further his study of yoga and meditation. Upon his return in 1980, he embarked on a solo career that essentially extends to the present day, having remained very active and quite prolific. Verdeaux has released a number of solo albums and collaborating on a variety of projects, though for the most part these tend to drift more towards to the 'new age' genre, and might be outside the typical progressive fan's scope of interest. In 1990, Verdeaux finally brought back the Clearlight name, and put together Symphony II, an extension of major themes from the original, albeit with a heavy electronic influence.
Times are good for Clearlight and Verdeaux, as the rights to the back
catalog have been won back from various labels, and all the albums and
solo releases have been remastered and re-released by his own label,
Clearlight 888 Music.
After what was reportedly a commercial failure in the more straight-ahead, symphonically-oriented release Les Contes du Singe Fou, Cyrille decided to take over the production duties on the next album, Visions, and imbibed it with a slightly new musical direction based on Eastern philosophical and religious precepts. The result is a generally varied work that retains the more structured vibe of the previous album. Cyrille Verdeaux's piano and keyboard melodies are again the dominant force on Visions, and are supplemented by the usual eclectic blend of instrumentation. Compositionally speaking, the sound generally seems to have less of the spaced-out, psychedelic vibe of the first two albums, opting for a more composed, restrained atmosphere infected with exotic Eastern tones and melodic ideas. The addition of Didier Lockwood on violin is a welcome one, providing a unique instrumental emphasis in the Clearlight catalog, as his violin is very prominent.
The album proper is generally solid, although half of the CD is taken up by bonus tracks which are less so. For that reason, I was a little put off by Visions on initial listens, but in focusing on the first seven tracks for this review, I have found it to be quite rewarding at points, with only minor inconsistencies. In general, there is a sort of sappy new age vibe to the whole thing, especially on tracks like "Songe de Cristale" with its pretty piano melodies and the final track, "Paix Profonde", with the sitar emphasis. Indeed, the second half of the album is slightly less interesting that the first, and these tracks seem to simply function as a let down to the lengthier pieces prior. In any case, the real gems are to be found early on, most especially leadoff track "Spiral d'Amour" with a great, classically inspired piano melody that recalls earlier Clearlight. "Full Moon Raga" builds up behind a chugging drum beat and climaxes with a pyrotechnic violin solo from Didier Lockwood.
The bonus tracks are a mixed bag. "Guitar Elevation" ends up being one
of the best track on the CD, with a gorgeous piano melody beneath a
searing guitar solo. However, some of the tracks get bogged down in
overly new-agey crumminess, and "Crystal City" actually incorporates the
all-too-prominent generic techno beat. On the whole, though,
Visions is a pretty solid album, though it can be a little much if
one is not in the mood for the kind of pretty, lightweight, and ultimately
cheesy Eastern mysticism vibe of the whole thing. Although it certainly
doesn't match the first two classics, Symphony and Forever
Blowing Bubbles, fans of those albums will likely want to follow
|Greg Northrup||14-August-2002||Forever Blowing Bubbles|
The second Clearlight release, Forever Blowing Bubbles, is a more than worthy followup to the classic Symphony album, perhaps surpassing it on many fronts. This album is made up of seven shorter tracks, rather than the two extended movements of the prior album, giving it a somewhat different overall feel. Immediately noticeable is the absence of any of the Gong membership, which does manifest itself in the compositional approach somewhat. The album has less of the "jammy" feel that Symphony had at times, relying on Cyrille Verdeaux's classical piano motifs as its bare-bones structure. Vocals are also sparsely featured, but are for the most part forgettable, as on the tame opener "Chanson." However, female vocals are used to pleasing effect in the short but pretty "Narcisse et Goldmund." In sum, the album plays on the more orchestral and grand moments of Symphony, condensing them into shorter, focused tunes with a heavily melodic, but no less unique, emphasis. The individual pieces begin with some pleasant piano motif, and then, as on Symphony, electronic effects and synthesizers are piled on, often climaxing beneath tremendous fuzzed-out guitar solos.
Sonic ear candy is everywhere to be found throughout the album. "Without Words" builds to a very energetic peak, with some thundering drums and cascading guitar sprinklings. One of my favorite moments comes at the end of "Way," where a barrage of pianos and synthesizers are double- and triple-tracked atop one another. Then the tape is slowly sped up, and everything moves higher in pitch, building in intensity as the sparkling individual themes weave in and around each other. "Ergo Trip" is another highlight, with a stunning guitar solo that complements Verdeaux's intoxicating piano themes.
The Clearlight 888 CD reissue features a number of bonus tracks. Of
note is the previously unreleased "Sweet Absinthe," which didn't fit on to
the original album, but fits in very nicely here. This is another
excellent album from Clearlight, and whether this might even surpass the
more renowned Symphony is debatable. In my opinion, both are
|Greg Northrup||14-August-2002||Clearlight Symphony|
The first album under the Clearlight moniker is an immense work that only gets better with increased listening. For all intents and purposes, Clearlight is the French pianist/keyboardist Cyrille Verdeaux, plus a revolving door of guest musicians on each of the albums. Symphony in particular sports an all-star lineup, featuring Gong members Steve Hillage on guitar, Didier Mahlerbe on sax and Tim Blake on keys. Essentially, the band's style is an extraordinary amalgamation of classically influenced themes melded with electronic, space and jazz influences, making for a stunning palette of savory sounds and gorgeous innovation. Symphony is divided into two movements, and depending on which copy you have, they will be in different order (the original CD version had it wrong apparently, and this has been corrected on the Clearlight 888 reissue). Both display a similar approach, despite one track having the Gong membership, and one without.
Verdeaux seems to generally approach the composition process with a
delicate classical piano base, over which keyboards, synthesizers,
saxophones and any number of instruments work in powerful, melodic
interplay, or veer off into interesting improvisational tangents. Often,
the music shifts into jazz-rock and near-fusion territories, strengthened
by the versatile, emotive playing of Hillage, who turns in a top notch
performance here. Many times, the pieces bring to mind images of some
distant, Jupiterian orchestra, working off some brilliant cosmic themes,
and at other times they sound dense, churning and subtly chaotic.
Reference points could possibly be artists like Tangerine Dream, Mike
Oldfield and, of course, Gong, though Symphony certainly stands
alongside the best work by any of them. This is one of my favorite albums
out of France.
|Greg Northrup||14-August-2002||Delired Cameleon Family|
While not a Clearlight release per se, Delired Cameleon Family sits nicely in the Clearlight continuum, featuring many of the same musicians, and is of course centered around Verdeaux's keyboard/piano-based compositions. Still, Delired Cameleon Family is a significantly different beast from the prior two Clearlight albums in that the entire thing is basically an improvisation. The album was put together as a soundtrack for a French film, but during the recording numerous musicians guested and added spontaneous parts over the basic structures laid down by Verdeaux and collaborator Joel Dugrenot. Most of the core elements of the Clearlight sound are here: the delicate piano basis and the churning, chaotic overlay of saxophones, drums and frenzied guitar solos. Rarely however does this album enter the same classically inspired splendor as did moments on the previous two, inevitably spending a significant amount of time muddling about trying to hit on a decent groove.
The first three tracks basically serve as build-up, with some
interesting sound textures that make for pleasant, relaxing zone-out
music, including some odd ethereal female vocals on "La Fine du Debut."
The album really hits its stride with the up-tempo beginning of "Le
Boeuf," and continues to the end, highlighted by the frenzied jam of
"Novavanna." The latter is a fairly spectacular piece highlighted by
explosive playing from all parties and an exciting rhythmic basis. At one
point, something resembling singing comes to the fore, as someone
apparently felt it neccesary to verbally express their admiration for
various illegal (and presumably inspirational) substances. However, this
is only a fleeting passage in an otherwise remarkable piece. "Anata"
closes out the album nicely with an angular, impressive drum rhythm that
vaults the rest of the ensemble onto greater heights, with a cacophonous
jam that ends the album on a high note. Overall, established Clearlight
fans will likely delight in this album, but newcomers would do better to
start with one of the first two albums instead.
Clearlight / Clearlight Symphony / Delired Cameleon Family At A Glance
France has always been a hotbed for international groups playing cosmic rock. Ash Ra Tempel and Agitation Free found larger audiences here than in their native Germany. Gong, in their heyday, set up shop in the clubs and back alleys of Paris. And in this environment, local keyboard savant Cyrille Verdeaux teamed up with both Gong and other like-minded space rockers to form Clearlight Symphony.
Their debut, Clearlight Symphony, is an extraordinary work. Interestingly this landmark work is two separate albums (and two separate groups of musicians) linked by a common theme. Side one features Christian Boule on electric guitar, Gilbert Artman (of Lard Free and Urban Sax fame) on drums and vibraphone and Martin Isaacs on electric bass. In general, the side long composition focuses on Cyrille's mellotron and piano work with occasional outbreaks of fuzz guitar. The music seems like a more rocking tangent to same period Tangerine Dream circa Phaedra and sounds entirely different than anything else in their catalog. The finale of the piece features some fine Indian hand percussion by Artman. For mellotron lovers, this track is the Holy Grail. If there's anything that could be called symphonic psychedelia, this would be it! Side two brings in the Gong troupe for a space rock extravaganza. Here, Cyrille is joined by Steve Hillage on guitar, Didier Malherbe on sax and Tim Blake on the VCS3 synthesizer. The drummer goes uncredited though I suspect Artman's involvement here. This side long venture is far more rocked out with more room given for organ, guitar and sax jams. Verdeaux has a great knack for driving a song through with active piano runs, something house and techno acts picked up on some 20 years later. Listen for the choral mellotron chords and phased drumming. This is some tripped out music! For me, this track is Clearlight's finest moment and would be the model used on their follow-up Forever Blowing Bubbles. Oddly enough, the sides were switched on the original LP to emphasize Gong's participation.
Following the success of their debut, Clearlight ( the Symphony moniker removed) continued on where the "2nd Movement" dropped off with an emphasis on more rocked out cosmic themes. 1975's Forever Blowing Bubbles opens with "Chanson", a bizarre five minute piece and quite a bit different from anything found on the debut. Somewhat of a straight song with vocals, electric violin (from King Crimson's David Cross) and flute. The listener must've been surprised by this new found interest in traditional songwriting (for Clearlight anyway)! "Without Words" has Clearlight back on the path towards heavy duty space jamming driven by Cyrille's piano and plenty of overlays from guitar, synths, mellotron and saxophone. And so it goes through the course of the album: Tripped out jam sequences offset by more somber song craft. Listen for the "synth bubbles" that connect each composition. This album certainly has more variety (in both songwriting and instrumentation) than the debut, though perhaps not quite up to the same standard consistently throughout. A classic all the same and a must own. The CD version contains the eight minute "Sweet Absinthe", featuring Artman and Boule and may have been left off the debut (though the liner notes say this track was left off this album).
Around the same time of Forever Blowing Bubbles, another Verdeaux project began. Delired Cameleon Family is basically Clearlight in disguise composing music for an obscure film called "Visa de Censure Numero X". Basically it's a one hour dialogue-less "music video". Apparently this film can be found at the Museum Pompidou in Paris. The musicians on this effort are a combination of those found on the first two Clearlight LP's and the music is an amalgam of both. The opener "Raganesh" is an Indian percussion driven piece similar to the last moments of "1st Movement" found on their debut. Meanwhile "La Fin du Debut" recalls the female vocal-lead tracks found on Forever Blowing Bubbles. Overall the album is more "druggy" and improvised than the Clearlight albums proper. In fact, I could see Delired Cameleon Family fitting comfortably on the German Kosmische Kouriers label. Though throughout the album the familiar nervous staccato piano is still driving the majority of the pieces to submission.
Clearlight's third effort, Les Contes du Singe Fou, is a complete departure from its predecessors. Basically, this an attempt by Clearlight to emulate an Anglo progressive rock back. More specifically same period (1976) Genesis. The results are mixed as the overabundance of vocals is difficult to sift through when the listener is used to the cosmic instrumental workouts of the past. Generally, this is considered Clearlight's weakest moment, though I have found this album to be of good quality throughout. If the listener is willing to critique without a bias and to accept the album on its own terms, then the rewards are great. Cyrille Verdeaux's piano is still the centerpiece and the driving force. In this case, the piano provides more the melody line and less the catalyst for burning jams. Well worth checking out
For their final effort, Visions, Cyrille seemingly compiled all of the ideas of the past and tried to cram them into one album. The results are a mixed bag. There are heavy fusion moments, pensive classical piano pieces, space rock jams, straight rock songs and Indian sitar ragas. Many of the musicians of the past are represented here as well. Overall, I find this to be Clearlight's most uneven album though still quite enjoyable especially the track "Fullmoon Raga".
For LP collectors, Clearlight Symphony and Visions are
recommeded for display purposes.
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