The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, July 12, 2007
ANGEL OF IMPOSSIBLE VIRTUE: BERNARD SZAJNER

Last week I found, second hand, a record which I had not heard for more than a quarter of a century. It’s at times like these when terms such as “a quarter of a century” really hit home. I owned Some Deaths Take Forever on vinyl for a couple of years, mainly 1980-81, having bought it on the strength of a rave review by Lynden Barber (now, whatever happened to him?) in Melody Maker. I admired it but never played it that much, was in several senses reluctant to play it because emotionally it touched several particularly sore pressure points at the time. As I recall I bought Holger Czukay’s Movies at the same time and played that over and over; a similar soundscape but filled with more fun, coming across as more mischievous.

So I kept Movies and either let go of, or lost, Some Deaths Take Forever (I can’t quite remember which) and got on with the rest of my life. I didn’t think too much about it until 2004, when the Tigersushi compilation So Young But So Cold: Underground French Music 1977-1983 came out, and contained the album’s opening track “Welcome (To Deathrow)” as well as both sides of the single Szajner cut with Karl Beer under the name of The (Hypothetical) Prophets in 1982, the remarkable “Person To Person”/”Wallenberg.” “Welcome” struck me as a phenomenally prescient piece of music, virtually laying out the template for post-House French dance music, though as befitted its subject matter (since Some Deaths is a loose concept album about imprisonment and execution) it was rather spikier than the Motorbasses and Daft Punks which followed a generation later (not to mention the likes of Carl Craig, who would occasionally cite the album as one of the great landmarks in electronic music), its frenetic pulse accompanied by scores of grandiose piano chords and increasingly agitated guitar, finally easing out of tonality over a beat which resolutely refused to settle in the centre.

Even then the quest to find Some Deaths whole did not stay at the forefront of my mind – until, as I say, last week, when I found, for a fiver, a used CD of the album in mint condition (inevitably, as happens with all my best finds, when I wasn’t looking for it – they just turn up in the racks, their covers smiling as if to say, “well, what took you so long?”). I had no idea that the record had even been released on CD, and in view of the fact that it was a 1999 French reissue, on the Spalax Music label, its current availability is doubtful. But then, I was clearly meant to find it.

The largely black cover features a stick of dynamite clenched in an iron gauntlet; the reverse lists the credits on the screen of an ancient computer, again black with green Wordstar Database lettering (though there is a conspicuous message in white type near the top right hand side: “ALL HUMAN IS ERROR”). Inside we see Szajner solemnly engaged in his work, amid banks of synthesisers and spaghettied junctions of tangled wires, and this is not the only indication that the record sometimes looks back to Vangelis or even Mike Oldfield as well as forward to the future it will enable.

Certainly side one of Some Deaths – or “Phase Un” as the album calls it – is in its largely instrumental bearing one of the most convincing anti-capital punishment arguments his side of Kieslowski. After the abovementioned “Welcome,” we move into the uneasy reverie of “Ritual,” as the condemned prisoner awaits his sentence; over a moody electro pulse we hear stalagmites of water leaking through the cell roof, and somewhere else an acoustic guitar picks out some improbable blues figures. Then the sequence culminates in “Execution”; over a sombre melody which anticipates Black Dog, Plaid and Aphex at their sedate doomiest, rivets of percussion gradually infiltrate the track, radiating all around the mix as the prisoner is taken to his end, as though cups are being banged on all of the cell doors surrounding, above and below him; the central synth motif becomes harsh and fuzzy until the whole (d)evolves into an unbearable drone which slices through one’s head. To this feedback screams and whines are added – you can practically smell the leather and straps of the electric chair, ready to smoulder – and as the dread reaches its peak the track, and the side, automatically cut off.

Phase Deux concerns itself with imprisonment from another perspective; this time the prisoner has not been sentenced to death but simply waits patiently in his cell and dreams visions with the aid of his pocket radio – some say Szajner had Mandela in mind. In between regular sweeps of the dial, taking in such then-contemporary concerns as the “hobgoblin of minds in the Kremlin,” New Body Form and Harrisburg (and a momentary but telling snatch of the “dream” of the Everlys’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream”) Szajner offers slightly more reflective melodies. “Ressurector” is another hypnotic piece of proto-trance (which manages to sound danceable even without the addition of drum programs) which drifts patiently, as Pierre Chereze’s very Oldfield-ish lead guitar twins with Marc Geoffroy’s Polymoog to give us some very seventies-sounding unison figures, and then mutates into a repeated motif which locks in with the unspecified groove. Michael Quartermain’s wordless vocal roves around the environment, taking the piece out with a sob which abruptly mutates into a mad cackle of laughter. “The Memory” cuts between bustling 6/8 synth/guitar lines and a solemn, slow waltz of John Barry harpsichord – the recollections of the past melting into the coldness of the present. Eventually, this mental vacillating causes disorientation in the prisoner; “Suspended Animation”’s central seven-note synth line wobbles in and out of tonality and recognisable pitch before crawling down to a sinister nothing.

And then there is the final “A Kind Of Freedom,” the tune so elegantly sad and simply poignant that I couldn’t bear to listen to it at the time – 1980, when I had finished school and realised that a phase of my life had ended; everybody I had known for a decade had begun to wander off in differing directions and I suddenly felt coldly alone (so you can see how those regular letters from, and to, Oxford were a lifeline in more ways than one), or 1981, after my father had died and I felt more isolated than ever. Sentiments such as “Take a lighter look at life/Take your eyes into the white/Take another bride to wife/Take your time outside the night” (used here to depict the prisoner’s mental transformation into thinking about and anticipating real freedom) weren’t easy for me to palpate at such times.

I listened to the tune again this weekend, and it all came back; and just as I had suspected, with that sublime sweep of electronic melody, that wracked Vocoder vocal and that crucial sprinkling of electric piano flurries on top, Bernard Szajner invented Air, and I smiled with inward recognition, knowing what such a song and such words meant such that I should find them again a lifetime later and they would sing to me the things I couldn’t hear then but was destined to hear now, when I was ready. Szajner is careful not to lurch into sentimentality; after the song drifts away, there is a little more radio tuning before a sudden, shocking buzz of static sounds – reminding us that the whine of the executioner’s chair was only a recent memory – and then the cell door abruptly slamming shut to bring the album to an end. I presume that he has continued to develop his music in the intervening quarter-century, though none of it has reached my ears yet. But yes – finding Some Deaths Take Forever again was an emotional event, and in complete contradiction of its title, it reinforces the rightness of living, living and still living. With the right angel, all virtues are possible, and magnificent.


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