This gem is from 2010. It boggles my mind that this gorgeous single escaped my grasp for so long, but I suppose I could say that about a host of reissued albums from all over the world. Not, however, from such a great work out of Montreal (though it seems band leader Olivier Alary is originally from Toulouse, France).
From Ensemble’s Bandcamp site:
‘Envies D’Avalanches’ is the first single to be taken from ‘Excerpts’, the stunning record from Montreal resident Olivier Alary, the songwriter/composer behind Ensemble. A middle ground between lush orchestration, absorbing pop, guitar-indie, experimental sonics and beyond, it offers no obvious or straightforward reference points, yet here is an album full of maturity, sophistication and romance, architectured carefully and atemporally. A loose comparison could be made with Kraftwerk’s unconventional, experimental adventures in pop music, or to the larger scale music of Matthew Herbert in its sublime eccentricity, or even to Yann Tiersen’s gentle nods to chanson française, but behind Alary’s musical charms is an overarching, unique personality that interweaves wide-ranging musical cultures and influences.
There is a dark, melancholic tension to ‘Envies D’Avalanches’: full of brushed percussion and swooping noise, eventually building into a densely textured controlled chaos via Alary’s gorgeous French-language vocals and the track’s initial acoustic guitar-fuelled foundations. Collaborator, the award-winning film/theatre composer Johannes Malfatti, can be heard in the thick, heavy piano chords and subtle harpsichord.
‘Envies D’Avalanches’ is backed with a gorgeous, lilting cover of UB40’s ‘Food For Thought’, their Brit-reggae condemnation of bloated western Christmas celebrations during the time of the Ethiopian famine. The track – led by album collaborator Darcy Conrai’s beautiful vocals – reinvents the dub rhythms of the original track as something far closer to the Ensemble school of songcrafting. The textures are deep and full, embraced by almost slow-motion saxophone melodies, spiky strummed zither and unobtrusive percussion, accordion and spectral drones.
A major theme of the full-length ‘Excerpts’ is the confusion of real memories with fictional ones, and this is no different for ‘Envies D’Avalanches’. Represented by traditional musical forms – the waltz and string quartets found elsewhere on the record – as well as experimental recording techniques (such as recording on cassette tape and degrading it with different tools) mixed with contemporary or standardised techniques, Alary’s illustration of a sense of fictional nostalgia can be felt across the album. It is at once enlightening, dizzying, tragic and beautiful.
Far closer to traditional songwriting or to film score composition than to a “studio project”, ‘Excerpts’ was recorded almost entirely using physical, acoustic instruments and objects (i.e. with no software or sampling). It was committed to tape in Montreal (a city, like the record, bilingual) and mixed in upstate New York and Berlin with Malfatti. ‘Food For Thought’ was recorded by Malfatti and Alary in their respective home studios in Berlin and Montreal.
Olivier was among the first artists to send music to FatCat Records at the label’s inception whilst living in London and working under the name ‘Hearing Is Our Concern’. Eventually retitling his project ‘Ensemble’, Olivier’s debut album ‘Sketch Proposals’ was released by Rephlex Records in 2000. By 2006, Ensemble had re-established his ties to FatCat, and, alongside the release of his beautiful self-titled album (featuring collaborations with Lou Barlow and Cat Power), co-written with Bjork on her ‘Medúlla’ album and contributed several remixes to Bjork singles. Olivier has also composed music for several exhibitions at the V&A museum; contributed to an Audio-Video installation by Doug Aitken at the Centre Georges Pompidou and at the MACBA in Barcelona; and received an honorary mention at the Ars Electronica Festival. Since 2007, he has also provided soundtrack for several feature-length films and documentaries, some of which have received prestigious awards and screenings in Europe, the US and China. His film work includes the score for the 2008 film ‘The Last Train Home’, directed by Lixin Fan, which recently received a Sundance screening.