They're Pseudo, and They're Spectacularby Tony Coulter
PSEUDO CODE: EUROPA (EE TAPES)
Given the financial disincentives created by the instant downloadability of just about any rare old recording in the age of the MP3, it’s worth celebrating the fact that there are still labels out there releasing nicely packaged and properly remastered reissues. One such label is the fine Belgian imprint EE Tapes, which focuses on various types of experimental music, both old and new. (Despite the label name, most recent EE titles are on CD.) I’ve been particularly thrilled by a series of releases devoted to some of the various projects of Belgian musician—or, as he would have it, non-musician—Alain Neffe.
Neffe has been in many bands over the years, stretching back to at least the mid-’70s, most of which bear the strong imprint of his personality and sound despite their stylistic differences and the input of other members. Of these bands, the three best known (relatively speaking!) are Bene Gesserit, Human Flesh, and Pseudo Code, whose complete ‘80s-era vinyl catalog of one LP and two EPs has been compiled on the new CD collection Europa. (Several additional archival vinyl releases have appeared in recent years, and there are also four Pseudo Code cassettes from the ’80s that have yet to be reissued.)
Several of Neffe’s projects have lately gotten some attention, primarily in Europe, but they have generally been inaccurately shoehorned into the minimal-synth category, based on the presence of genre signifiers like rhythm boxes and primitive synthesizers. (Focusing on gear seems silly; after all, the fact that two bands both use rhythm machines and analog synths doesn’t really say much more about musical similarities than that two bands both use guitars and drums.) That said, Pseudo Code does come closer to fitting the minimal-synth bill than Neffe’s other two best-known groups do, as the rhythm box is front and center and there is a general aura of cold-wave-ish gloom. However, Pseudo Code doesn’t deal in man-as-machine poses; rather, their focus is on expressing emotion through sound. Likewise, the brooding gloominess that pervades much of their music is entirely devoid of affectation.
Pseudo Code is also unlike the other two projects mentioned above in being more of a “regular” band. (Human Flesh is just Neffe, plus guest collaborators, while Bene Gesserit is a duo with vocalist Nadine Bal.) Active from 1979 to 1982, Pseudo Code was the trio of Xavier Stenmans (a k a Xavier S.; texts, vocals), Neffe (synthesizers, strings organ, rhythm box, soprano sax, vocoder), and Guy-Marc Hinant (Pianet, guitar, percussion). All three contributed substantially, though Neffe, who overdubbed multiple parts and mixed the recordings, was most responsible for the overall sound.
That sound is hard to explain and rather mysterious: built out of short, simple melodic phrases and lurching and slightly awkward rhythms, colored and disrupted by unexpected harmonic underpinning and bursts of noise, it seems both willfully primitive and aesthetically sophisticated. The mood is intense, dark, and bitter—and thus certainly less playful than the music of Bene Gesserit can sometimes be—but there’s also an underlying tenderness and innocence, along with occasional flashes of oblique humor: this is not creepy death-culture industrial music. The lyrics are mostly in English, but Xavier S.’s heavily accented and slurred delivery makes them only fleetingly comprehensible (to these ears, at least). What lyrics I can make out seem suitably anguished; in any case, their quasi-intelligibility only adds to the slightly surreal and ritualistic atmosphere.
While Xavier S. contributes most of the lyrics and vocals, and it is Guy-Marc Hinant who often plays the core melody on his Pianet electric piano, it is Neffe’s contributions that are particularly noteworthy throughout, as he weaves together the bulk of the sonic cloth through overdubbing and mixing. None of his parts are remotely virtuosic (hence his self-identification as a non-musician), but they are always unexpected and perfect in and of themselves, emotionally and sonically, and in that sense they are deeply musical. On a side-note, one interesting aspect of Neffe’s arrangements here is the way he uses the vocoder not as a robotic stand-in for lead vocals, but to create mutated “instrumental” lines deep in the mix.
Today, Neffe continues to produce unique and wonderful music, particularly with the duo Bene Gesserit: He should in no way be relegated to the ’80s. As for the other two, Xavier S. is currently a programmer on the Belgian national radio network, while Guy-Marc Hinant is running the Sub Rosa label, which he co-founded in 1984. Even if all three are doing well, here’s hoping EE Tapes’s new CD will allow more people to discover the remarkable music they once made together as Pseudo Code.
(Europa is only available from EE Tapes directly, at www.eetapes.be)
TONY COULTER was on various radio stations in the New York City area for 25 years, and is also a longtime, if occasional, music writer. Currently he is contributing a biweekly blogpost to WFMU's Beware of the Blog.