Aranis, the Flemish ensemble led by double-bassist Joris Vanvinckenroye, keep on evolving on their fourth album, RoqueForte, released on the fantastic Italian label, Altr0ck. While the first two albums provided beautiful chamber music with strong rhythmic backbone and some folk-ish tendencies, the third album presented more ambiance as well as vocalization.
In this album, they are joined four guests, Ward De Vleesschouwer (piano), Stefan Wellens (viola), Pierre Chevalier from Present and Univers Zero (piano) and Dave Kerman from 5UU’s, Thinking Plague and various other projects (drums and percussions). You’d think that adding drumming to their music would change their sound dramatically, but that is not the case at all. Dave Kerman’s drumming is subtle and not dominative and mingles perfectly with the rest of the instruments. In fact, it sounds as if the percussions were always a part of the band’s sound.
The sound is more edgy, rough, raw and yet still as elegant as ever. They have veered into territories covered by Univers Zero and Present, i.e. a darker and more brooding style and atmosphere; but they have not lost their identity, their sound and charm. Indeed, the Aranis personality is renewed here in this extended lineup. RoqueForte shows the group in their usual punctual playing and elaborate compositions, yet with a new direction and somewhat different approach, showing their strive to evolve as a musical entity.
The music here, while as rhythmic as before, seems more intent creating delicate but ominous ambiance. Take the opening track, Roque for instance. While they don’t forsake melody for texture, they do sounds as if more intent on evoking certain mysterious and eerie qualities. I think this piece presents a well thought-out and executed balance between the melodic and the textural side of Aranis. In support of this notion, I’ll mention that the album contains 4 short pieces named Ade I to IV which all seem to serve the same purpose as I mentioned above.
All of this is not to say that they don’t craft any more tunes. In fact, the tunes found here are still as gorgeous as ever. Take the third track, Past for instance. In it you will find faint accordion playing with the flute strolling higher above it, the two accompanied by the piano and percussions, all together painting a magical and moving piece. The dynamics of this piece are very well done; each instrument wisely set in a proper volume and all of them move together as a whole up and down, louder and weaker until a climatic end. Indeed, the Past never sounded better.
Aranis also provide us with two lengthy compositions here. While they did this before, (Zilezi from the first album), this is not a commonality for Joris to compose pieces of this length for the group. The two pieces, named Noise and Naise, are stunning pieces in their beauty and arrangements. The flute has a lead role in Noise and its delicate sound clashes with the violin creating tension, all the while supported by the menacing double bass and the accordion.
In this piece we also hear perhaps the most prominent drumming section on the album (the other tracks being Naise and Tissim), but not in the way you might think; a beating on the drums, in pattern and conjuction with the double bass and piano, create the intimidating canvas for the flute, violin and accordion to paint their lines and circles. This piece is a superb example of Aranis’ current sound and of how they’ve developed since their first album. Again, this is a good example of the balance between melody and ambiance in Aranis’ music. There is not a dull moment in this piece, not a wasted note. It all comes together in an enchanting fashion to a hair-raising conclusion.
An interesting piece comes in the form of Tissim. An aggressive composition, fast and even furious sounding at times. There is a remarkable interplay between the piano providing the basic pattern and rhythm along with the drumming (which are a little below it), the accordion with its own theme and the flute playing overhead. At times it sounds harmonious only to change moments later to a chaotic-like musical battlefield, it concludes in a recurring theme being played until end while the lead instruments have their “fight”.
RoqueForte is a superb offering from Aranis, another wonderful achievement from a band that seems intent on progressing their sound. If you liked Aranis’ previous releases, you definitely should get this as well. If you’re new to Aranis and would like to try them out, I find this is a good entry point and you could then work your way backwards. As there are a lot of nuances, quieter parts and overall many intricacies, I recommend listening attentively and on headphones.