Thursday, March 24, 2011

Band In The Spotlight: Vortex (France)

Here is the bio I wrote for their Prog Archives page using as a source, the chronology in the inner sleeve of the 2 album pack "1975-1979", written by Aymeric Leroy
Originating from Lyon, France Vortex is a band which would have had their deserved success in a fair world. The band came to be officially in April 1975, but its roots lay in the preceding bands in which the members played. One such band was called Testu Band which was mainly a Soft Machine cover band.

This band had the most of the first lineup of Vortex in it. Jean-Pierre Vivante (at that time aged 16), who played originally the guitar, then switched to bass, and eventually, after a mystical event, returned to piano which was the instrument he'd learned to play as a young boy. The other members were drummer Francois Gerald and flautist Jean-Francois Trouillet. When Jacques Vivante, Jean-Pierre's brother, came back from his engineering studies in Paris he joined his brother's band as bassist. Jacques began as a guitarist and switched to bass. While in Paris Jacques discovered of several novel groups such as Gong and Soft Machine whose sound would influence the first album of Vortex.

It is this alliance between the brothers that would determine the various paths in which Vortex set upon, and the compositional style they took. They talk of a complementary compositional relationship between them.
Following a fascination the two brothers had with the book "Livre D'Urantia" they changed their name to Urantia. The lineup had grown with the arrival of sax player Gerard Jolivet towards the end of 1974. It is then that the band moved to composing and playing their music. It was created by both brothers and was done in collaboration with Jean-Pierre coming up with the basic structures and Jacques dealing with the melodies and the overall of the composition. They kept the name Urantia several months and even gave one show in a school where Jacques worked, under that name. But after attending a Magma show and realizing that Christian Vander of Magma used that book too as inspiration and source for his music, they decided to switch name, in order to avoid any claim of plagiarism. The name Vortex represents their approach to music - creating a spiral of musical ideas that surround one steady and calm component, which is the eye of the vortex.

The compositions for what became their first album were done while working on an avant-garde theatrical play called M'dame S91. The band was asked to provide the music for this play and it turned out that the play was done according to the music, instead. This play was to be in Avignon festival organized by students. This festival held from 17/7-11/8 1975 brought together Vortex with two other bands. Masal and Astarte. Masal was then the prominent "Lyonnais groupe". Astarte featured Martin Le-Bars, which was briefly in Magma and founded Eider Stellaire. Those encounters were important for their influence on the band and for later events in the band's duration. This piece of music which Vortex made for the festival was recorded and mastering of the poor quality recording was done by JBP studio in Lyon and this first album of Vortex sold several hundred copies and became a highly sought collector's item.

After the festival Vortex did only a few shows and began concentrating on rehearsing in various locations until settling down in early 1977 in a percussion school which doubled as their studio consisting of 3 soundproof rooms and an office. This school was managed by the future Vortex percussionist, Maurice Sonjon. It is in this period that another crucial sound crept up in the music created by Vortex. The Vivante brothers delved into the 20th century classical music by composers such as Bartok, Stravinsky and Messiaen. They would start implementing more of this style into their music, borrowing the methods used in the compositions they liked. As Aymeric Leroy states in his biography of the group in the cd booklet, one piece in particular was very influential. It was Messiaen's "Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum" (1964), for wind, brass and percussion, that provided the starting point of "Cycles de Thanatos" which was the epos of their second release. The brothers borrowed 15 seconds of Messiaen's work to use as template for the "Les Cycles.". Leroy also mentions that Cycles "was first intended for a war sequence in Alexandro Jodorowsky's cinematic transposition of Frank Herbert's "Dune", a project which sadly never came to fruition".

For Vortex to achieve the sound that was demanded by the new style of compositions, new musicians were required. This is one point where Mazal influenced Vortex, because they had two saxophonists and this lead the brothers to recruit another one of their own in Jacques Guyot. They also recruited two classically-trained percussionists from the Lyons conservatory, Maurice Sonjon and Alain Chaleard. But people not only joined the band but also left it. Francois Gerald the drummer left and was replaced by Jean-Michel Belaich later on in 1977. Another recruited was classically-trained woodwind and keyboard player Christian Boissel.

In this period the brothers focused mainly on composing and training the other band members. They split the work between them: Jean-Pierre took charge of the percussion players and Jacques worked with the wind section. All this work culminated in "Les Cycles de Thanatos" which was ready by the spring of 1977 but only released in May 1979. The recording was slow and exhausting. It was done in Lyons studio in which it was done in two parts. The first half of the album was recoded in six weeks. This long time was due to the way they recorded - first was recorded the rhythm track and then came the other instruments, one after the other. The pieces were too complex to record it all at once and even perform it live.

It took them 9 months (devoted to rehearsing) before they returned to perform on stage in April 28, 1978 at the INSA concert. The months that followed were devoted to both live shows and the continuation of the work on the album. They spent a five-week period at Togo-Saga studios in August and September 1978 to finish the recording. In the meantime they kept on making raved and successful shows throughout France.
When the album was finally ready to be released in 1979, no label wanted anything to do with this progressive music that was too long, too sophisticated and non-commercial. They resorted to the only possible solution - creating their own label and releasing the album through it. They called their label - Faites Le Vous Meme (Do It Yourself), and distribution was done by Le Chant du Monde. The album finally sold ~3000 copies.
To support their album, they went on to perform several shows throughout France and one noticeable show was with Art-Zoyd in which they even performed Les Cycles together.

This period marks another turn in the band's chronicles. Personal and musical differences reached a peak resulting in Christian Boissel and Alain Chaleard leaving (to play together in another band). Maurice Sonjon opted for returning to his primary occupation - the percussion school. Jean-Michel Belaich also wanted to leave but waited until a replacement could be found.
After this Vortex participated in the Musiques Nouvelles (new music) festival. For this festival Vortex assembled a temporary lineup: Keyboard player Michel Tardieu, formerly of Terpandre; Gerard Jolivet and Guyot returned on saxes and Belaich on drums. Two additional musicians were called in as well: cellist Jacques Dessert; and percussionist and sax player Philippe Matias.
This festival had a most impressive lineup: Art Zoyd, Univers Zero, Yochk'o Seffer's Neffesh Music, Xalph and Uppsala.

A stable lineup reassembled around the Vivante brothers with Jolivet, Guyot and Tardieu along with a new drummer, Vincent Daune, who briefly was amember of Terpandre, and percussionist Bruno Heitz. Due to this lineup more rock oriented approach, a guitarist was added to the band - Bernard Monerri.
Tardieu composed an epic called Chronosophie which was as Leroy says:" Heavily influenced by Bartok yet highly accessible and full of rock energy, this piece was to become the highlight of Vortex's concerts, along with a substantially re-arranged rendition of "Les Cycles de Thanatos". "

This new lineup was also the one that performed the most live shows and they were basically always on the move. The band also shifted towards an improvisational approach rather than the meticulously and well-planned compositions the Vivante brothers created. Leroy says this on their shows back then: "Vortex shows usual[y ended with extended encores consisting of such spontaneous performances, the duration of which occasionally extended to a couple of hours! "
The time was appropriate to record another album, especially since the brothers Vivante became partners in the Dionysos label. But unfortunate as it is, this was not to be the case. Controversies rose again, and Vortex finally disbanded. This was because the band did not make enough money for its members to make a living on and they wanted to make more accessible music, with vocals, notions the Vivante brothers opposed to strongly.

Vortex two final concerts were in June 1980, one in France and the other in Germany (the only time they appeared outside of France).

Vortex is highly recommended to people who like fusion, 20th century classical music (by composers such as those mentioned above), chamber rock and even Canterbury (for their first album).
A true gem of progressive music.

More info and samples here.

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