Every once in a while the stars align and a wealth of great releases appear all at once, seemingly from nowhere, flooding the mind with images and colours as each artist leaves their musical impression on the listener. In this case the same press package bought both Contract X (see reviews section for detail on that amazing record) and this amazing solo release from Antoine Fafard, the disturbingly brilliant bass player behind previous outing ‘Solus Operandi’ and the band Spaced Out. Of course, with so many releases appearing on the market, it seems music fans need an incentive to check out artists they may not previously have engaged with, and so, on this release, the unique hook is a roll call of musicians that reads like a who’s who of the progressive/jazz scene – Gavin Harrison (King Crimson/Porcupine Tree), Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa), Jerry Goodman (Mahavishnu orchestra), Simon Phillips (Jeff Beck/Toto and many more. It takes an artist of skill and vision to bring together such a cast of musicians and, over the course of eleven tracks, develop a cohesive, memorable sound that is uniquely theirs, and yet that is exactly what Antoine Fafard has done, delivering an exceptional progressive rock/Jazz album in the process.
Opening with ‘Peace for 4’, you’re instantly thrown off because the song is seemingly in a traditional 4/4 beat, only for drummer extraordinaire to slip around the rhythm, causing the song to stutter as if you’re playing it on a warped turntable. It’s unsettling at first, until you get your head around what is actually transpiring, and the jerky motion is offset by the stunning violin of jerry Goodman who seems to draw liquid tears from the vibrating strings of his instrument. ‘The chamber’ is a powerful beast that centres on Antoine’s massive sounding bass runs, whilst Scott Henderson (Tribal Tech) adds plenty of colour on the guitar and Dave Weckl lays down a devastating groove on the drums. It’s a taught, lively song that features mind-blowing performances from all three musicians and then blazes past leaving you in the warm tailwind of ‘Good reasons’, a clever, staccato piece that draws on unconventional time signatures and an oddly sensual saxophone line (played by Jean-Pierre Zanella) that is glutinously sensual in contrast to the frenetic violin that scours the senses in the latter portions of the song. The drumming, meanwhile (courtesy of Simon Phillips) also deserves special mention for the astonishing rolls and fills that give the song its life. Next up is the schizophrenic ‘Sum of six’, a track that shifts form and mood whilst simultaneously sounding entirely cohesive thanks to the ability of the band to improvise on the fly, seemingly unfazed by any of the changes being thrown at them. Antoine, aside from playing conductor, turns in a remarkable bass solo as well, demonstrating his unparalleled talent on the instrument.
‘Holding back time’ is one of the more progressive tracks on offer, the brilliant percussive work of Terry Bozio and Jerry Goodman’s superlative and atmospheric violin work offset by some truly jaw-dropping bass work from Antoine himself. It is a brilliant piece of music that absorbs the listener but, pull yourself out of the reverie for a moment and it is also an amazing display of what virtuoso talents can achieve given time and space to operate. ‘Fur and axes’ opens with the familiar strains of the classical guitar, not sounding a million miles away from recent Opeth material, before heading off into jazzy territory, the rich sounds slowly washing over the listener like warm, clear water – it’s a hypnotic experience that goes to show the depth of the compositions on offer. In strict contrast ‘funkevil’ is a frenetic piece that sounds like King Crimson playing covers of 1980s video game theme tunes with Charles Mingus. It’s vibrant and, yes, it’s also funky, but the driving bass line fidgets and twists restlessly throughout the track, never letting the listener quite get comfortable. ‘Tree 0’, therefore, with its laidback attitude and multiple bass solos (three to be precise, from Antoine, Sylvain Bolduc and Denis Labrosse) comes as something of a relief and eases the pace a touch. ‘Syldian’ has a long, slow build up that leads into a strange cyborg-jazz number that is one part Terminator to two parts Mahavishnu Orchestra. It is strikingly unconventional and no doubt shock as many listeners as it impresses. ‘Methamorphosis’ proves to be one of Antoine’s earliest pieces, although it is only seeing the light of day now, and I have to agree with his assessment that it is one of “the most intense pieces” he has ever recorded. The album ends with the short, sweet ‘prelude No2 in C minor’ which is, again in Antoine’s own words, “based on a well-known Prelude from the Well-tempered clavier, composed by Bach as exercise pieces.” It is a short, impressive way to end the album and it leaves you in no doubt as to Antoine’s skill as a world class musician. However, if that was all Antoine possessed, this would not be the album it is, it is the way Antoine composes complex and yet accessible music that makes this album so remarkable, as well as his ability to bring out the best from his overwhelmingly talented support cast. These are things that makes ‘occultus tramitis’ a special album worthy of your time.
Overall, it is impossible to fault ‘Occultus…’, played with prodigious talent and yet not a tedious exercise in virtuosity for the mere sake of it, recorded with perfect clarity and presented in a package that includes informative liner notes, this is a progressive jazz master-class that only improves with repeated plays. Highly recommended to any adventurous souls who want to hear music that is both challenging and absorbing.