Although 99.9% of the articles I write are political, every once in a blue moon (or yellow moon, doesn’t really matter to me what color the moon is), I write about music.
Well, here is my ridiculously long, but hopefully somewhat comical (and, if I’m lucky, perhaps even interesting! *gasps* *doubts it tremendously*), review of Clément Belio’s masterpiece of an album Contrast.
This review was published in Can This Even Be Called Music?
(20 October 2014)
Clément Belio is, quite simply, making the music of the future.
I don’t say this lightly. It’s a common (trite) trend, to call experimental music the “music of the future” (or, for extra pretense, the “Music of the Future”), acting as though some EP recorded in the bedroom of your favorite obscure indie band is going to herald in a new era of music.
I don’t know if Clément Belio’s music is going to herald anything in, per se, but I would still describe it as the music of the future. (Besides, who is to say it isn’t? The music of the future is not going to be monolithic—at least let’s hope it isn’t.)
The essence of Clément Belio’s music is rooted in the art of the 21st century. It embodies the stylistic pluralism that dominates art music today, and will presumably continue to do so tomorrow. In an age in which “acceptable” creative decisions have been so thoroughly exhausted within particular traditions, artists naturally seek to break boundaries between what is considered “normal” and “abnormal.” In his synthesis of jazz and metal in particular, Belio is a purveyor of this “progress,” if you will (notions of “progress” in art, as problematic as they are, shall be left to be discussed in another work; this one’s already long enough).
In many ways nonetheless, like some renowned artists before him—such as Mr. Bungle and John Zorn, among others—Belio goes even further, refusing to even recognize (or at least respect) supposed boundaries between styles and genres. “The only kind of music there is is music,” he boldly (and figuratively) declares with his, well, music.
Some might call it “art rock.” Others might call it “avant-garde rock.” I wouldn’t necessarily call it either. There are art and avant-garde elements in Belio’s music, yet it does not neatly fall into the conventional strictures of the unconventional, anti-traditional traditions. I would call it “progressive,” “fusion,” jazz, math rock, and metal, broadly—or, if I had to be more succinct (an attribute that I lack wholly), jazz metal fusion with influences from many other styles and genres. Unlike most genre-hopping music (such as that of Unexpect and Pryapisme, to name just two examples), Belio’s is ultimately not avant-garde in sensibility. There’s a tinge of pop in much of what he writes. One could call it “accessible” progressive and experimental music.
Belio doesn’t present himself as a musical prophet, advancing the art form, as Stockhausen or Babbitt, for instance, fancied themselves. With Contrast, he insists, he has “achieved [his] goal.” He writes
My idea was to put everything I love in it. … You can see this album as a melting pot, tributing my favorites artist around the world. Don’t be surprised if you listen something familiar, it might be because I took it from someone else (or even from me haha), re-arranged, re-recorded, and then reproduced it in my own way.
That’s the concept here, Imitation as a fundamental learning/writing method.
Anyway, like the previous release, this one is eclectic, even in the production! Every tracks are different and have their own ambiances, vibes and sounds… And they still flow well together!
This emphasis on musical, stylistic, aesthetic contrast simply because Belio likes it that way is the hallmark of his unique style. And it is in this way that I think the notion of Belio’s music being the music of the future is even stronger. There is no empty posturing in Belio’s music. He is not interested in articulating some abstruse ontological principle, arguing a musical thesis, carrying out a sonic intellectual exercise; his music exists for aesthetics—maybe not purely for aesthetics (whether such music has ever existed anyway is quite a pointless query, worthy of being relegated to the confining cell of some erudite academic chamber, if anywhere at all), but for aesthetics nonetheless.
If there has been a consistency that has divided so-called “art” music from so-called “popular” music, it would be an emphasis on aesthetics over intellect. This is by no means to say that popular music can’t emphasize the intellectual, or vice-versa, nor is it to imply that these two entities, that is to say the aesthetic and the intellectual, unconditionally contradict one another; rather, it is simply a convenient, if not perfectly accurate, generalization, a temptation to which reviewers such as myself are prone to give in, given our (to speak in euphemism) communicative deficits and (more pragmatically speaking) word limits (the latter of which I have obscenely neglected, if not downright butchered).
In Belio’s music, the intellectual is certainly still present, yet the aesthetic takes the foreground—unlike so many of the stodgy artistic peers that share the same, or at least similar, grammatical ground, cultural context, musical milieux. Belio’s work is not necessarily about ideas (although it is important to add that this does not mean that it is not not about ideas); it is more about feelings. After all, this album is not called “Progress“; it is called “Contrast.” Musical contrast. Stylistic contrast. Aesthetic contrast.
Who Is Clément Belio?
Yet I digress. If you’ve managed to make it through this unintentionally obscurantist nonsense, let’s look a bit into who exactly this mysterious figure is.
Well, for starters, Clément Belio is a human being. Presumably, ergo, like most (I’m not so sure about all) human beings, he was born from the womb of another human being. This means that he probably has a belly button (innie or outie, I’m not so sure; I must investigate further—after castigating myself for being derelict in my exploratory and critical duties).
Beyond this somewhat elementary principle, it is also quite probable that Belio eats food several times a day and drinks liquids. As for what forms of condensed matter he chooses to consume and imbibe, knowledge of this nature is beyond me. Once again, I must most regrettably concede that I unfortunately have failed to uncover such information in my research. Here’s to hoping this blog doesn’t fire me (I’m not even getting paid anyway, so that would be a rather low blow—although, let’s be frank, worse has happened to me before, much worse).
“What did I find out?” you are probably asking (presumably in frustration at my pointless prevarication—not to mention perpetual parade of parentheses and absolutely annoying alliteration). Well, I know that Belio is located in this block of land some people refer to as “France,” but I personally prefer calling it what it is known as in its inhabitants’ principal tongue: “France.” Moreover, I know that Belio is 22, and that he began playing drums when he was seven and guitar when he was 15. I also know that, when I first discovered Belio’s music, I had just stumbled across it (proverbially, not literally). There (sadly) are not many tracks on SoundCloud labelled “Progressive Metal / Jazz” or “Djent / Jazz.”
I additionally know what Belio himself has said. He writes (his quotes slightly edited for grammar), “I like/listen/play Progressive Metal/Jazz/Djent,” and I am “really into jazz stuff, contemporary music [and] EVERYTHING from the label ECM.” He says he “like[s] all the weird stuff with complex structure/shapes/chords, polyrhythms, and high gain,” but wants to separate himself from the “Periphery bandwagon.”
Belio summarizes his musical philosophy asking “If eclecticism makes everything better, why not consider listening to more than one genre?” The modest composer and multi-instrumentalist insists, however, “I’m not that skilled … I just try to do my best using all the instruments I have, in my own way, to make my musical palette larger.”
Like so many djent artists today, Belio uses an Axe-FX II for amp simulation and Superior Drummer to program propulsive percussion. He plays an Agile 8-string Septor guitar with DiMarzio D-Activator pickups.
Most striking, outside of the realm of music, is that Belio has an incredibly goofy, off-the-wall personality. His teaser videos have always given me much more than just a slight chuckle (in fact, the coughing fit of chuckles his digital opuses elicit may one day choke me, leading to an early, yet worthy death), and his absurdist comedy and upbeat persona seem natural social correlations to his music.
For full disclosure, Clément and I are (internet) friends (you can tell because I’ve now broken formal critical guidelines and called him by his first name; nbd). We have so much in common, both of us composers around the same age with weird jazz- and contemporary classical-infused progressive metal solo projects. He’s not paying me though. If only.*
(Finally) The Album Itself
Contrast is Bélio’s third album, and first LP. His first EP, Proxima, was released in February 2013; his second, Heïa, in November 2013.
13 of the 15 tracks on the album are instrumentals. The only two songs that have lead vocals are the first and the last (*avoids making From First to Last joke, because then would to have admit that the band exists*).
The album doesn’t sound like it was produced in Abbey Road, but, considering it was almost entirely recorded in his bedroom, and considering many of the instruments are in fact real, not VST instruments, the quality of the production is incredible. (And, besides, it’s 2014, not 1964, why is Abbey Road still supposed to be the paragon of music production? Dispose of such bourgeois, parochial standards!) Contrast doesn’t have the best mix ever, but there is always so much space in the mix—enough space to make fellow producers envious.
That said, this partially unpolished quality of the album is just one of the many ways it sounds unique. This is not a high-budget collaboration of professional studio musicians; this is a masterwork put together in a composer’s bedroom. Factoring in the close-to-zero budget it was on, what Belio managed to put together is remarkable.
Unlike many producers today, Belio sticks out in his allowance for a sizable dynamic range, from pianissimo ambience to loud, blaring metal. Belio’s knack for dynamic and textural contour and, well, contrast might lead one to even call his music “post-rock.” The careful alternation between soft and loud, mellow and heavy, is much more balanced than in most metal (and even jazz) albums these days.
Throughout the album, the rhythm guitar is very low in the mix, even during djent sections, and the bass is louder than in conventional metal mixes. This separates not must Belio’s music, but his mixes from so many others. It also demonstrates that, although Belio may have strong metal influences, his music is much more than just jazz-inflected metal.
Less than half of the album, in fact, could be considered “metal,” in any way. The majority of Contrast consists of what one would have to generalize as jazz fusion. Yet the “one-drop rule” of metal, if you will, certainly applies here: even when most of the music isn’t metal, it’s still considered metal.
The production overall is a little inconsistent. In some tracks the drums are too loud; in others they are too quiet. Some tracks feature acoustic drums, and others drum samples. This makes sense, however, considering an enormous variety of styles and genres are represented, and given it was all recorded over a year.
Contrast features a slew of talented guest musicians, demonstrating that Belio is not making music to “show off” his skills, but rather simply to create what he hears in his head. The virtuosity required for many of the guitar, drums, and piano parts is remarkable. Belio explains his first instrument was drums, and the drum parts, all of which he recorded, shine brightly with creativity and ingenuity (attributes that unfortunately are lacking in so much contemporary metal, where the emphasis is primarily on the guitar). Belio also shows himself to be a bit of a guitar virtuoso, playing great solos in both metal and jazz styles (the latter of which is a particularly striking accomplishment). The bass playing on the album is rather weak, but it’s not a primary feature.
Each song is a self-contained unit. As far as I can tell, after several listens to the entire album, there does not seem to be any musical material that unifies each track (save for tracks 11-13).
All of this said, do not confuse the strong presence of stylistic pluralism in Belio’s music for a sign of a derivative creative nature. Belio may joke about “stealing” music from other artists, but his style is still distinctively his own. There are indeed moments that sound like they could have been directly lifted from an unreleased album of Tigran Hamasyan, Panzerballett, TesseracT, or Meshuggah, but they still maintain that unique Belio flair.
Belio’s work is unique precisely in the assemblage of styles most composers, even those privy to experimentation, would not associate with each other. And even in the moments in which his music might be similar to that of others, there are always undeniable, obvious markers of his individuality.
After all, it should be said, every artist is a product of their respective and unique influences (not just artistic, but also more generally cultural, social, philosophical, etc.). Stravinsky is often said to have quipped that “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.” He actually did not say this; it’s a simplification of a T. S. Eliot (“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”). It is so often attributed to Stravinsky because of a satirical article published in Esquire in 1962 (that is to say it was a joke), but, in a true “D’oh!” movement of history, if you will, the quote—and, more importantly, the idea it embodies—has lived on. Belio’s music is in the aural manifestation of this very principle. Music cannot be created in a vacuum. And even if it could be, most vacuums are poorly made and break eventually (or the bag bursts and all the dust goes everywhere—that’s the worst).
With that said, after thousands of (mostly) pointless words and the wasting of many minutes of your (hopefully) precious time (if it’s not precious, make it so!), let us proceed to the actual album. Because of incredible variety included within in its musical contents, it’s almost impossible to speak about the album as a whole, so I’ve decided to do a track-by-track review. This can also serve as a kind of guide for those who might be interested in getting into the fellow musicians who influenced Belio’s work.
A Track-by-Track Guide
1. Livre V
The album begins with beautiful diatonic solo piano, which then proceeds on to lush chamber orchestral material, accompanied by real strings and saxophone. Think film score. (Really, this song sounds like it came from a film score.) Jazz-inflected, but with simpler harmony. The textures really drive the composition. If I heard this use of pizzicato strings and percussion out of context, I would’ve sworn it was Danny Elfman.
If you like: Danny Elfman
Bright acoustic guitars under clean vocals by Alexander Vonhof. Here we first hear Belio’s use of dense, multi-part vocal harmony, a technique that continues throughout the album. The material is modal, jazz-inflected to a degree, yet almost pop-like…
Until Devin Townshend-esque symphonic metal crashes in, complete with female choir. If I had to describe this, I would say imagine Devin Townshend making music with David Bowie. Vonhof’s powerful vocals shine. Fortunately, he laid back on the vibrato (and thus the cheese). Good move.
This section is followed by New Wave of British Heavy Metal and/or early-thrash style rock with none other than brass punctuations (clever combo), and concluded with ambience.
If you like: Porcupine Tree, Devin Townshend
In this track we hear Belio’s strongest TesseracT influences. This track is more conventionally in the “djent” style, yet with strong jazz influences. Ever Forthright comes to mind—yet with a distinctive Belio touch, of course. A diatonic ambient intro of trebly clean guitar is followed by a burning djent groove. Sax is the cherry on top.
Funk follows, before a return to the djent jazz (“djazz”), along with a sax solo and an amazing shredding guitar solo. Like amazing.
If you like: TesseracT, Ever Forthright
4. Swell & Waves
True to its title, this track begins with solo jazz piano, flavored by touches of contemporary classical harmonies, with foley sounds and record scratches swelling.
The first wave to come to the shore show’s Belio’s strongest Tigran Hamasyan influences. A kind of jazzy pop fusion with obsessive moto pertetuo piano pushes forward. We hear some interesting chromatic harmonies and harmonic planning. The texture builds with strings, sax, bass, drums, and finally a whistled jazz lead, just when you thought you’ve heard it all.
An orchestral interlude, once again with Danny Elfman-esque orchestration, albeit with metal guitar, is subsequent. Some New Wave of British Heavy Metal-style rock follows, before a conclusion with a kind of djent-ish ambient jazz. Additive rhythms are the name of the game, as they are in Hamasyan’s music, and Belio pulls it off splendidly.
If you like: Tigran Hamasyan
5. Au passage du Cygne
In this track, we hear a jazz piano trio arrangement of the theme to Act II, X. Scene, Moderato, from Tchaikovsky’s 1875-1876 ballet Swan Lake (John Williams would go on to use this same theme as an inspiration for the primary musical theme to the Harry Potter film series, and Natalie Portman’s deranged character epically dies to it at the end of Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan). The first half I would argue is one of the weaker moments on the album. The piano, bass, and aren’t synced very well—which makes sense given they were recorded separately (not together simultaneously, as is the case with most “straight ahead” jazz records), and, given how it sounds, probably not with a click track.
Here we do, however, hear some decent jazz piano soloing from Belio. It’s clear from the sound of the piano track and the lack of quantization that this was recorded live, not with MIDI data that was later edited. With this in mind, one must be impressed at Belio’s musical skills. Not only is he a fine guitarist, he’s not a bad jazz pianist either. That Belio has listened to a fair amount of jazz is evident, as he employs interesting chromatic, “outside” playing, characteristic of post-bop musicians.
An interlude follows, with some intriguing harmonic exploration, before the Swan Lake theme reprises. In this latter half, the arrangement shines. We hear a Latin-infused setting of the Tchaikovsky melody, with a clever and creative melodic tag concluding the composition.
If you like: Horace Silver
This track, when taken in conjunction with the next two, stands as the highpoint of this album, in my view. It begins with a kind of R&B feel, with jazz harmonies, somewhat poppy. We hear some great idiomatic solo playing, sax, and excellent idiomatic drumming (the ghost notes on the snare are particularly good).
Soon, a djent section enters. Brilliant jazz-infused progressive metal follows. The mathiness is topped off with a crafty chromatically descending lead arpeggio. Unlike most djent, the playing is a bit sloppy, but it’s realistic. Virtually all djent is quantized and edited so much that it sounds like MIDI files; this is more “realistic,” if you will. And, once again, we hear some more fantastic lead playing.
If you like: Panzerballett
7. Think Thank
This track is tied with the next (“Jumpz”) for Favorite Track on the Album, in my book. It’s creative mathy jazz rock. In this composition we hear some of Belio’s best drumming. It’s somewhat subtle, but remarkable. The material he plays is absolutely driving and funky; he’s obviously very comfortable grooving in odd meter. When metric modulation follows, it seems logical and musically necessary, not like a cheap trick.
We later hear some more striking influences from Tigran Hamasyan. One might even call it “Tigran Hamasyan meets metal” (although, once more, I wouldn’t call it derivative, by any means). The backup vocals, singing additive rhythms with non-lexical vocables, humming the melodic material, give it extra flair. The addition of beatboxing is a nice surprise.
If you like: Tigran Hamasyan, Ari Hoenig
Another of my favorite tracks, “Jumpz” has both brilliant harmonies and brilliant rhythms. The chromatic, jazz-inflected lead lines are clever and idiomatic. I could only describe the intro as, as before, “jazzy math rock.”
With the djenty section that follows, we hear some more amazing drumming from Belio, with more tasty snare ghost notes. The backup vocals provide a nice atmosphere. With the great blues lead piano playing later in the track, we hear influences from the spectacular Hiromi Uehara—who Belio admits is a big influence.
With tracks like this, Belio shows that he is by no means just a metal musician with jazz influences; he is a skilled jazz composer and musician in his own right.
If you like: Hiromi Uehara, Tigran Hamasyan
9. DROP THE feather…
Directly following the strongest track on the album, I would have to call this the weakest one. Unlike most albums, however, even the weakest track is still very interesting. It begins with a kind of bluegrass-inflected clean guitar utilizing extended harmonies. More non-lexical vocables in the backup vocal parts are featured, as in most tracks (this is one of the hallmarks of Belio’s already distinctive style).
The mathy jazz rock that again follows is much stronger. I would describe it as Tigran Hamasyan with guitar, and more overt rock influences. The bluegrass-inflected and Lydian-mode material is an interesting twist on Belio’s jazzy math rock style.
If you like: Tigran Hamasyan
10. Keirô no Hi
This is certainly the most accessible, and yet perhaps most beautiful, track on the album. The nylon-string guitar intro is followed what the music industry would refer to as “adult contemporary” music, or slow pop music, not unlike smooth jazz. The diatonic harmonies and simple ♭VI, ♭VII, i progression under a pentatonic-heavy melody reminds one of Japanese pop music. And in this track, we definitely do hear strong Ryuichi Sakamoto influences, whom Belio lists in his “humble tribute.” Overall, one is reminded of soundtracks to Japanese films and video games.
A faster jazz rock section follows, with more interesting harmonic movement, followed by staccato strings and a gorgeous, lush string and sax melody. The term “majestic” comes to mind. The drums on this track are not as good as on others. Real drums were recorded, not just samples, and they do not appear to have been quantized; the rhythms are not as tight. At 1:10, in fact, one can hear a slight yet noticeable slip-up.
The track is named after the Respect for the Aged Day, an annual Japanese holiday that honors elderly citizens, and its simple beauty may certainly be seen as true to this tradition.
If you like: Ryuichi Sakamoto
11. Pt 1 – Prémices
This track opens with two minutes of cool jazz (think early-1960s Miles Davis). Mathy chromatic jazz rock follows, alternating with “straight-ahead” swing interludes. The drums here are a little rough, but they are also real—not samples—and still quite idiomatic, with a great swing feel. Real upright bass is also present.
We hear some great jazz guitar playing by one Brendon Williams, with a kind of chromatic, “outside” modern jazz distorted guitar solo, à la Allan Holdsworth. There is good use of noises and extended techniques in this track. In the end, you even hear a French voice sample, over an obsessive 10/8 rhythm. One might call this song jazz metal, but not the same kind of jazz metal you hear in the subsequent part.
If you like: Panzerballett
12. Pt 2 – Culminance
I would have to call this my second-favorite track on the album. Whereas the previous part is a kind of metal-inflected jazz, this is jazz-inflected djent—what Ever Forthright calls “djazz.” And comparisons to Ever Forthright are quite apt here. This track is positively scrumptious.
The obsessive 10/8 ostinato employed in the previous track is here superimposed over a simple 4/4 meter, as is the custom in djent. Belio does a great job alternating between these two contrasting metric layers. Many djent drummers today simply play half- or quarter-note cymbal hits with the snare on beat three. Belio spices up djent drumming, not just with snare ghost notes, the most common strategy, but with alternating between playing a simple metronomic cymbal pattern and accenting the musical material polymetrically superimposed above it. In this track, perhaps more than the rest, Belio’s drum parts really shine. He uses the perfect combination of generic stylistic attributes and creative experimentation. His drum parts are always funky and groovy yet still fit perfectly over asymmetrical meter.
The highlight in this song, in my view, is the (amazing) use of slap guitar. The slap guitar riff that enters after about one minute may very well be the coolest moment in the entire album.
If you like: Ever Forthright, Panzerballett, TesseracT
13. Pt 3 – Destination
This track consists exclusively of slow ambience. A melodica, sounding like an accordion, is accompanied by jazz guitar, kalimba, and piano, in a spacey, open atmosphere, with lots of cymbal effects, over a dominant chord bass pedal. It builds slowly for about two-and-a-half minutes until, and, right when you think it will explode… an anti-climax, as the track fades out.
If you like: Ambient free jazz
“Kali” essentially sounds like death. Really. (Unless you have a positive view of death, which is actually pretty awesome, and in which case I should be the one asking you for advice; I don’t know why you would be wasting your time reading all the way down on this stupid, obnoxious, 4,814-word review.) Although it sounds like the avant-garde techniques used inside of a piano, popularized by Henry Cowell and John Cage, the track actually consists of Clement micing a very out-of-tune dulcimer, often playing glissandi down all of the strings.
A background ambience is punctuated by sounds of the hopeless out-of-tune dulcimer, as percussion slowly fades in, and chanted vocals can be vaguely heard. The track concludes, rather appropriately, with the sound of someone dying, grimacing in pain, and a final, terrifying strike of the Dulcimer from Hell.
As the avant-garde track ends, a reversal cymbal roll crescendos to…
If you like: John Cage
In this track, Belio summons the spirit of Meshuggah. The first few minutes of the track sound as though Meshuggah had finally embraced blast beats, and decided to use higher register pitches in its guitar riffs. Belio’s death growls are quite good (it makes you wish he used them more). The percussiveness of the eight-string guitar, in spite of the high gain, is the cherry on top, from a production standpoint. Belio employs a shifting 15/4 polymetric pattern that is superimposed over 4/4. The autotuned, monotonic spoken words, almost robotic in nature—as used on Meshuggah’s track “Mind’s Mirrors”—are also a nice touch.
After the first two-and-a-half minutes, it sounds as though we have entered an unreleased TesseracT song. The clean guitar ambience with autotuned, diatonic, 4-part vocal harmonies, characteristic of this more contemporary djent style, is followed by a brief ambient interlude, before metrically modulated to a percussive TesseracT-like djent groove. After about four minutes, we again hear Belio’s use of complex slap guitar rhythms.
The epic, TesseracT-esque, multi-part, clean, diatonic, vocal harmonies over a simple stream of eighth notes serve as a nice cathartic, penultimate moment. My only criticism is I wish Belio had used pitch correction on his vocals; some of the intonation is off. I understand reservations about using “too much” pitch correction these days, but it would’ve given the music that extra touch of professionalism. Regardless, when this climactic moment is followed by beautiful ambient clean guitar, with delay for miles, Belio brings his long and turbulent masterpiece Contrast to a satisfying close.
If you like: Meshuggah, TesseracT
* This is meant to be a signal to other artists. If you want me to write a review for you, I do indeed accept payment. I can’t guarantee it will be a good review though. Well, I can guarantee it will be a good review, but I can’t guarantee it will be a positive review. Honesty is important to me, I’m picky in my music tastes, and, above all, my goal in life is to crush the Tyranny of Capital and struggle toward the emancipation of the proletariat. That said, please make any checks out to “Ben Norton.”