With all their beady little eyes,
their flapping heads so full of lies
(South Park Parents)
Musically, Canada has much to be proud of (Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Oscar Peterson, Glenn Gould) and harbours many unspeakable crimes (Celine Dion, Celine Dion, Celine Dion), but anywhere that can produce musicians of such outstandingly consistent genius as occur in the Constellation catalogue has got to be doing something right.
Founded in 1997 by Don Wilkie and Ivan Ilavsky, this Montreal-based label has become one of the Indie Dependables (along with the like of Berlin’s Morr Music and Brighton’s Fat Cat). The stable is small (only fifteen or so bands) and select, every one a star, and most sharing members in one way or another at some time or another. Constellation is dominated, of course, by the awesome gravity of its stellar locator – the huge, and hugely influential collective, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, in whose studio – Hotel2Tango – N’Écoutez Pas was mixed.
Roger Tellier-Craig has been steering Fly Pan Am in parallel with his Godspeed duties since he was recruited in 1998. However, he quit GY!BE last year, and rumour has it that this will be the last FPA album. There have been two previous full-lengths (Fly Pan Am in 1999 and Ceux Qui Inventent N’Ont Jamais Vécu (?) from 2001) which revealed a serious – and seriously dead-pan – commitment to pushing the experimental rock-guitar boat out as far as it will go towards the cataracts at the end of the world before plunging over. It’s been a nerve-wracking and increasingly noisy quest (the contrasting of songs and noise has been an obsessive constant), one requiring great trust and patience from us wide-eyed listeners, but one rewarded, always, by strange sonic discoveries and glimpses of alien ways that might or might not be better than the status quo.
Formerly a quartet, the lineup for N’Écoutez Pas gains a fifth member and a large number of guest-collaborators, although this is merely a technicality: at any given moment, you might be forgiven for assuming you’re listening to either half of the population of Montreal gabbling nonsense whilst honking their car-horns and dissecting their broken household appliances with amplified angle-grinders, or to a single very obsessed guitarist and drummer stuck in having to repeat the same bridging riff over and over until the keyboard player gets back from taking a piss.
There was a self-styled ‘self-sabotage’ or ‘what the’ motif in the last album (ie you’d look up from listening every now and again and say ‘what the…’ as it either went completely dead mid-track, or lost most of the mix or something for a few beats) that, thankfully, hasn’t been repeated here; nor have the more dedicated of the experiments in alienation (track 3 of Fly Pan Am spends ten of its seventeen minutes in the repetition of a one-tone stroked interval – B to C – on guitar whilst the metronomic drummer just drums – and drums – and drums – which actually I find perversely exciting in a thoroughly nerdish way – sounds utterly pretentious, I know, but after the seventh minute or so, you really do start hearing something else); but the dedication to treating the musical rule book like a crusty paint-brush continues, gloriously, unabated.
The Fly Pan Am experience is like following one of those cheeky zen-trickster-monkeys into the eccentric cabin of his self-build private rocket: he distracts you from the edginess of the countdown with his wit and repartee, and then lets you experience the full terror of the last ten seconds – which end with the refusal of the engines to ignite. All in cod-French, of course. The final words of the album are, for once, perfectly clear – a question posed by two very little girls: “Papa, c’est quoi, le fly pan am?” “Oui, papa, c’est quoi?”
One clue is hidden in the artwork (Constellation’s handmade album covers are always a joy – a true relic of the punk DIY ethic), where, hidden amongst the heavily-amended and barely-legible acknowledgements to people like The Fall and Throbbing Gristle (way to go, Genesis P.Orridge fans!) is the name ‘André Breton’. (If, as is perfectly possible, the André Breton acknowledged here is a Montreal graphic designer or guitar-maker or something, the following paragraph is embarassingly irrelevant.)
Whereas surrealism has tended to become a middle-class lower-case synonym for ‘a bit weird’, FPA evidently adheres to the notion of permanent revolution in, at least, its artistic form, as originally proposed by M. Breton in Paris in the definitively upper-case Surrealist Manifesto of 1925. Considered as the effort to liberate the imagination as an act of social and political subversion, nothing could be more serious, really, and there’s a direct causal chain between the titling of an album Don’t Listen and Matisse’s entitling a painting of a pipe This Is Not A Pipe. There’s a particularly French understanding of the notion of art as ‘provocation’ – without Surrealism and Dada the Situationists and the Fluxus Group would never have emerged, for instance – but the downside has always been an inclination to take oneself (one’s Self – the Artist, that is) terribly, terribly Seriously. Preferably in French.
Alas, unless your French is damn near fluent, the pity is that some of this record’s fun won’t read: it’s clear, for example, that the series of emphasised rhymed phrases – ‘on vit…on rit…on suit…on fuit…on fouis…’ chanted throughout the first track are a play of some kind, but that particular plaisanterie is perdue on me, as is the joke in some of these incredibly long and arcane titles; I thought titling the intro track on the last album Jeunesse Sonique, Tu Dors (En Cage) was brilliant (after I’d worked it out), and I think Ex Éleveur de Renards Argentes on this one translates as Ex-Silver Fox Breeder, and might be equally witty, but why, why, why? Fortunately, the fun is only marginally verbal: the musical rug-pulling is endless, and endlessly inventive.
Continually swooping in and out of the orbits of krautrock, anti-funk, hardcore punk, and noise, nodding impolitely at such doddering oldies as the Velvet Underground and Talking Heads, and with Sonic Youth never very far away, Fly Pan Am nevertheless ploughs a singularly eccentric furrow in the postrock landscape. The short track preceding the extraordinary eleven-minute ghost-train ride Trés Trés “Retro” , for instance, consists of the distantly-reiterated announcement, ‘Le Fly Pan Am’ in a stern female flight attendant voice as if heard from inside the mouth of someone chewing gum whilst using an electric razor – and it’s utterly mesmerising.
With musical quotes spreading as far apart as Messiaen and Mike Oldfield, and (dare it be said) a sort of shy exotic lyricism often hovering, barely audibly, as far back in the mix as it will go, this latest album suggests a decisive step forward from the preceding two. It’s as uncompromisingly experimental as both, but neither manifests the more willing spirit of engagement that seems to pervade N’Écoutez Pas. The first two of FPA’s albums display a deliberate and calculated carelessness towards the listener’s sensibilities. The work is deliberately cold, distant, and disagreeable. N’Écoutez Pas seems to acknowledge that yes, maybe they have been taking themselves a little too seriously. Indeed, Tellier-Craig admits, in a recent interview (with the zine ‘Voir’) that, in this album, ‘…nous avions envie de faire une musique plus humaine, qui reflétait notre amour pour elle, plutôt que d’en faire une qui est détestable!’ (‘…we wanted to make a more human music, that reflected our love of it, rather than making something horrible!’) Are you listening, Darius?
It would be a great pity if this proved, after all, to be a swansong. Fly Pan Am have demonstrated, here, a whole new set of capabilities as secret locksmiths – opening doors where doors aren’t usually found, discovering chambers full of strange things that lead to other chambers full of even stranger things that challenge the intellect as much as the senses. It’s still a slightly disturbing experience, keeping up with them, like treading on the heels of a rather bad-tempered archaeologist in a slightly sinister mausoleum, but worth putting up with for the reward of those strange, strange things in those strange, strangely beautiful chambers…