One of the most pleasant musical surprises of the beginning of last year, for me, came in the form of an album entitled Voix by a French band called Aluk Todolo. Despite its title, which translates as ‘Voice’, Voix is an entirely instrumental album, consisting primarily of just guitar, bass and drums, that saw the group marry elements of experimental rock, black metal and drone music, crafting an unequivocally unique sound, described by the group as ‘occult rock’, that was as captivating as it was intriguing. What’s more, the live recording of the record gave it a definitive jam vibe that captured a guttural rawness, elevating its swirling psychedelia to an intense level of riveting suspense. With Voix being my first exposure to Aluk Todolo, I made sure to keep a close eye on the band, as the album left me enthralled to hear how they would play with their distinct stylings on future releases. Just over a year since the release of Voix, the trio announced their latest project, Archives Vol. 1, which is comprised of recordings from a time when the band was still honing their sound. As such, these recordings are rather rough around the edges, but in a way that complements their skeletal rock stylings, just as the live production of Voix captured the organic energy of Aluk Todolo. This being said, it is certainly noticeable that this project consists of early compositions from the group, as many of these tracks come across as a tentative feel of the waters in that they don’t quite push the boat out as far as the material on Voix and occasionally feel somewhat clumsy. Nonetheless, Archives Vol. 1 is, in certain regards, just as interesting as the band’s previous release and, although the full focus of their later material isn’t as evident here, this record makes for another hypnotising release from Aluk Todolo.
For anyone who is familiar with Aluk Todolo, the opening track from Archives Vol. 1, IV XII MMX, is instantly recognisable as adhering to the blueprint that the band continues to hone on their later material. The repetitive, agitated drums support a swirling bass riff, as droning ambience, in the form of growling organ notes and roaring guitar feedback, make up the bulk of the song’s progression. In this regard, IV XII MMX is exactly what one who is familiar with the trio’s stylings would expect to appear on an album consisting of their earliest compositions. Indeed, the foundation for the sort of black metal-tinged krautrock that would appear on an album like Voix is unequivocally evident here, and to a rather developed extent, although, whilst it is bewitching in a sort of hypnotic fashion, it is also less efficiently actualised than the six tracks on the group’s last album. Despite the material on Voix pulling heavily from drone music and perhaps even post-punk and post-rock, with its compositions often being based on rhythmic and sometimes melodic ostinatos driven by the bass and drums, these pieces were nevertheless constantly in motion, subtly progressing through the ever-evolving guitar lines, which would seamlessly weave between stylistic sources, from krautrock to black metal to neo-psychedelia. A piece like IV XII MMX, however, whilst similarly mesmerising, edges dangerously close to stagnating and losing the listener’s full attention, in that the bass and drums leave a lot of space that isn’t always adequately filled. There are a handful of other tracks that see such issues slightly exacerbated, lacking the forcefulness of Aluk Todolo’s more actualised material and hindered significantly by the recording quality. Of course, given its status as an archive album, it is perfectly understandable that some of these cuts would be lacking in terms of sound quality, but it is nevertheless possible to pick apart these pieces. XVII I MMVI is one such track that is unfortunately restricted when it comes to its recording, sounding as if it was captured live with a single microphone set on the other side of the room to the band. Even still, the composition itself, like IV XII MMX, clearly alludes to the formula that the trio would go on to pursue in more depth, but, as such, is far more insular in its execution, coming across as ever so slightly directionless at times. This being said, particular passages of the piece display a selection of highlights in the form of an interesting drum fill or a particularly hypnotic guitar riff, but, as a whole, the band lacks the clear cohesion on an album like Voix, instead occasionally sounding as if each three members are playing their own separate pieces.
Rather surprisingly, one of the most invigorating cuts on Archives Vol. 1 is the second track, XXVI IX MMX, clocking in at just under 90 seconds length and bridging the divide between Aluk Todolo’s influences from various forms of experimental rock and the ideas pulled from noise and drone music. The piece opens in medias res, with a droning electronic hum underlining the burst of cacophonous distortion that evokes the stylings of harsh noise legend Merzbow. As the frightening feedback begins to fizzle out, the cut shifts the listener’s attention to the throbbing bass ostinato and a drumbeat that sounds so tinny that it is presumably synthetic, although this is hard to tell as it seldom seeps through the dissonance of the blaring distortion. For Aluk Todolo to include a track that seemingly leans more towards harsh noise than it does experimental rock is rather bold, given that an influence from noise is seldom evident to such an obvious degree on their recent material, but it surprisingly proves to be one of the most impressive moments on the record. Similarly, another stand-out moment on Archives Vol. 1 is the fourth track, which strongly grabs the listener’s attention, largely because, just as the preceding track quietly peters out, XV V MMVIII explodes into earshot with an abrupt clangour of feedback that is seemingly completely irrelevant to the rest of the composition. Instead, the main body of the piece is founded on a circling acoustic ostinato of clashing chords, over which buzzing distortion and feedback ebbs and flows as to create a bewitching soundscape of discordant turmoil. Again, such a brazen excursion into the world of pure noise is audacious but welcome, given that Aluk Todolo do such a good job with it, creating walls of noise that are arguably as captivating as the swirling krautrock featured on an album like Voix.
Overall, whilst Archives Vol. 1 may appear to simply be a collection of demo recordings from an obscure, underground, French rock band, there is certainly more to be found here than it may seem on the surface. Indeed, this album isn’t solely an interesting listen for diehard fans of the band, as there is an impressive amount of substance to be found on many of these tracks, and the fact that even many of their demo recordings are very strong is a testament to how powerful a force Aluk Todolo are amongst contemporary, underground experimental rock groups. Of course, a handful of these compositions are seemingly unpolished and often only exhibit the foundations of what would go on to become Aluk Todolo’s fully realised style, not to mention the low quality recording of certain cuts, but much of the hypnotic charm of the band’s swirling psychedelic sound is present on this release. Ultimately, therefore, as skeletal and bare-bones as it may be, Archives Vol. 1 is an admirable effort considering its origins and, assuming this is the first of at least several compilations of this vein to be released in the future, I imagine there is much to look forward to in seeing what else can be dug up from the Aluk Todolo archives.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10