If you think that Hella is the final frontier of math-rock, have I got a surprise for you! Cheval de Frise is an instrumental duo from France that, on the surface, bears a couple of similarities to Hella. First of all, both bands are aptly named. The guys in Hella live up to their name (a slang adverb used to connote extremity) by playing their broken-metered riffs “hella” loud and “hella” fast. The guys in Cheval de Frise live up to theirs (which, although it means “Frisian horse” in French, is used in English to describe any spiky obstacle) by turning each of its songs into discursive journeys that aren’t always easy to listen to. Second of all, both duos consist of a guitarist and a drummer who have a chemistry and tightness that borders on telepathy. When listening to either band, I don’t even THINK about the absence of a bassist because I’m too busy wondering how they manage to keep up with each other. Both duos sound so close to spinning out of control that the addition of another instrument would most likely push their music into total chaos.
However, Cheval de Frise carve out their own niche in an increasingly cluttered sub-genre through a mastery of texture and timbre. Thomas Bonvalet uses an acoustic guitar instead of an electric, a strategy that reaps dividends on many levels. For one, his choice of guitars underscores his sheer technical mastery of the instrument. Most guitar geeks will agree that it’s harder to play well without amplification, Bonvalet’s ability to do tricks that most guitarists would need electricity and distortion (which Bonvalet uses rather sparingly) to accomplish supplies the requisite “wow” factor that even the least egotistical math-rockers strive for. Playing acoustic allows the band to execute dynamic changes that most musicians can’t when they’re playing with amplification due to compression. On many songs, the band’s dynamic shifts are smooth enough to sound like engineered fadeouts. Bonvalet’s playing style is just as percussive as comrade Vincent Beysselance’s drumming, which makes the duo’s rhythmic lockstep sound positively effortless. Vincent’s no slouch himself --- he has the ability to wring a nearly infinite array of tones from his cymbals, and his jazzy yet firm grip on the endlessly shifting meters posits him as a kinder, gentler counterpart to Hella’s Zach Hill.
By no means are Cheval de Frise neophytes --- their first two albums were recorded in 2000 and 2002, respectively, but neither of them hit American shores until earlier this year. Their self-titled debut is the more energetic and raucous of the two. Opener “Connexion Monstrueuse Entre un Objet et Son Image” begins with strumming so hyperactive that the guitar sounds like it’s being run through a delay pedal (although it isn’t); the drums later follow suit with equally stuttered rhythms. From that point onward, the song goes through more changes than most bands put on entire albums: metallic drop-D riffs, Gastr del Sol-style meandering, pointillist finger-tapping, etc. “Constructions d'Écorces d'Arbres” is dissonant enough to suggest being composed in “just intonation.” Its rhythmic accents are so lopsided that even when the band’s playing in 4/4 it feels like they aren’t. The contrapuntal finger-picking on“Incliné et Chenu” sounds like an out-of-tune harp. Throughout the album, every strange riff that Bonvalet ekes from his guitar is matched by an equally outlandish rhythm from Beysselance.
The duo’s second album, Fresques Sur Les Parois Secretes du Crane, is a more even-keeled distillation of the group’s sound. The production is damper here than on their debut, with more reverb filling in the open spaces. There are more moments of quiet nothingness; the changes in key, meter and volume aren’t as frequent, which makes tham sound slightly more violent when they actually occur. On this record, both musicians seem a bit more eager to use their instruments as noise generators. For instance, the midsection of opener “Lucare des Combles” sounds like a factory of broken watches, and the grinding slides that Bonvalet makes on his fret board can make unsuspecting listeners seasick. Later on in the record, “Deux Nappes Ductiles” finds Bonvalet bending his strings so subtly that his guitar sounds like it’s being run through a chorus pedal (although it isn’t), and on “Songe de Perte de Dents” his palm-muting technique makes his instrument sound like an orchestra of plucked violins.
Whereas the self-titled record sounds like two musicians trying to outdo each other, Fresques is Bonvalet’s show, with Beysselance restraining himself in order to follow the guitarist’s lead. That’s not the real surprise, though. On the title track and “Phosphorescence de l'Arbre Mort,” Cheval de Frise are augmented by a third musician. Simon Quinoillant, who contributes bowed drones and tape manipulations that sound like anything from hurdy-gurdies to howling cats. The result sounds like a jam session between Storm & Stress and Pelt. The combination shouldn’t work, but it does, mainly because Bonvaley and Beysselance step back and let the drones take center stage. In fact, these two songs leave me hoping for more collaborations with Quinoillant on future releases. The songs on Fresques are spacious and deliberate enough to withstand additional instrumentation without sounding cluttered, which can’t be said for those on their debut.
Overall, both Cheval de Frise albums are proof that subtlety doesn’t have to be anathema to math-rockers. If I’d have known about Cheval de Frise during the era of “freedom fries,” I’d have tried to use their music as a catalyst for cross-cultural unity. Somebody tell those guys that all is forgiven, and that they should tour here soon!