Saturday, 25 February 2023


Cafe Oto, London
Tues 21st Feb

The first time… the only other time I saw Zoviet France was way back in the Nineties. At one of those DIY arts events that happened more frequently before that much-feared dystopian future became our present. Not in a ‘proper’ venue, without stage or bar, we sat on the floor sipping from mugs of tea as the music wafted round us. Which was the perfect way to hear this legendary and possibly semi-mythical ambient duo, who I always like to think are named after an imaginary country. (Do I lie about semi-mythical? That ‘publicity’ photo of them ain’t exactly giving much away.) I was even apprehensive about seeing them again, fearing it couldn’t be the same… 

Then again, Cafe Oto isn’t a bad venue either.

They’d be another example of ‘the changing same’ in music. Dynamics are mostly eschewed. There are breaks and changes at times, true, but mostly there’s a slowly ever-morphing quality, where everything turns into something else before too long. The one time there was something like repetitive beats, their forward momentum was balanced out by a slow harmonica drag, played live and as if it were a drone instrument.

We tend to think of music, more than other arts, as a direct way to express an emotion. But a set such as this makes you realise how ill-suited regular music is to this task. Even a pop song has verses, choruses, bridges… too structured to capture the flow of thought, it works more like a speech or an essay. Whereas this, I contend, is the true music of the heart.

And so, of course, the thing which makes it appealing also makes it challenging to write about. It can be like trying to remember dreams, the act in itself pushes away the spirit that had once been there. But in my foolishness, I try to keep up this blog, and so…

They’re often tagged as dark ambient, even appearing on the Wikipedia page devoted to that genre. But if they came from the same post-industrial scene as Lustmord, they don’t really sound much like him. The nearest common descriptor for the sounds they produce would be analogue or organic, despite the abundance of shiny things on stage. In fact, the set starts with something sounding like vinyl crackle. Nothing even sounds sampled, referenced or ‘quoted’, even though it surely has to be. It’s not a melange of ingredients, it feels cut from whole cloth.

The mood’s serene, in fact I’d go as far as hymnal. (If that word could be shorn of its religious associations.) There’s the same mixture of quiet calmness with ecstatic states. It’s like one of those old Chinese paintings which depict an inherently ordered cosmos, in balance with itself.

The duo seemed to go quiet in recent years. (Though that’s a relative term in their case.) But there’s signs they’ve become more active again of late, and we can only hope so. No footage from this gig I could find, but this from supporting Autechre back in the Autumn… (Not as good a set, but still worth your time.)

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