Friday 9 July 2021

Helium Station - Sanctuary (2021)

Country: France
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 May 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

Here's an interesting album from Toulouse, not least because it's oddly schizophrenic. Helium Station is the one man project of multi-instrumentalist Fabrice Lacourt, who wrote everything on this and an earlier album, Flesh and Bone, and played all the instruments except the drums, those being the work of Benjamin Marmier. He then brought in a variety of guest vocalists to sing on songs I assume he felt fit their particular styles.

I haven't heard Flesh and Bone, but it seems notable that the songs were sung by two ladies, Marjorie Alias or Natacha Kanga, with a male vocal showing up only on the closer. This time out, there are five voices divvying up eleven songs and three of them are male, though that's not why it's schizophrenic. It's schizophrenic because Lacourt shifts into a completely different mindset when Kanga is singing to when anyone else is, enough that Helium Station becomes a different "band" entirely.

For the most part, he's a prog rocker. Sometimes, as on the opening pair of songs, he's inventive and lively, both in the way he structured his songs and in how he performed on them, especially on guitar. Sometimes he's notably intricate, clearly relishing the technical difficulty of a piece, and sometimes he's more sedate. Sometimes he heavies up a bit, crossing a boundary into metal, and sometimes he softens up a little, shifting towards melodic rock. However, he's most often playing some form of prog, whether it's a pure Yes or Mike Oldfield style or a more commercial Styx or Alan Parsons Project one.

Which form mostly depends on who's singing. Alias prompts him to get playful and intricate, which he does all the more on songs with Alexis Dimitriou up front. When Yann Rousseau or Yann Fabié step up to the mike, he lets the warmth of their voices drive the songs, whether he's playing heavier or softer behind them. My favourites are all more playful songs, as epitomised by the first two.

Simple Life is a tease of a piece, with Lacourt's fingers as fast here as anything on the album. Praying for Me grows on me every time I hear it but I believe Alias's voice is perfect for Simple Life and I enjoyed her ethnic section at the heart of the song greatly. In many ways, One Night Pain follows in this one's footsteps, even though it switches to male vocals, courtesy of Dimitriou. He's the most frequent voice here, singing four songs, and I would call this one out as the best, not least because, halfway through the piece, he shifts register, from his regular voice to something more akin to Jon Anderson, and it's like we're listening to someone else.

There's a lot to say about the prog album that Lacourt shares amongst four vocalists, but I'll point out that Cursed Writer is up there for me with the first two songs as its highlights and be done, because I want to talk about the completely separate EP that is bizarrely spread out betwixt the album.

This features the four songs led by Natacha Kanga, which aren't prog or even rock in the slightest and so feel rather out of place alongside the other songs, but which are also the other three highlights for me. Heaven's in Your Eyes shifts the album from intricate prog to patient blues. It's a really good song but it's an anomaly until we get to Be Yourself seven songs in and another wild shift to old school funk, even disco, and, while there's a proggy riff and some proggy soloing, this feels just as out of place on a prog album as a blues number.

If she's bluesy on her first song and funky on her second, Kanga digs deep into world music for a third, the album's closer, Piece of Mind, which is up there with Simple Life for me, even though it's different in almost every way. This one feels west African through and through, not just in Kanga's effortlessly powerful voice but the warm, cheerful guitar and the ethnic rhythms too. It's really hard not to get up and dance to this one but I mostly bounced in my chair a lot. Not moving didn't seem to be an option.

I'm a big fan of versatility and I applaud how varied this album gets, but it really does seem like there are two completely different things going on and I wonder how audiences will receive it. I enjoyed the two styles but felt like I ought to be listening to them separately. Give me a prog album with Alias and Dimitriou and whoever else. And definitely give me that roots album with Natacha Kanga. But maybe don't give them to me at the same time.

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