by Eric Bensel
You’ve heard their gypsy jazz, their feather-light 60s chansons, and their monotonous techno. But France can also boast of an impressively rich underground rock scene.
Attentive listeners will remember the pioneers: Magma, Métal Urbain, Les Thugs, Noir Désir, and others. Today’s bands followed their lead and are now blazing their own trails. They are as accomplished and creative as musicians in countries with a much richer, higher-profile rock tradition, having mastered genres ranging from art punk and math rock to stoner metal and shoegaze.
The diversity of modern French rock is chronicled in episodes 311 and 336 of McG’s Backroom. The ten groups below are among the Backroom’s favorites from the Hexagon — chosen lovingly, curated meticulously, sorted alphabetically.
The Parisians in Bad Pelicans would have you believe that they’re a surf band. But there is little of the Dick Dale bounciness or sunny California pop in the trio’s sound that we would typically associate with that genre. Instead, one hears an edgy garage punk and a strutting-but-scummy glam rock. Regardless how your online streaming service classifies it, it’s damn good rock-n-roll.
Standout track: “Svrf Punk”
Of all the French bands inspired by the entrancing monotony of krautrock, Electric Electric may be the krautiest. This guitar-drums-synth trio from Strasbourg hypnotizes with a thick drone that would recall industrial rock, were the effect not more euphoric than corrosive. Electric Electric is also one-fourth of the rock collective La Colonie de Vacances, an eleven-person quadrophonic musical experience in which four groups synchronize in playing each other’s songs. The bands surround the audience in a reverse theatre-of-the-round. The three other groups of the Colonie are Marvin, Papier Tigre, and Pneu. See their entries below.
Standout track: “Dassault”
Stoner rock festivals seem to be popping up across Europe like mushrooms in a stoner’s backyard. A number of French bands grace those stages, none as interesting and exciting as Glowsun. Hailing from Lille near the Belgian border, this stoner metal trio has a sense of the dramatic. A stick of incense burns at the edge of the stage, a sinewy melody snakes through a haze of dry ice, and haunting art nouveau imagery projects on the back wall. And then come the riffs. Heavy, pummeling, square in the fucking groove.
Standout track: “Arrow of Time”
My Bloody Valentine invented shoegaze, then spoiled it for every band that followed by being so goddamn perfect. Aspiring shoegazers had to retool – i.e., simplify and dumb down – the sound so as not to duplicate the masters. La Houle, for example, retains MBV’s boy–girl vocal dynamic and dream rock wistfulness (the track “The Seer” could be an outtake from Isn’t Anything) but replaces the dense wall of distortion with a vulnerable pop sensibility. Sure, other bands have tweaked the MBV formula in the same manner, but few with as much gentle panache as La Houle.
Standout track: “The Seer”
Bourg en Bresse combo L’Effondras features two guitars and drums, but I’d wager their recording sessions also include a protractor and measuring tape. The group’s all-instrumental post-rock is calculated so meticulously that the tunes fit together with Lego-like precision. Although mathy, the trio’s music is not without feeling – the guitars ring out with emotion and the drums rage with power. The group is the sonic equivalent of a building demolition: measured and computed down to the smallest detail so as to crumble into a glorious heap and cloud of dust.
Standout track: “XI. Lux Furiosa”
Montpellier trio Marvin would be classified as heavy metal, if its tunes were not so much damn fun. Dance beats thump and synths shimmy with a sci-fi kitsch reminiscent of Trans Am. The drums and guitar pound and grind, but the keys lend a delightful goofiness that offsets any soupçon of doom. Of the participants in La Colonie de Vacances, Marvin is by far the most lighthearted of the four – the cover of Devo’s “Girl U Want” testifies to the band’s playful charm.
Standout track: “We Won’t Get Fooled Again Anymore”
Psych with very little hint of spaciness, Lyon trio Noyades trades in the harder edge of psychedelic rock. One hears echoes of Harsh Toke and Hawkwind. While the group is all-instrumental, the segues – however protracted – never devolve into prog pretension. On the contrary, the group plays with a breath-taking abandon that emphasizes immediacy and energy. The 2016 LP Go Fast beautifully documents the band’s vigor and its mastery of psych metal oomph.
Standout track: “Bear Rider”
If scientists were to gene-splice Thrill Jockey and Dischord DNA, the resulting Frankenstein would be Nantes trio Papier Tigre. The band (pictured above) expertly combines post-rock elegance with emo harDCore. Art punk typically wears its eclecticism on its sleeve … and down the front of its trousers and all over the floor — as counter example, Papier Tigre has a diverse, yet controlled, sound. The group delivers a polished math rock that, along with the metronomic Electric Electric, firmly grounds the La Colonie de Vacances performances. PT’s drummer also slaps the skins for boundlessly creative math rockers Room 204.
Standout track: “The Other Me”
The most frenzied, and therefore the most interesting, of the La Colonie de Vacances bands, Tours duo Pneu sprays guitar notes and drum rhythms with the indiscriminate care of a Kalashnikov. Think Lightning Bolt with little interest for catchy melodies. And like those Rhode Island legends, Pneu sets up gear in the middle of the audience to radiate its splatter punk outward from the pit. Pneu also shares a drummer with experimental kraut hypnotists F.U.T.U.R.O.S.C.O.P.E.
Standout track: “Pyramide Banane Chocolat”
Somewhere between “it” band and cutting-edge indie heroes, Rennes quartet Totorro is the internal monologue of a hyperactive child, set to skittish music. Joyful, jittery, and jumpy, Totorro exudes fun. The drums sprint across the kit, the guitar riffs suffer epileptic seizures, and the crowd goes wild. If 90s punk emphasized angst and anger and the 21st century has answered terrorism with reactionary politics, then perhaps the most punk rock response is, actually, to have a great goddamn time. Totorro offers the soundtrack, and there’s no need to feel guilty over this pleasure.
Standout track: “Gérard Blast”