For 20 years, Vitalic (Pascal Arbez-Nicolas to his mum and, presumably, accountant) has enthralled lovers of electro and techno with four studio albums and one iconic live album’s worth of maximalist, direct tunes. That’s without mentioning the ongoing legacy of 2001’s breakthrough Poney EP.
His last album, 2017’s considerably shinier Voyager, managed to convey a sense of that most elusive of taboos in dance music – that of getting older.
Like the rest of us, he spent 2020 not going many places and not playing DJ or live sets to anyone. So, he went back to his synths and beatboxes and created what would become his fifth album. This fifth album is now set to be released in two parts. He explains, ‘While composing I realised that eight tracks felt like too little for an album, and sixteen was really over the top, so I decided to cut the whole thing in half…I felt I hadn’t been able to express everything I wanted to on the first volume – like something had been left unfinished’.
Dissidænce Episode 1 appears to have the intention of revisiting the musical styles of Vitalic’s career to date, with the upcoming Episode 2 promising to be composed of harder, faster music aimed at keeping underground sweatboxes in their full complement of sweaty, dancing bodies.
Opening track ‘Haute Definition’ is about 25 percent more banging than it has any right to be. A jumpy, almost funky electro bassline drives through a landscape of busy, swirling synths giving way to chiming, layered percussion. There’s actually a good deal more compositional awareness in this than in most of Vitalic’s contemporaries’ output. The driving bass kick thump is fairly consistent throughout the track, but the more tonal elements cleverly ebb and flow throughout, giving a definite sense of linear movement.
If I thought the opening track was banging, ‘Rave Against the System’ is abrasive enough to strip the enamel off your teeth. Influences outside the techno world are evident, though, and the song can definitely be categorised as electro-punk complete with angry, modal vocals by Parisian icon Kiddy Smile.
As a climbdown from this aggressive, high BPM assault which belongs mostly in times beyond 2am, next track ‘Lost Time’ is a beatless swamp of vibrato-soaked synths (think a theremin pitched down a couple of octaves) which would fit seamlessly in the background of a film where there’s imminent danger lurking just out of sight.
Ostensibly telling the story of a couple formed on a dancefloor at stupid o’clock, ‘Danse Avec Moi’ reverberates with tangibly dirty energy virtually slipping out of grasp due to sheer perspiration. Hints of early eighties electronica in the arpeggio synths occasionally pick out a more romantic edge to the glorious slime which forms the backbone of the mix.
‘Cosmic Renegade’ might be my favourite track on the whole album. It’s set at a more manageable pace than the outright bangers elsewhere on the record and features sonic textures that interlink, recede, and grow in a manner that can only be described as compositionally mature. Buried between the nods to Teutonic 90s techno there are big fat vocal pads which are almost operatic, beats moving between various levels of filter and a distinct understanding of what makes a booty shake.
’14 AM’ begins as an homage to Laurie Anderson’s iconic 1981 smash ‘O Superman’ before emerging from its chrysalis as a more conventional four to the floor groove bouncing off the sampled staccato vocals.
If any track on the album could be classified as traditional Vitalic territory, then the maelstrom of high, fidgety, driving synth patterns on ‘Boomer OK’ would be it. Pretty much every cliché of a high energy electro tune is rammed into one groovy five-minute slice of hip-swinging bliss. It’s a challenge to listen to, even in the most sedentary position, without popping your hands in the air and allowing your gluteal sections to bounce along.
It’s all capped off by lead single ‘Carbonized’, a frantically bouncing mass of energy reminiscent of so many French electroclash records from the turn of the century and, indeed, Vitalic’s own 2005 anthem ‘La Rock 01’ (that’s the one that sounds like a car constantly changing gear dropped in DJ sets by Miss Kittin, amongst others). According to the producer himself, it’s about ‘toxic people who can kill without touching, without weapons – just by their nature.’ One of the vocal samples sounds enough like Werner Herzog for me to decide that it definitely is him.
I can see what Arbez-Nicolas said about the album seeming unfinished. While he has certainly rediscovered his knack for grooves that tiptoe between aggressive and just downright sexy, it’ll be intriguing to see where the second half of Dissidænce goes and how it complements or counters the first part. On its own, Episode 1 definitely has all of its high points on side 2 of the record but it does feel weirdly incomplete. Whether the second instalment brings everything to a logical conclusion or accentuates the highlights of Episode 1 remains to be seen.