- Strange, dreamlike soundscapes from house music's preeminent surrealist.
- Since launching his label, Atavisme, the French house music artist Pépé Bradock, real name Julien Auger, has emblazoned many of his records with a curious elephant that freights a box of unknown treasures. On What A Mess!, Auger's first full-length in 21 years, we learn more about this elephant and what it's carrying. Turns out, he has been paying homage to one of history's most famous pachyderms, Abul-Abbas, an Asian elephant gifted to Charlamagne in 801 AD. "Was he carrying silk in his chest, talismans, monograms, alembics or lutes, a foal, spices, maps, fruits, vegetables, or keys?" Auger writes in the promo text for What A Mess!. "How would we know? And what happened since then for the promised harmony to turn into a deleterious cacophony?"
True to its name, What A Mess! is an addled affair. Beyond the ancient elephant, Auger also says the 45-minute album was inspired by random words like "boomerang" and "miséricorde" (like a mix of the Dadaist cut-up technique and Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies). The LP is also apparently a deconstruction of his sole other LP, 1998's Synthèse, reconstructed "under the auspices of echoes of a joyful brouhaha from a dreamed speakeasy, including the true voices behind the charade."
The latter directive is the only one that comes across sonically in What A Mess! The unmistakable din of bar conversation is nearly omnipresent, loudening during the gaps between music. Abul-Abbas, however, is as good a metaphor as any for Auger's wild style. Like the royal elephant, his tracks deliberately obscure their bounty. Eureka moments emerge deep within difficult compositions then fade away just as quickly. Over the past two decades, the "promised harmony" of tracks like "Life" and "Deep Burnt" has turned into the occasionally "deleterious cacophony" of What A Mess!
Even by Auger's standards, What A Mess! is tough to make sense of. There are no tracks on the record, just two untitled sides. Side A's most compelling section sounds like a shoegaze band being subsumed by a pack of laughing hyenas. The A-side ends with a wonky hip-hop instrumental that might have come out of the LA beat scene. Throughout, strange spoken word samples and musique concrète-style collage threaten to overtake the mix. The B-side has far more to latch onto. Along with the obligatory babble of voices and mad laughter, he unleashes a nasty acid track before introducing a dreamy chord motif that drifts in and out of the ether until the side's conclusion. The B-side echoes The KLF's ambient house/sound collage experiments. It's music to play after the party, as the first glimpses of daylight acquire, and eventually succumb to, dream logic.
Auger's greatest strength is bending house music to fit his strange dream. Todd Burns wrote that Auger's Swimsuit Issue 1789 EP somehow managed to sound exactly like, well, a swimsuit issue from 1789. Similarly, What A Mess! does evoke the "joyful brouhaha of a dreamed speakeasy," lurching seamlessly between disparate themes and tempos, as in dreams, and its babble of voices include inner dialogue to represent what's "behind the charade." In instrumental electronic music, producers are quick to latch on to a lofty concept to add cohesion to their albums. But few producers succeed in convincingly transposing such esoteric ideas into strange, occasionally beautiful music. Whether you like What A Mess! or not, it cements Auger's place as house music's preeminent surrealist.