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Deep Forest

Deep Forest is a two-man "electronica" band of a type that has grown from the development of technology as applied to music, yet their unique twist on the style earned them a big splash on European dance floors when they first appeared. On their inital, self-titled offering, their great leap simply involved taking UNESCO tapes of pygmies singing various ceremonial songs (gathered by musicologists Hugo Zemp and Shimo Aron), manipulating them through digital sampling techniques and applying them to highly infectious, rhythmic music largely featuring synthesizers. The effect is touching and memorable.

Michel Sanchez and Eric Mouquet are among a relatively small number of musicians who have found a way to make their medium all but irrelevant to the results. The popular conception of "synthesizer music" has been that it is in some way artificial, when in reality, the term synthesis simply means "to assemble from various components." It is ironic that so basic a term has been given such a specific position in one of the ultimate expressive human abstractions.

Any style of music can be presented poorly, in a sterile or hackneyed manner, but in the end, it is what the composers and musicians are able to convey that counts. These two succeed admirably in avoiding repetitious dance-floor stereotyping, in part due to their broad sense of timing and texture, but also because their music has proper tension and release rather than being mechanical. One aspect of it lies in their more ethereal songs, such as "Sweet Lullabye," which conveys a warm, rolling character through its rich, underlying "pad" sound, as synthesists call it, but also through the occasional skittering elements that offset it and even moreso by the use of the human voice, which gives it feeling only achievable BY the human voice, or to a somewhat lesser degree, a precious few instruments such as the violin or saxophone. Knowing how to define that abstract When and Where makes all the difference between a moment of novelty and a piece that justifies repeated listenings because it defies casual interpretation at first glance. The term "world music" was eventually coined to describe such productions. However, it typically makes a small thing of a larger realm. One can say that the paintings of Gaugin, Renoit and Picasso are "abstract" or "impressionistic," but that doesn't describe them any better than naming the colors of paint does. Deep Forest finds a way to blur certain lines in a similar manner.

Michel Sanchez is obviously classically trained; that's hard to miss, because he imparts a fluidity and sense of harmony one rarely finds in those who are self-taught or who have generally leaned towards popular as opposed to more traditional styles. When someone takes up the accordion and rocks, its image as a "belly Baldwin" useful only for polkas is left in the dust. It really turns your head by leapfrogging old expectations.
It can be very refreshing to hear African percussion such as Udu drums or Middle Eastern reeds such as the piercing mizmar woven into a more Euro/American dance beat, but again, making them breathe stretches the boundaries of the usual definitions. Peter Gabriel, long a proponent of other cultures, once described inviting an Arabic man into the studio to record him playing the oud, a hard-to-master, double-reeded instrument. He put him in a booth where his playing was routed through a digital reverb and as Peter put it: "Here is a man who has spent his life mastering this one instrument, with all of the nuances peculiar to it alone and suddenly, the sound goes (spreads his arms wide & laughs) and his eyes got very round!" That's a great description of how these unusual meldings can go. Deep Forest does it with class and pizazz.

In the synthesizer world, there is an ongoing search for a Next Big Thing in both fresh sounds and the mechanics of sound production. One example is physical modeling, which allows one to change the shaping of a sound from moment to moment, as opposed to pressing a key and merely having a static sound emerge. Even if that sound is harmonically rich, having it respond fluidly to parameters such as air pressure and the tonguing of a reed takes it to a new height that brings even obviously electronic sounds closer to a more human level of expression. Because advancing computer power has allowed physical models of wind, brass and stringed instruments to be implemented to a usable degree, there is a fresh challenge in applying known techniques to previously unheard sounds.

One thing that makes Deep Forest stand out is that in each of their first 3 releases, a different overall region and its native music are applied. The method is similar in each, but the tone and genesis of those folk musics is retained, giving each a sparkle unique to itself. There are the pygmy ritual songs of the 1st disc, with their child-like tone and high-pitched base. In their 2nd release, "Boheme," they drew from Transylvanian, Hungarian and even Balinese sources. Then there is their 3rd, "Comparsa," with its Afro-Caribbean focus. Although the DF approach is apparent throughout, you can readily get a feel for the native cultures from which the sparks are struck. It is often all but hypnotizing to hear the old, the new and the literally out-of-town melded in a world where 4/4 club-floor beats or often engaging yet easily-digested "emo" rock usually dominate. They also make good use of singers who specialize in styles DF seeks to both present in a pure form and enhance with their own touches. As with languages of India and Pakistan, the accents and flow are a few steps away from what we traditionally know from a more occidental perspective.
Their most recent release, "Made In Japan (Music Detected),"was, in my view, a somewhat less satisfying venture, as it did not draw as much from the stated Oriental cultures as it stepped back to a more traditional dance format. It still has several gratifying moments, however and I will not hesitate to buy their next release. Just FYI and IMHO.

I would also strongly recommend to you Michel Sanchez's instrumental solo release "Windows," which allows listeners of the Deep Forest releases to more clearly define his contributions to those titles. There is a cut called
"After the Rain" and another named "Humming Birds" in which he performs lilting piano solos that are most impressive. I was able to appreciate his synthesizer work even more after hearing his mastery of the acoustic piano, which takes a different ear and set of muscles to master.

Deep Forest will not appeal to everyone, but it is hard to imagine that most could not appreciate them for their depth, sparkle and compositional clarity. They fulfill the promise of the remarkable technology now at hand with great vigor and heart, yet also succeed beautifully in reminding us that there is a vast cultural palette from which can be drawn fine and humbling aspects of simply being human.

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