On their debut EP, Rock N’ Roll, the French duo Occulte are clearly determined to channel the days of cold analog yore. As part of the retro trend that continues to rear its head in current era’s underground culture (Cassette revival? Who the hell saw that coming?), your reaction to an album like this may vary. You may, for example, embrace it as a return to the innovative triumphs of the late 1980s and early 1990s. On the other hand, you may consider it a dated and unambitious recording. Rock N’ Roll is both; it is a fossil that aspires to little beyond following closely in the footsteps of past pioneers like the Klinik and And One, but taken as a tribute, it’s quite an effective one. HAL (music) and RH (vocals and lyrics) have also injected layers of experimental quirk that hint at depths that may or may not be legitimate; the band is well-named. All told, this is a puzzling release, and I mean that in a positive way.
At seven tracks and thirty-four minutes in length, Rock N’ Roll is relatively sparse. HAL’s analog synth bubble and murmur in clinical intervals, and RH’s French-accented vocals are a dead ringer for Headscan‘s Christian Pomerleau. The vocals and lyrics are an integral part of Occulte’s sound; they’re apocalyptic to the point of ritualistic. It’s quickly apparent why the band chose the name they did. With the exception of the tortured post-industrial screams of “The Heuristics of Hyperhumans,” RH chants with throaty solemnity on topics such as social change, post-humanity, and transcendence. For example, on “War on Worlds,” RH declares “salvation without sin / fire without burns / church without God / God without punishment / Heaven without Hell” in heavily dogmatic fashion. Accompanied by HAL’s bleak, slow-paced rhythms, the track recalls the early adventurous days of post-industrial with practiced aplomb. On “Liberator”—the eight-and-a-half-minute dirge that closes the album—RH proclaims “this is the way the world ends / not with a whimper / but with a bang,” twisting T. S. Eliot‘s classic closing line from his poem “The Hollow Men” into something brash and bold rather than ominously quiet. This quote appears to carry major significance for Occulte; it’s not only used multiple times in the music, but it’s also printed inside the CD’s packaging. Fitting for the band’s borrow-minded modus operandi, this is not the first time the quote’s been reversed in this fashion (one usage here is obviously a lifted sample), but the meaning remains the same.
It’s difficult to determine if Occulte intends any of this to be taken seriously, or if the duo has their tongue placed squarely in their cheek (RH chants the band’s name over and over during the end of “Total Cleansing,” recalling KMFDM‘s self-referential tendencies for me in amusing fashion). As an electro throwback, Rock N’ Roll satisfies, especially if you’re already a fan of that particular icy lo-fi analog sound. HAL—whose very moniker conjures the killer computer from Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey—has studied his predecessors well. Even the EP’s title ends up toying with one’s expectations; traditional rock music this most certainly is not, making me think that the band is indeed having a chuckle at our expense. Again, it’s a curious decision, as this is not the kind of album that will make a ripple anywhere near the mainstream. Ultimately, Rock N’ Roll is a successful retro experiment that attains the fringe feel of the early innovators and hints at meaning beneath the minimal surface (“occult” means “hidden,” after all). Where might Occulte go from here? Nothing would surprise me, and I mean that as a compliment.
01) Backchanneling on Side Roads
02) The Great Filter
03) Grand Junction
04) Total Cleansing
05) The Heuristics of Hyperhumans
06) War on Worlds