The French Connection

Dominique Leonetti with Romain Thorel on drums and Vincent Barnavol on hand drum.
Dominique Leonetti with Romain Thorel on drums and Vincent Barnavol on hand drum.

Few bands out there in Progland have a unique power and magic to completely rip up the rule book and make music which messes with your mind, touches your soul and fills you with a joie de vivre, that leaves you ever gasping for more.

As regular readers of my occasional blogs may now be more than aware, I have forged a very close connection with prog’s most original and certainly most exciting live band, Lazuli. Who? Well, if you live in the USA, you may not have encountered them yet but, hopefully, that will change soon.

Having performed in mainland Europe and also Canada, Lazuli’s one US appearance was at Rosfest in 2009 and their first live UK gig was at the Summers End Festival two years ago. They were Friday night headliners, unknown to all – including yours truly – but a handful of the more savvy festival goers.

We were conscious there were some guys resembling the cousins of Legolas, Boromir and Aragorn mingling with the audience but, having noted how striking they looked, thought nothing more of it – until they arrived on stage as the headliners. The rest, as they say, is history.

As well as looking like the good guys in Lord of the Rings down to their goth Masonic attire and elaborate hair styling, including a plaited beard, their inventory of instruments is extraordinary, comprising French horn, mandolin, marimba (more of which later), beat box, assorted guitars, an elegantly angled keyboard,a single hand drum and the Leode (more of that later too). Their other USP (unique selling point) is that they do not sing a single word in English.

Now imagine how all that could look and sound when delivered live on stage. I tell you in all sincerity – it is mind-melting. Central to the sound is the aforementioned Leode, an instrument invented by the band’s original guitarist Claude Leonetti after he lost the use of his left arm in a motorcycle accident back in the 90s. According to the band’s website, Claude had a dream about creating an instrument, literally a sonic box of tricks which he could operate with one hand. This extraordinary electronic device, resembling a Chapman stick can conjure up all manner of sounds, ranging from Middle Eastern mysticism to out and out prog metal.

Their UK debut at Summer’s End was without exaggeration the greatest live performance I have ever seen. Never mind none of us being able to understand a word they were singing, such was the sheer brilliance of their show, it was as if you were being transported away to a parallel musical universe, indeed to Lazuli Land.

It was not just the originality of their music, which owes much to the influence of the Beatles, to whom they listened when they were young Lazulis, but the way they delivered the songs – with a passion, a love, a belief, an intensity and also with great joy and humor.

Frontman Dominique (Domi) Leonetti, brother of Claude, is quite bewitching with his clear, powerful pitch perfect voice and his almost waist length hair secured in a long ponytail which takes on a life of its own when at his most animate. He also plays rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar and mandolin.

His main compadre is the ever-smiling guitarist Gederic (Ged) Byar, a fellow possessor of an extravagant head of braided hair and sculpted beard, but blessed with a fluid, vibrant smooth style which runs in perfect parallel with the cutting edge sounds of the Leode. He even occasionally runs a screwdriver up and down the fretboard,

They don’t have a bass player either. I thought I ought to mention that. The lower registers are left to the laser eyed Romain Thorel and his keyboard, again another instrument which seems to have an endless repertoire of sounds ranging from piano to drums. Oh, and he is the one who also trebles up on French horn and the drums, freeing up regular drummer Vincent Barnavol to play marimba, a hand drum resembling a djembe and beat box.

So, there’s the lowdown on what they do and how they do it.

French prog tends to either veer towards the avant-garde and experimental or the more Celtic. So, in many respects, Lazuli really have broken the mould, their songs centering on subjects important to them such as L’Arbre (The Tree) that is all about nature and man’s evolution (or lack of it).

Their most recent album 4603 battements, released in 2011, had time as its central theme. Many would argue that their adventures in recording are a far different and less exciting proposition than their live shows but I defy anyone to hear the incredible 15H40 (more about this later too) and its depiction of time ticking without a sense of wonderment. The album title translates as 4603 beats because that is how many there are on all 11 songs on the album.

And so to the present. Lazuli have been more than aware that I have been their UK cheerleader in chief since that epic performance two years ago. Last year, they performed at Germany’s Night of the Prog at Loreley, which clashed unfortunately with the first Celebr8 festival here in the UK.

So it was a masterstroke when the Summers End organisers announced they would be back for this year’s festival, along with German band Sylvan who had been the main crowd pleasers the year before in 2010. When Prog magazine asked me to write a preview of this year’s Summers End, it was a chance to touch base with Lazuli again to get their reaction about coming back to the UK to play.

Thanks to Google’s translation facilities, Domi provided some charming responses to my questions, saying how they grew up on British music so to cross the Channel to play here was very symbolic. Of their 2011 show, he said it was “beautiful and terrifying at the same time.” However, the welcome they received was so warm, they soon forgot their anxiety and enjoyed “this precious moment”. They were very excited and honored to be back at the festival.

Fast forward to Saturday October 5, the night they were appearing at Summers End, following the main headliners Gordon Giltrap and Oliver Wakeman performing the stunning Ravens & Lullabies.

Well, Lazuli rocked up halfway through the afternoon. It was great to catch up with them again and I gave them a copy of Prog magazine with my preview, ending up using my very rusty French to translate back to them the quotes they had given to me!

Cutting to the chase, they finally came on half an hour late and I must admit the ensuing one hour and forty minutes were a bit of a blur, because all that Gallic sorcery and charm was still there. Again, it is that connection they make with the audience which is so special as they give every part of their being to making their performances as dynamic as possible.

One song Film D’Aurore saw Domi with a tiny light on his hand that he shone onto his expressive face, but it is the extraordinary Le Miroir Aux Alouettes which hopefully you can see at the end of this paean, which is them at the height of the powers for many reasons, mainly its immense tempo change halfway through when Romain takes over drums from Vincent, then the whole mood goes from folk to Arabic scales.

Romain is such an accomplished musician, he gets his own solo spot to show off his incredible versatility on the keyboards, all improvised with a bit of jazz and funk thrown in this time. Even Domi and Ged crouch down by the side of the stage to watch him in full flight.

Then when they played 15H40, Domi decided to spin out the tension and to my utter surprise, decided to include yours truly in the song when trying to convince everyone it was “twenty to four” instead of around midnight so he jumped down from the stage and sought my counsel on the time.

Well, the time was ticking away and fast approaching 12.30 when they were called to order because of the lateness of the hour. So, instead of playing the brilliant 12 minute long Naif where audience participation is key to its success, they pushed the marimba to the front of the stage. And this is where the true genius of this band really showed with their Nine Hands Around The Marimba as all five band members simultaneously played chords and melodies, while taking the occasional potshot at each other. And was that a few bars of Solsbury Hill in there somewhere too?

If it was not for some of the throng having to rush out to get the bus back to their weekend lodgings, the band would probably still be playing as no-one wanted them to go.

How can I explain it succinctly? This band has such a positive, humble and uplifting vibe about them that they seem to reach inside and illuminate every corner of your inner being. Even over a week after the show, I am still buzzing about them like a hyperactive queen bee!

If you want further proof then catch their new DVD, Live @ l’Abeille Rode, the first part of which is them performing their live show without an audience but which is so beautifully shot, you feel you are part of the invisible crowd watching – and probably cheering them!

Well, what more can I say about this French connection except that Martin Reijman, who loves photographing them, and I are doing a crash course in French with a view to meeting up with them again next year in France. My aim is to interview them in French which hopefully will further help us all to understand the essence of this truly remarkable, unique band.

If you want to learn more about them, go to: http://www.lazuli-music.com/ and you can tell them Alison sent you.

Otherwise, please enjoy the Summers End encore (courtesy of Pete “Pedro” Waite) or Le Miroir Aux Alouettes shot at the Night of the Prog last year.

Je vous remercie.

3 thoughts on “The French Connection

  1. Wonderful review, Alison. Lazuli really can’t be praised highly enough. And their live sound (not just their style) is so precise that although I may not hear a word of English I can understand their lyrics better than those of many English bands even with quite poor school French. All the detail that goes into heir instrumentals and vocals can be thoroughly taken in.

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  2. Le miroir has an infectious beat Alison…I have 4603 battements and was a bit underwhelmed at the time but I’m not sure whether this track is on that album. Time for a re-visit anyway
    btw, I note their Wiki page is rather basic…now there is a challenge for you !
    great post, thanks

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