Gabriel Keller’s Stunning Musical Journey – “Clair Obscur”

GabrielGabriel Keller – Clair Obscur, 2022
Tracks: Tumulte (3:29), Time (5:01), Train To Resolution (4:27), Open Arms (5:13), Melancholia (3:50), Sonate Au Clair Obscur (6:42), Nothing Human (5:35), Out Of My Life (6:51), Honey (4:45), Acclamie (2:59)

We’re back into our mini series of reviews of French progressive rock albums, and today’s album has been my favorite of the batch. Gabriel Keller’s Clair Obscur has a range of influences, from the Beatles and Pink Floyd to Porcupine Tree and Opeth. The album features four different vocalists, each of whom wrote their own lyrics in their language of choice (English and French). There are three different guitarists and a host of stringed and blown instruments as well.

The first half of the album leans more on the pop influences, much influenced by Emi B’s smooth and clear vocals. The lyrics touch on struggles of love in difficult circumstances. The melodies on these tracks (“Time,” “Train to Resolution,” and “Open Arms”) are very catchy and very memorable. The melancholic pop of “Open Arms” makes a nice transition to Charlotte Gagnor’s appropriately entitled track, “Melancholia.” The French lyrics and Gagnor’s voice create a haunting atmosphere that is beautifully supported by strings and the occasional Gilmour lick from Keller’s guitar.

As the album moves along, it gradually gets heavier until it is solidly in progressive metal territory by “Honey.” One might think the differences in style across one album would be jarring, but the gradual shift as it goes makes it work really well. Even though there are four different singers with four different styles of writing, and thus varying lyrical themes, the album feels very cohesive. That’s a testament to Gabriel Keller as a musical writer.

The instrumental opening track sets the stage nicely, giving the listener a flavor of what’s to come: guitar-driven rock with spacey backgrounds and layered sounds with varying levels of heaviness. Similarly, the instrumental closing track helps the listener decompress after the album gradually ascended the mountain of rock.

The variety of instrumentation also set this album apart. “Sonate au Clair Obscur” demonstrates the layers to be found on this record. It’s a longer primarily instrumental piece complete with stringed quartet, piano, and varying styles of guitar. It starts off quieter before gradually moving into heavier and more complex territory. The strings take on a more abrupt pace, complementing the growing heaviness of the guitar tone. There are some lyrics in the song, but they are more like backing vocal tracks with the music taking center stage. This track is really about the music.

“Nothing Human” is the closest to Porcupine Tree that we get on the record. The mournful guitar playing in the back of the mix behind Maïté Merlin’s vocals. The guitars have a heavy crunch throughout, especially in the chorus. My only beef in this song comes from pronunciation on a particular vowel in the word “winner,” which repeats in the chorus. In French and English, the letters “i” and “e” are pronounced opposite from each other. As such, the way Merlin pronounces this word in English comes out a bit differently than intended. I’m immature so I found it funny, which clearly isn’t the intent of the song. Honestly, that is the only complaint I have with the record – I’m grasping at straws for that. The song is great. The heaviness is well-balanced by Merlin’s vocals.

This record has certainly grabbed my attention over the several months I’ve had it (yes, yes, I know, I’m slow at reviewing and I have a backlog), so much so that Clair Obscur will find its way into my year-end best of list. The songs are memorable, and they draw you in with each listen. The stylistic variety on the album works well because of how the album is arranged. It gradually builds by the end leaving you wondering how you got to where you ended up. If you’re looking for an album to take you on a journey through realms of melancholic pop and hard rock crunch, put Clair Obscur on your list.

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