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JEAN-PAUL PRAT: MASAL (Musea FGBG 4155 AR [1995])

This CD is one of the greatest unsung masterpieces of French progressive music. It eclipses albums by worthy French bands like Pulsar, Arachnoid, and Magma. Indeed, it can be compared with the best music yet produced in that ambitious genre known as Progressive Rock. I've been living with it for several years now, and it impresses me even more every time I return to it.


Largely the work of its composer, Jean-Paul Prat, the CD is over 76 minutes long, but comprised of only five pieces. The first, the title track "Masal," is itself over 42 minutes long and was recorded in 1982 and originally issued as both sides of an LP in 1983. The remaining 34 minutes of "bonus tracks" is another short LP in length and the material is in no way inferior. "Messsagers de Notre-Dame" (15:56) and "Maran atha-Selah" (9:13) were recorded in 1985. "Valse funebre" (5:11), which was composed in 1975, and "Origines-seconde partie" (3:33) were recorded in 1990.

Prat's early years and career as a musician, playing guitar, keyboards and drums, is tediously annotated in tiny type in Musea's accompanying booklet. It is entirely to Musea's credit that its historical reissues are usually given lengthy historical-biographical essays in the CD booklets -- but I have been increasingly disappointed by the pedestrian nature of these essays. They go on for pages describing the abodes in which the musicians communally lived, the personnel changes of the band members and their previous band-histories, the gigs they played and who shared the bill, but it's an endless dry recitation of names and dates that doesn't tell very much of a story and avoids all analysis of the music itself and its impact at the time. One searches for meaning in these essays, but finds little. For example, here is the origin of the name, "Masal": "The group called themselves by the Hebrew word 'masal,' which had been heard on the radio by Jean-Paul's mother and which the band liked the sound of. Jean-Paul had in fact been looking for a brief and concise name which would emphasise the band's musical ambiguities. Originally he was under the impression that it meant 'chance' in Hebrew but later discovered that it meant 'star'."

"In these early days [mid-seventies], Masal had a sober stage show, without any particular visual gimmickry. Denis' lighting was sparse but effective, allowing the musicians to concentrate on their playing. The music was all but wholly instrumental, the voice being used as an instrument in its own right, as it was in Magma. Jean-Paul considered using lyrics to be unneccessarily restrictive to the development of the music. By this time he -- and, to a certain extent, Yves Ottino -- was composing nearly all the band's material, in the style of K[ing] C[rimson], Magma and V[an] d[er] G[raaf] G[enerator]." The band, Masal, played throughout the mid-seventies without recording and then disbanded. Prat went on to play with other bands, often as their drummer.

In 1981 Prat reformed the band at the behest of a concert promoter. "Jean-Paul's music had undergone changes. Instead of the frenetic wildness of before it distilled its power into a music of profound serenity and sensitivity. It had become entirely instrumental, with dense interweaving of themes and counterpoint led by brass and guitar." After concerts in late 1981 and 1982, "there were moves towards making an album of the band's music. Jean-Paul, with the assistance of his family, financed the venture himself, as he was unable to find any labels willing to take it on. Jean-Paul and Norbert [Galo] decided to use just one 40-minute piece for the album; it had its origins in the song 'Aubergine' which had been written as a scrap of melody by Jean-Paul in his days at the conservatoire in 1972. He had reworked it with Masal mark 2 in 1975 when he'd recorded it on two tracks and called it 'Ratatouille'. He began writing another theme into which he intended to integrate his original melody. This lasted about 15 minutes, but didn't quite fit, and so Jean-Paul began composing a second, equally drawn-out theme to bind the original melody into the overall piece. But by now there was 30 minutes of material and the original melody still wasn't integrating to Jean-Paul's satisfaction. Finally he settled on a third new theme which enabled him to bring into relief his original melody and fleshed the whole out to a 40-minute album-long suite. Jean-Paul dropped the title 'Ratatouille' considering it a bit silly, and decided to name the piece after his band." The piece was recorded in July, 1982, using 14 musicians, and the use of a 24-track studio allowed Jean-Paul to overdub additional parts.

The effect is stunning. The music is broad, melodic, and complex. In places its darker themes have a strong King Crimson feel, and in other places delicate flutes swirl around a grand piano. The music has been described as Magma-like, but for my taste is far superior in its subtlety and scope. This is 20th century concert music and as
such can stand with the best the century's composers have to offer. If Jean-Paul Prat had given us nothing else, his reputation would be secure based on "Masal."

But Prat gives us more. In the mid-eighties he became a Christian. One might fear that this would sap his compositional energies or turn them saccharine. But perhaps he followed instead the kind of mysticism that some French composers, like Olivier Messiaen, have associated with Christianity to good effect, because his remaining compositions, recorded in 1985 and 1990, show no diminuation of his talents. Indeed, they flow almost seamlessly from "Masal," perpetuating its moody power, its contrasts of dark and light, heavy and gentle. The final composition, "Origines," is a Carl Orff-like vocal chorale and makes a fine and fitting conclusion to this superb album. One is left with the hope that we've not heard the last from this remarkable but little-known composer and that another album may some day be forthcoming.

In the meantime, get MASAL. I give it my highest recommendation.

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