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Decibel - Fiat Lux: The Complete Recordings (1977-2000)

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Artist: Decibel

Album: Fiat Lux: The Complete Recordings (1977-2000)

Label: Mio

Review date: Jun. 29, 2004

”The safest way not to be swallowed is to be unpalatable I guess.” Chris Cutler

As a term, Rock In Opposition (RIO) is used to describe a large variety of second generation progressive rock bands and their derivations up to the present day. Originally a single concert coupled with a loose organizational spirit, RIO disintegrated rather quickly, but at the same time this epithet lingered and spread past its European roots. Arranged in March 1978 in London by Henry Cow (England) and Stormy Six (Italy), the Rock In Opposition concert at the New London Theatre additionally featured Samla Mammas Manna (Sweden), Etron Fou Leloublan (France), and Univers Zero (Belgium). Later official additions to the roster accepted Art Bears, Art Zoyd (France), and Aqsak Maboul (Belgium). According to releases at the time, and resulting from charged debates between the bands, RIO groups adhered to the following criteria:

    (A) That of musical excellence. This depending on their collective evaluation of the same.
    (B) That of working actively outside the establishment of music business.
    (C) That of having a social commitment to Rock.

In practical terms, this meant collaboration in tours, distribution and manufacturing of music, cross-promotion, and general development of alternative outlets in media. Of course, someone had to go and bring up politics, which irrevocably ended the formal RIO relationship. Stormy Six, avowedly Communist as only Italians know how, accused Univers Zero of only being concerned with formalism and Samlas Mammas Manna as apolitical. Stormy Six were then labeled too populist, and after several concerts in 1979 the bands dropped the RIO label. However, the informal links made proved to last, as did the notions of management which set up such enterprises as Chris Cutler’s Recommended Records.

RIO was a survival method as much as an active statement. Early progressive rock had the support of album-oriented FM radio, major labels willing to put out side-length songs, and large audiences devoted to experimentation within the rock format. Even Henry Cow, which had begun on the Virgin label, found that by the late 1970s the music industry had degenerated so much they released their 1979 effort Western Culture on their own imprint. Mainstream progressive rock had shifted to a ghostly shell of itself, with acts like Styx and Journey assuming the mantle and herding it into large football stadiums. Prog rock, which succeeded solely on the margin in the first place, suddenly had no middle ground. While the punk movement takes credit today for introducing so-called DIY methods into music, it was partly the punk phenomenon that ended the limited taste for prog in the music industry.

For record labels, punk rock’s legacy, more than anything else, was the re-establishment of the single-oriented band as the quintessence of how to make money in music. To this day we suffer under the yoke of albums drenched with filler songs and produced by committee. Thank you Mr. McLaren, may I have another?

As a response to the cultural malaise of the time, RIO also reached backwards into musical roots that subsequently insured their limited financial success. Stockhausen, Cage, Kagel, and Boulez were drawn from, as well as the radical strains of European and American jazz. As with most avant-garde movements in the 20th century, this led to an international communion of sorts, both in and out of Europe. Bands that had existed in solitude found an idiom and, most importantly, a small market for their efforts. It was in this era that the Mexican group Decibel achieved a small amount of success and produced some stunning music.

All the studio work and some live material by this band are collected on the 3-CD Mio Records set Fiat Lux, featuring their 1979 full length El Poeta del Ruido, a track contributed to a 1982 Recommended Records quarterly LP, and several albums recorded in the 1990s by a revamped lineup. While Mexican psych rock goes back to bands such as The Spiders and Los Dug Dugs, the 1970s brought more symphonic groups like Nueva Mexico and Al Universo. Decibel were a rare exception to the prog acts of this period in Mexico, and were well versed in European groups such as Faust, Magma, Gong, and the Italian prog masters Il Balletto di Bronzo. The lineup centered around keyboardist Carlos Robledo, bassist Walter Schmidt, and percussionist Jaime Casteneda (Scmhidt and Robledo began playing together as Decibel in 1974). Three months after the original 1978 RIO festival in England, Decibel performed at a RIO festival at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, which can also be heard on the Fiat Lux set.

The centerpiece of this set is certainly the 1979 album El Poeta del Ruido, released in a pressing of 1,000 and distributed in the UK by Recommended in 1980. The title track is a gem, equal to any of Henry Cow’s structured pieces and in most places darker. The song includes a complex structure, odd electronic manipulations in the background, and percussion and keyboards sped up to a blindingly fast speed. Equal parts Uncle Meat and Magma, the track is brilliantly delicate in some instances, removing all the portly elements associated with their Zeuhl forebears.

Few tracks on the album share this structure, however. Several stand out as Stockhausen-inspired, with abstract loops comparable to Raymond Scott or Cluster. Others summon the more chaotic elements of Faust’s Tapes. Overall the album goes beyond many of the RIO associated records of the age, as it consistently defies expectations in both form and instrumentation. The live performances from this era are equally impressive; during one point is hard to distinguish Decibel from any good live AMM recording. Lastly, Decibel does not deserve the designation of “Chamber Rock,” a term of slander for most musicians rather than praise. Against the cold dexterity of bands like Univers Zero and Art Zoyd, Decibel stands out as engaging and provocative.

The question remains surrounding RIO: Opposition to what? Although these bands disagreed between themselves over the answer, a general idea surfaced. These bands committed themselves to existing and working outside the traditional avenues of the music industry, whether by fortune or design, with the recognition that when large amounts of money changes hands art becomes the last priority. The wide range of beliefs between these musicians - from the communist dogma of Stormy Six, the extreme leftists in Henry Cow, the Latin surrealism of Decibel, or the whimsy Zappa-styled politics of Samla Mammas Manna - all agreed on the enemy. RIO became one of the many glorious failures between art and the Left that pepper our history, a Popular Front for the post-1960s avant-garde. Importantly, this was done before our so-called information revolution, and few could imagine it taking place today, when the queue of bands willing to play ball at any costs literally stretches coast to coast. RIO confirmed that the social function of art is to a large extent determined by the artist, and when that role is relinquished, there are forces eager to fill the opening. If John Grierson was right, as art being not a mirror but a hammer, then it begs the question whether art is a weapon or a tool. Decibel and their contemporaries understood it, rightly so, as both.

N.B. This review is the second of a loosely organized trilogy concerning prog rock and its manifestations in culture and society. The first can be read here.

By Kevan Harris

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