Formed in Newcastle around the same time other English bands — Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and This Heat — were discovering the beauty of noise for its own sake, the reclusive and enigmatic Zoviet France started on a path that combined abstract sonic collage and electronic manipulation with a distinctly art brut sense of instrumental technique. Over the course of 20-odd years, seven (known) band members have evolved a music altogether more luminous and intangible. Throughout, there is a marked ability to conjure extraordinary, arresting and often unsettling landscapes out of pure sound.
From the outset, Zoviet France — originally Ben Ponton, Robin Storey and Peter Jensen — were as interested in presentation as content. Most of their early records were issued with bizarre handmade covers, using nontraditional materials in lieu of cardboard, and many were accompanied with the kind of abstract artwork that could just as easily have come from the hand of a mental patient as from the wall of an ancient cave.
Hessian, a 12-inch 45 in a screen-printed cloth bag, is enthusiastically primitive and abrasive, with percussion and feedback as well as silly chanting, hyperactive bongo playing and the shrill piping of flutes. Originally issued only on cassette, Garista lacks percussion, occasionally gets very silly indeed and is also very murky and industrial sounding. Besides occasional self-indulgence, the recording quality is poor.
Norsch, a 12-inch 45 wrapped in embossed tinfoil, is the most powerful of Zoviet France’s early recordings. Side One begins as screechy nightmare marching music punctuated by tape fragments of some militaristic speech, fading into a rumbly, ominous bad trip. Side Two starts with dreamy Arabian drones then goes pound-happy, with moaning and rudimentary synthesizer howls.
By the time of Mohnomishe and Eostre (both double-album sets later made available as single CDs), the sonic focus had begun to shift, with newer material virtually abandoning percussion in favor of dense atmospheres and echoey ambient electronics, conjuring up images of thick fog. Packed in masonite, Mohnomishe (which evinces a growing Can influence) sets you on a coastal highway, propelled along by subtle sequencer action. As dogs bark and cars drone by, repeating blocks of sound (mangled guitar?) emerge in hypnotic waves. Inside the plastic and tissue packaging, Eostre traps the listener on a dock as mammoth ships sail slowly by, clanking and rumbling through dense sheets of mist; whoever’s singing on the deck sounds awfully weirded out. Great stuff.
In a rare interview, Ponton once claimed that part of the Zoviet France strategy involved recording everything and sorting it out later. This is made apparent in the diverse and haphazard three-hour double-cassette (later a triple CD), Popular Soviet Songs and Youth Music. The set contains some of the band’s best material and some of its worst, sometimes jarringly juxtaposed. The Zoviets followed that with the 10-inch Gris, their most carefully thought-out and best produced work yet. The side-long title track blends entrancing layers of repeating voices, synthesizers and guitar, while the other side is great electronic music, making effective use of a sequencer.
Misfits, Loony Tunes and Squalid Criminals, the first volume in the vaguely thematic tetralogy Charm, Ceremony, Chance, Prophesy (CCCP for short) finds the band finally achieving something close to commercial quality recording standards. “They’re Eating the Passengers” is probably the closest the group has come to a “song,” with tapes of hijackers played over attractive pulses, chimings and restrained percussion. Gesture Signal Threat successfully alternates between tripped-out world music and oceanic sound fields, while A Flock of Rotations is uneven, with some irritating tracks of feedback pinging through electronic delays. The final volume, Assault and Mirage, is the most overtly ambient record of the series, with nearly every sound delayed and distorted beyond recognition.
Although the recording quality is poor, the second side of the Lohland cassette is spectacular, about 40 minutes of voices singing and howling through flangers, delays and chorus boxes.
Zoviet France reached new heights — in music, instrumental diversity and production polish — with Shouting at the Ground, a double-album which includes “Shamany Enfluence,” a very long piece that might be the group’s finest effort. Nearly as impressive, Look Into Me contains an even magnum-er opus (the 26-minute “Cair Camouflet”), a combination of industrial grinding, modified guitar and electronics. Other tracks apply synthesizers and tape loops with far more sophistication and impact than on the earlier albums. Just an Illusion, packaged in an elegant wooden box, continues in the same vein, with longer mood pieces and shorter works that highlight the Middle Eastern and Asian influences which have often lingered in the background. Shadow, Thief of the Sun, disappointingly packaged in an ordinary jewel case, was the third Zoviet France studio recording released in 1990. It would be their last for almost six years.
For a band which had performed only a handful of live shows during its first decade, the bulk of Zoviet France’s ’90s releases are performance documents. Vienna 1990, originally released as a CD-R, is a single disc-length improvisation which explores the outer limits of ominous minimalism. The far superior What Is Not True assembles three long tracks from shows in Sheffield and Nottingham into a work of album-like cohesion. The 54-minute closer “Cyclonic Sub Alien” is a masterpiece of shifting drones that develop slowly into an ungodly cavern of noise before ending with the ghostly floating voices of a distant broadcast. Magnificent head music, to say the least.
Collusion, released on the short-lived Mute imprint The Grey Area, is a collection of pieces Zoviet France contributed to compilations between 1984 and 1990. While none of the tracks stands out, they collectively provide a reasonable précis of the band’s various approaches.
Founding member Robin Storey left Zoviet France in 1992 and began releasing records — at least 30 so far! — as Rapoon. Visually and musically, he continues to draw on the key preoccupations of Zoviet France: long-form improvisations, shifting noise patterns, odd distorted rhythms, disembodied “world music” and equally distant snippets of found voices. At its least compelling, Rapoon manages to evoke little more than a particularly loud fridge or a malfunctioning escalator. At best, however, it comes close to rivaling Zoviet France’s denser psychedelic explorations.
With Ponton the sole original member, Zoviet France returned in 1995 with a new collection of studio material. Originally a five-track vinyl release (expanded to eight for the 1998 CD), Digilogue is a stunning assemblage of densely layered textures, lysergic pulses, fragmented sounds and angelic maelstroms, none of which seem to originate from any recognisably musical source. “Alchemagenta” pits the static-laced remnants of a space-traveled fanfare against a rush of submerged tribal rhythms, while “Angel’s Pin Number” envisions a hale of insects miraculously coalescing into a cloud of pure harmony. Astonishing, hypnotic and highly recommended.
Two more live albums rounded out the decade for Zoviet France. In.Version is an hour of slightly less radiant minimalism recorded at the Urban Aboriginals event in Berlin. Feedback is a performance for the Mort aux Vaches series on Dutch radio station VRPO. In 2000, they released Decriminalisation of Country Music, using source material recorded during the transformation of a derelict Glasgow tram depot into an arts center. With its reverberant slide guitar and overtly “industrial” sounds, the album is an elegant statement, but the music pales next to some of the Zoviets’ greater achievements.
Apart from the Tramway record and a one-off performance in London earlier the same year, Zoviet France has remained silent. While it seems unlikely that they’ve withdrawn from music altogether, recording or performing new material appears to be fairly low on their list of priorities.