Strange is a 2006 release by Julian Julien, a French artist recently added to the site database. Julian contacted a little while ago asking me to review this album, something which came as a bit of a surprise to me (a pleasant surprise, but a surprise, nonetheless), given that out of the 200-odd reviews I have done for this site, not one has fallen into the Rio/Avant Prog category. I am known for a few things, but my knowledge of this particular sub-genre is not amongst them.
So, given this, how would I take to it? Well, I am pleased to say that my reaction to this album is one of distinct pleasure. It is very good, with a wide range of sounds, excellent musicianship, and a delightful eccentricity that delights the more you listen.
The album also manages that rather difficult feat for a work almost devoid of any lyrics by transporting the listener to the place where the song intends. As no finer example, I cite the marvellous Cirque. Julian's keyboard work is exemplary on this, and you see before you the animals rushing around the ring, and the trapeze artists swirling. He saves his best keyboard work until last, though, on the superb untitled/bonus track on the CD, where, at the denouement, his organ playing is a joy.
There are some very talented musicians appearing here as well. I love the violins of Andre Jarca & Koo Young-Euu (they shine on Charlotte, a joyous track which I interpret as a homage to a loved one), Garik Heorhi-Anishchanka plays some lovely cello, the sitar of Michel Guay adds a very welcome World Music feel to proceedings, Djamel Laroussi is a good guitarist & bassist, the tabla of Apurbo Mukherjee adds a vibrancy to What's Democratie? in particular, and in Karim Toure we have a world class percussionist.
The voices and the whole mid Asian feel to What's Democratie? more than adequately convey the question the author is seeking to answer, although I suspect that it is as much beyond him as the rest of us.
My personal favourite on the album is the five and a quarter minute long Cosmos, a journey which has at its heart a vibrant piano, together with upbeat drums and effects, and mournful strings combining to create its own space to allow the mind to picture its trek. I'm sure that Julian would not mind me stating that this is the one track that comes closest to the type of eclectic symphonia that bands such as King Crimson made so well in the heyday of the early 1970's.
The longest track on the album is the seven minute title track, Strange. Laroussi's guitar work is a joy here, and the whole track has the feel of a band effort, rather than a mere solo artist with backing. It is a smorgasbord of avant experimentation and ethnic interpretation, so strange indeed, but all rather enjoyable. The bassline and piano lead holding it all together are fantastic.
Other highlights include the beautiful sound of Tinananana, full of Eastern promise, some wonderful sampling effects and keyboard work on the warm Sophie, and the soulful and melancholic Nocturne Indien, which I understand to be based upon a French film of the same 49 name. The strings and sampling on this are an absolute delight, and it never once loses the attention of the listener.
So, my first foray into the world of Rio/Avant, and what I will say is that for fans of this particular type of music, this album comes very highly recommended. However, perhaps more to the point, for those of you who very rarely dare to move out of the symphonic, neo, or crossover world of prog, this one might well tempt you to explore a little bit more daringly. It certainly will with me. I also think that those of you who enjoy releases by labels such as Real World will find much to enjoy here.
It is not a masterpiece, by any means, but what it is, is a very intelligent piece of work, and one that, to my great surprise, only caught my attention wondering with noodling on a couple of occasions.
3.5 stars, if we had such a rating, but uplifted to four stars for awakening me to a new world of music, and one that I will explore more in the future. An excellent addition to any prog rock collection
Review by Lazland
Julian Julien's 2006 album is a powerful and easily comprehensible exploration into ethnic jazz fusion.
As far as jazz goes, Strange is less strange than the title may imply and is actually very catchy and understandable with clearly stated middle Eastern instrumentation (sitar, tabla) in addition to keyboards, cello, violin, and various percussion.
The songs are all very expressive, active, engaging, and often initiate infectious grooves. The grooves are particularly special on "Sophie", "Planète", and "Tinananan" which all employ a hard electronic beat akin to nu-jazz pioneer Nils Petter Molvaer but still including the vibrant middle Eastern activity that makes this album so special. "Cosmos" is an outstandingly beautiful and highly expressive tune with dramatic melodies on keyboard and violin that sound suspenseful like heated interaction between two intimate lovers. Some of the compositions are dance worthy, like "La Caquou", which is high powered and upbeat and flows on a demanding ethnic groove defined by the bowed instruments while sitar and tabla punctuate the atmosphere.
Whereas a huge chunk of world jazz or world music frequently (or usually) comes off as insincere or downright cheesy, Julian Julien has a rare ability to incorporate this ethnic instrumentation and melodies so smoothly to the point where it never crosses my mind that he doesn't know what he's doing. It's astounding that the ethnic instrumentation combined with electronic trance elements doesn't come off as sounding like a dilettante hippie's attempt at creating new-age yoga jams, and proves to me that Julien is a true professional at his craft.
Ethnic jazz is an acquired taste for some, and many of the artists in the genre tend to create the same kind of bland spiritual cleansing absurdity or modernist fashion show soundtrack music, but Julien Julian has his own sound very much in the same way that Nguyen Le and Anoushka Shankar each have their own sounds. Julien Julian may currently be lesser known, but I'd say he's within the aforementioned artists' tier. Therefore, even for people who are not fans of ethnic jazz, I wholeheartedly recommend Strange for its high level of accessibility and compositional individuality. I can already imagine that this will be a great soundtrack for the upcoming summer.
Review by colorofmoney91
"Strange" indeed, but undoubtedly great. Over the course of the three albums Julien Julian has asked me to review for him, he has certainly managed to make a fan out of me. His unique, eclectic style of composition combines many different sounds and genres to create something totally unlike most other music I've heard. "Strange" is no different, though it takes a slightly different road than the other albums of his I've reviewed. All but gone are the Magma and general zeuhl influence that appeared heavily on "Fractale" and to a lesser extent on "Terre." Don't worry that that means "Strange" is taking the safe road, however, as this music is pushes boundaries and bends genres to create electric, eclectic world-folk/jazz the likes of which my ears have never heard. If that bizarre blend of genres sounds contrived or artificial to you than don't worry about the label: this is great music, pure and simple, experimental and progressive and beautiful all in one.
"Leh" begins with a brief hodgepodge of sound that quickly resolves into a tribal, eastern sounding piece of music that features strings heavily. Typical to Mr. Julien's work, however, there are all kinds of instruments featured, and the arrangement is such that you can really only hear the music as a whole: it's very difficult to pick out specific parts independent from the whole piece. However, the violin still plays a prominent part, often leading the mix with a melody that recalls a gypsy camp settling down for the night. "Leh" is boundary-pushing and experimental, but also very cinematic and melodic, and has significantly less zehul influence than the other two albums I've heard from Julien.
"Cirque" quickly lives up to its name, with a carnival-themed keyboard part providing the backbone of the track. The violin makes a return appearance, but its part is less melodic than on "Leh" and much more avant, with plenty of pitch-sliding and squeaking. A variety of other keyboard parts appear as well, and "Cirque" ends up being a great track: definitely experimental and outside the norm, but also extremely playful and not hard to appreciate.
"Charlotte" comes next, beginning with some keyboard textures that recall 8-bit music before launching into another melodic section that has a lot of influence from eastern-European folk. "Charlotte" however, is much more keyboard driven than "Leh" was, and while strings certainly do appear in a prominent position, especially towards the end of the track, the keyboards are really what makes the track what it is, with a variety of synth textures providing an idiosyncratic backing part for the strings to play over. Another great track with great melodies, arranged in a way that perfectly highlights them.
"Wath's Démocratie" trades in the folk for a more tribal sound that also has some funk elements. Some tribal sounding percussion gives a rhythmic base for the track and an interesting combinations of keyboards, guitars, strings, and wordless vocals give the track a psychedelic world-music feel that also has some touches of jazz and funk. I don't think it's quite as strong melodically as the three tracks before it, but the difference in flavor of its sound definitely makes up for it.
"Tinananan" is equally eclectic, mixing an almost glitch or electronica percussion part with psychedelic, middle eastern sounding guitar and synth. Vocals return as well here, and to be honest I'm not sure if they're wordless or simply in a language I don't understand, but either way they enhance the music very well, adding another element to the sound without ever intruding on the instruments.
"Le Caquou" begins with a field recording of crickets which is overlaid with some very faint keyboards or winds (can't uite tell which) before launching into the track proper. The melody is begun by, of all things, the unlikely combination of what sounds like a sitar and a person whistling. Strange though it may sound, the combination works incredibly well, with the same kind of eastern folk kind of sound that has so permeated this release very prominent in this track as well. Strings, guitar, and organ all eventually make appearances as well without ever 51 sounding out of place, and the track concludes with a brief synth postlude that caps off the track nicely.
"Sophie" makes use of electronics to create a backtrack that's almost reminiscent of disco. Over this plays what sounds like a flute, and the juxtaposition is extremely striking. Old sounds meet new in a way that should absolutely sound gimmicky or jarring, but somehow feels completely correct. Mr. Julien's compositional and arrangement skills are to be commended; the man can put any combination of sounds you can think of together and make it sound like the most natural thing in the world.
"Cosmos" begins with an epic horn swell over which strings spiral upwards towards the skies for which the track is named. After this piano takes over, laying down a repeating progression around which swirl a great variety of instruments, from the synths to percussion to the nighomnipresent strings. Eventually the piano drops back, leaving these instruments more or less alone, before returning in the last minute of the track for a sedate, dreamy closing for the track.
"Planète" begins with what sounds like a gong before what sounds like electronic percussion comes in. Over this repeating back-beat a dreamy blend of instruments plays, contributing an almost trip-hoppy sound. "Planète" is definitely one of the more experimental tracks on the album (and that's saying something) with almost ambient synth textures layered over increasingly frenetic electronic back-beat. Certainly not the most melodic track on the album but definitely one of the most interesting.
The seven minute title track follows, clocking in at almost two minutes longer than anything else on the album. Stylistically similar to the tracks before it, "Strange" combines great instrumental technicality in all kinds of styles to create an incredibly eclectic blend of progressive music. Piano again takes center stage for much of the track, but there are tons of instruments on display here, entering and exiting the track suddenly but always in a way that makes perfect sense. Musically the track is even harder to describe: there are touches of folk, touches of jazz, touches of electronica- the list goes on and on, but the only adjective that truly captures the essence of this music is "indescribable." "Strange" lives up very well to its status as title track; this is an absolute musical tour de force.
"Nocturne Indien" takes a turn for the mournful, with organ, strings, and eclectic percussion creating somber folk music that's almost dirge-like. It's still quite pretty, of course, practically dripping raw emotion. The ending in particular really tugs the heartstrings, with the violin practically wailing as its playing grows ever wilder. "No Name" closes out the album. Percussion and organ take the initial lead, but horns quickly make an appearance as well, as do a variety of winds and keyboards. The percussion as well is especially excellent on this track, understated but perfectly fitting. Towards the end of the track saxophone takes the lead for the first time on the album, and the track fades out on a final, sorrowful organ chord.
"No Name" definitely has an air of finality to it that makes it a great closing track to this incredibly diverse, eclectic album.
Of the three albums Mr. Julian has asked me to review, "Strange" has been my favorite by far. Every track is both a perfect, self-sustaining piece of music and a necessary part of the album as a whole-though tracks don't flow together this album still feels like one big piece of music. There isn't one note out of place on this entire album, and every track seems like the perfect one to follow the one that came before it. This is the album to start with if you want to find out what Julian Julien is all about, and this is the album you point to if anyone ever tells you that progressive music is stagnant or dead.
Review by Van Van Van
"Strange" is Julian Julien second solo album, and even if different from his debut it is not really "strange". If "Terre" was elegant mix of RIO and French urban folk with some Latin flavor, "Strange" is more exotic brew of oriental tunes,tasty melodies,string arrangements and multilayered electronics.
Collaborators team are totally different on this album comparing with its predecessor ( even if here are lot of strings as well). Music's texture is rich combining Indian strings,Oriental percussion with pure electronic rhythms - far not always such combination could be successful, but here it is a rare case when nothing sounds plasticky or flat.
Often big dose of electronics kills soul of composition, here music sounds surprisingly alive.Some moments reminded me early Nordic nu jazz (NP Molvaer,etc), but more often music sounded as soundtrack to dynamic movie where main heroes change geographical place of action every few minutes.
Review by Snobb, SPECIAL COLLABORATOR ZART & JR/F Team
French composer and instrumentalist Julian JULIEN made his solo artist debut back in 1999, and has since produced and released two more outings. "Strange" is the most recent of these efforts, issued by Cristal Records back in 2007.
A touch of jazz and a touch of folk music liberally flavored with exotic sounds and rhythms is what Julian Julien has to offer on his 2007 production "Strange". And with plenty of sequences sporting a distinct raga motif, those fond of progressive folk music in general and the psychedelic variety of it in particular appear to be something of a key audience for this CD. More varied in stylistic span than what one might surmise, not quite as varied in performance as one might ideally hope, but a fine production, by and large, and relatively unique at that.
Review by Windhawk, SPECIAL COLLABORATOR Honorary Collaborator
Second offer who came almost six years after his first offer named very well Strange from 2006 is almost in same manner as previous work, I can't trace any improvement, musicaly speaking. Some RIo avant prog with ethnick folk is what I find here, at some point was hard to digest this release, as first one to tell the truth, but in the end is not bad, only is not my cup of tea this kind of music, really.
Julian Julien is a good musician who really know what is doing , but falls to imprese me big time. As the title imply is really strange for my taste. All pieces are ok, no highlights.
Review by b_olariu
Julian Julien is not only an intelligent and gifted artist but a pretty smart marketer as well, spreading news of his craft with strategic placement of his material into the laps of the reviewers and critics who populate the prog realm. This is a sensible move mostly due to the immutable fact that his music isn't exactly commercial or even easy listening, a tiny interval between jazz, avant-garde, world and with a "saupoudree" of zeuhl to seal the deal. This makes for some ardent listening that requires multiple listens before the magic sinks in. With a title like "Strange' what do you think is on the menu? Indeed, odd sounds abound, very much attuned to the urban cacophony that osculates the maddening crowds, the hustle and bustle of daily civic machines are expressed via sound and fury.
"Leh" is a perfect window onto the street, as orchestral strings play a sad lament. The electric sitar and the hand percussion revive the current realities of Paris, a city that is French in architecture and African in its aromas, a cosmopolitan miasma of bubbling contradictions and contrasts. This trend continues all the way through the album, showcasing the modern social realities of urban living, the merry go round lilt and innocent nature of the strident "Cirque" seeking to evoke the escapism that cities provide only in small occasional droplets. "Charlotte" is a whimsical keyboard ditty that again displays a certain child-like simplicity within a complex dissonance, screeching strings, gurgling synths and playful elegance. On the fascinating "What's Democratie?", Julien displays the distinctions between the "arrondissement" and the "casbah", a heady mixture of North African sounds and European structures democratically united in some temporal harmony, with assorted voices doing most of the w