Thursday, 11 February 2010

BERNARD SZAJNER - Indecent Delit + The Big Scare + Welcome (To Death Row)

In the late 70s and early 80s, enigmatic French artist Bernard Szajner (pronounced Shyner) moved effortlessly from visual and laser effects work to audio and produced some of the best electronic music that even many of the most rabid EM fans have never heard.

His debut album Visions Of Dune, under the moniker of Zed, was a soaring synthesizer instrumental tribute to Frank Herbert's highly influential 1965 science fiction/fantasy novel. Getting the best from Oberheim and Arp hardware, Szajner (at the time a self-confessed non-musician) created a rich album of sublime ambient textures, wailing ethereal leadlines and hard-edged sequencer patterns.
To augment the synthesizers he selected virtuoso musicians like Gong bassist Hansford Rowe, Magma vocal stylist Klaus Blasquiz and occasional live drummer Clement Bailly, and ex-Bachdenkel guitarist Colin Swinburne. The project was overseen by Bachdenkel's manager Karel Beer, and released on his Initial Recording Company label - based in Birmingham, oddly enough - in 1979.

The following year, Szajner released one of the strongest, most memorable electronic albums ever made, Some Deaths Take Forever. The album was dedicated to the worldwide work of Amnesty International '...for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience and for the abolition of torture and the death penalty.' A semi-concept album, it follows the progress of a prisoner on death row through execution and beyond, using some of the most incredible sounds and hard-edged electronic textures I've heard, many of them courtesy of the RSF Modular synthesizer. Once again he added an art prog-rock dynamic using a crop of experienced French musicians including Blasquiz and another ex-Magma stalwart, Bernard Paganotti (whose rumbling effected bass dominates the detuned sequencers on Welcome (To Death Row) and Ritual. Guitarist Pierre Chereze and Marc Geoffroy on Fender Rhodes and Polymoog also feature strongly. Without a drummer, of special note is the inspired electronic percussion programming/sounds which added a new dimension of precision and strangeness - especially on the magnificent, hyper-intense Execute.

Disturbing, intense and inspired in equal measure, Some Deaths... received critical acclaim from the more adventurous music journalists like my good friend John Gill in Sounds: 'After dozens of plays, 'Some Deaths' still - musically and morally - shames the bulk of oscillator nuts peddling their dodgy little repetitions around the A&R department of Sky Records. Szajner's frantic, outraged music - employing both electronics and traditional instrumentation - whirls at such a pace that the division between 'pure' and 'machine' music blurs completely. Like his debut 'Visions Of Dune', it shows that some electronic composers still have backbone and energy.'

In 1981 came Superficial Music, which took the original recordings for Visions Of Dune, reversed and slowed them, and added outboard FX like the Eventide Harmonizer to create a dark and portentous atonal 'ambient' work. Szajner was still experimenting with visuals, using new MIDI technology to interface music and light, notably with the Syrinx - a spectacular triangular laser-harp best known for its (uncredited) use in concerts by Jean-Michel Jarre - which triggered synthesizers by breaking the light beams at different points and velocities; and The Snark, a long spindly alien-looking PPG synth controller.

In 1983 Szajner signed a three-album deal with major label Island Records and released the more 'commercial' Brute Reason, an album of recognisable song-structures featuring vocals by footloose former Magazine frontman Howard Devoto. He toured the album with a full band (including Devoto, Paganotti, Bailly, Xavier Geronimi/Colin Swinburne on guitar, Schroeder on saxophone) and showcasing the Syrinx. Szajner's Audiences loved it, but he felt that Island wanted him mainly for the gimmick of the laser harp and he ended up losing money on the live shows.
I have a good quality cassette recording of the London concert at Hammersmith Lyric Theatre, May 15 1983, which I will get around to digitising and uploading sometime.

Brute Reason is a perfect example of intelligent, leftfield electronic rock that should have found a larger audience but didn't, mainly because of a lack of will by the label - music too 'difficult', audience too 'niche', the usual story - which begs the question: why take on such an eclectic artist in the first place if you won't support him as much as you can?
Szajner and Karel Beer collaborated on an anonymous project using the name The (Hypothetical) Prophets, releasing a few singles and in 1982 the album Around the World With... Far too quirky for the mainstream, the album was - like most of Szajner's work - ingenious and ahead of its time.

Disillusioned with the music business, Szajner did not remain with Island and retreated to Paris to pursue other avenues including stage design, theatre direction, painting and light sculpture. Only two more releases saw the light of day: 12" singles on independent label New Rose, 1984's The Big Scare and, two years later, Indecent Delit. Both are testament to Szajner's acute ability to fuse memorable electronic textures and melodies with conventional rock instrumentation, continuing in a similar vein to Brute Reason but with an additional extra quality that makes them classics of their period. By the mid-80s synthesizers had been co-opted as mainstream studio production tools and fewer artists were realising their potential to craft quirky off-kilter avant-pop. These two releases buck the trend and sign off Szajner's all-too brief but illustrious career on a high note.

The reason I haven't linked to download any of Bernard's releases is that James Nice's invaluable LTM Recordings label has recently reissued Some Deaths Take Forever and Superficial Music in terrific new cd editions with extra unreleased tracks. [Go HERE for LTM's Bernard Szajner catalogue page, and HERE for LTM's Bernard Szajner biog page.]
I began an occasional correspondence with James in 1985 because of our mutual love of new wave music of the likes of Minny Pops and The Names, and we finally met 20 years later at a Tuxedomoon concert in Amsterdam. He's doing a great job reissuing material by all of these bands and many more, including Severed Heads, Paul Haig, Gina X, Section 25 and The Passage, and all releases are available to buy direct from James via his LTM website. The label is one of the best resources for discerning electronic-tinged post-punk new wave lovers, so please support James and Bernard and other important niche artists by purchasing instead of downloading.

In appraising Szajner's music Some Deaths Take Forever is probably the best place to begin; Magma fans in particular should be very happy with what they hear. Bernard is still active musically and has been on and off since the mid-80s. He generously sent me a cd of his latest material, of which he has around four albums' worth - which is dark and rich and fabulous - and is seeking a label to release and market it. He is also interested in playing live to promote any future cd release. You can hear some tracks at his website HERE, and at his myspace page HERE.
It would be fitting if, 30 years on from Some Deaths Take Forever, Bernard's unique brand of electronica could reach a whole new audience.

I leave you with the videos for Indecent Delit, The Big Scare, and the masterwork Welcome (To Death Row). And yes, that is a bass guitar break; Paganotti's awesome signature sound.



  1. Interesting article, added his blog to Favorites

  2. He's still recording great music! And check his Bandcamp apge for previously unreleased Szajner music from 1983 :