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Alain Neffe’s Potlatch Music

Human Flesh: Penumbra (EE Tapes)

I’ve generally been ambivalent about the way so many current rock bands are appropriating elements of previously subterranean eighties styles, from postpunk to minimal synth to noise and industrial music. I guess I just don’t believe that the way to be original in 2008 is to copy obscure bands from twenty-five years ago (or forty years ago, for that matter). The good thing about all this retro-ness, however, is that some excellent musicians who were almost completely ignored in the eighties are finally getting attention.
One person who really deserves some of that attention—but still hasn’t gotten anywhere near enough of it—is Alain Neffe. Neffe was/is the lynchpin of a plethora of interrelated Belgian bands, such as Pseudo Code, BeNe GeSSeRiT, Subject, Cortex, and Human Flesh. He was also the founder of Insane Music Contact, a (mostly) cassette label that released dozens of international compilations along with many of his own projects. Thus, Neffe was an important figure in the eighties cassette underground, which served much the same purpose as the web and sites like MySpace do these days as a way of connecting far-flung musicians and creating an international scene—though in a smaller-scale and more artisanal way. The latest release by Neffe’s Human Flesh, which consists of previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1985 and 1995, very much comes out of that eighties cassette underground but at the same time stands apart from it.
Human Flesh is not really a band, but rather a concept or process, first conceived of in 1981. A Human Flesh track typically begins with Neffe writing a text, either in French or in English. This is then sent to someone in another country, most often a female, and is sometimes translated into the language of that person. A recording of that text, often just read, sometimes partly sung and with a few instruments added, is then sent back to Neffe. (In the pre-internet days, this was all done with cassettes.) Neffe next creates music around the words that is inspired by the sound and mood of the reading, alone or in collaboration with other musicians, whose parts he often processes in various ways. The final stage is the mixing of the track, which Neffe never does right away—his rule is to wait at least a year, so that his perceptions and reactions will be fresh.
Neffe calls himself a non-musician, and has said of one of his bands, “We play potlatch music, which is emotional music, or more accurately emotional sounds, because we are not musicians.” Neffe certainly doesn’t focus on technique or virtuosity, but he plays many instruments—perhaps most centrally keyboards (including a primitive sampler, the Roland S-10)—with expressivity, personality, and a great deal of sensitivity to sound and atmosphere. In my book, that makes him a musician—but why quibble!
The music on Penumbra, a very limited edition CD, not only relies on a classic cassette underground technique—trading parts through the mail—it also features some familiar names from that scene as readers/performers of Neffe’s texts: Deborah Jaffe (Viscera, Master/Slave Relationship), the recently deceased Lydia Tomkiw (Algebra Suicide), and Tara Cross. Improviser Anna Homler (Sugar Connection, Puppetina), who is in the group Chopstick Sisters with Neffe, contributes wordless vocals, while three long-time members of other Neffe projects also make an appearance: guitarist Daniel Malempré (Subject), Xavier S. (Pseudo Code), and vocalist Nadine Bal (BeNe GeSSeRiT, Chopstick Sisters). In addition to English, there are texts in Spanish, Swedish, and German translation, and two texts not written by Neffe (one by Xavier S., the other by Sleep Chamber’s Darline Victor). Lastly, there are three instrumental tracks, two of which—with their processed or sampled strings—sound rather “classical,” while the other, “Blond Smile,” is reminiscent of the krautrock band Popul Vuh.
Despite Penumbra’s roots in the cassette underground, and some of the participants’ membership in the kind of harsh industrial bands that were the core of that scene, none of the clichés that limit and date much eighties industrial/experimental music are present in the collection. Neffe’s sound is so personal and original that it is not time-specific at all, and really can’t be put into any category—certainly it’s not industrial music or minimal synth. (There are almost no drum machines; in fact, there is virtually no percussion of any sort). The music on Penumbra is simultaneously innocent and bitter, morose and delicately gentle, naive and sophisticated. It is sometimes deeply beautiful, at other times anguished—and often both at once. The texts are brooding ruminations on lost love and mortality, but they avoid melodrama. Penumbra has a weight and depth that perhaps partly reflects its slow gestation process. It is a kind of “art music” made of simple means.

(Penumbra is available from EE Tapes at


Tony Coulter

TONY COULTER was on various radio stations in the New York City area for 25 years, and is also a longtime, if occasional, music writer. Currently he is contributing a biweekly blogpost to WFMU's Beware of the Blog.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

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