Belly of Paris — Peste

One can well imagine Bahrain’s baroque ’n’ roll scene needs to be experienced to be believed. Luckily for us Daniel Cochran, former Saltburn-ite and frontman of on-off avant-popsters By Toutatis, has taken one for the team by basing himself there for his latest musical project, Belly of Paris.

The band’s name, taken from the Emile Zola novel, conjures a seedy, bohemian decadence of a non-specific time Cochran is perhaps searching for in Manama’s underworld-y speak-easys. Where creative young darlings often meet head-on with society’s petrol-rich heirs, this cultural cauldron is best reflected in the songs on Peste. Intellectually heavyweight material such as the Habsburgs of Spain rubs shoulders with dark folklore and near-mythical characters perhaps as metaphors for subject matters more complex. Musically (proggy, Eastern folk with avant tones; driven, melodic disharmonies and oddly off-kilter percussive styles) it’s experimental without being a huge departure from By Toutatis’ last album, The Beasts, and traditional without drifting into subservience and you can bet your bottom dinar you won’t find another “Anglo-Bahraini-Hungaro-Argentine-Indian band based in the Middle East.” Or Saltburn for that matter.

The UK vinyl release (Nov 4th) on Middlesbrough’s Spooker Rekkids is a credit to Teesside’s adoption of all things off-piste and on listening the first thing you notice about Peste (meaning plague; a derivative of pestilence) is the ethereal darkness but historical relevance of the lyrics and the twisting alleyways of the music, these are essentially songs about society but existing outside any earthly social realm like something from a Salman Rushdie novel. Opener Aristide’s Entry Into Paris sees our libertine protagonist bowl into a vulgar and decadent Paris as the contrived lyrical tones and flamenco infused music set the magic realism scene. Tremendous stuff.

There Was No Snake, the first of several duets with Yasmin Sharabi, is a dark tale of love and honour amongst men with just a touch of Julian Cope thrown in for good measure. Meanwhile Conyers Falchion is complete with wonderful xylophone percussion (and a bassoon solo to boot).

Elsewhere the scratchy Hammond and crisp baritone vocal of Hometown Kick is simple and nostalgic and The Great Preserver, set to French accordion and trumpet, is a jaunty anti-folk gem.

Whilst Cable Coming‘s semi-autobiographical tale of escaping from Europe cements the swashbuckling revolutionary tone, with nods to both Cleveland and Manama, if only Cochran could have known how prescient the sentiment; Hechizado’s mirroring of Love’s mariachi renaissance period (if fronted by Neil Hannon) is as sublime as it is lyrically informed and the Blade Runner-esque synths give it a timeless dystopian feel that doesn’t sound as out of place as it may read.

For sure this is not a record to everyone’s taste (it’s knowingly pretentious and wilfully challenging at times) and although you wouldn’t necessarily put it on when you get back from the pub surely there is something for everyone here. Macie Shot The Barn Owl has a playful Love Cats vibe, that is until the dark witch hunt of the lyrics, but the rockier chorus showcases Daniel’s versatility as a singer and offers a tempting radio-friendly glint while Stalking Birds is the most immediately catchy. And the military drumming and mournful trumpet on closer Boys belies a maturity and craftsmanship you might expect from Nick Cave or even Leonard Cohen.

And that’s what makes this album so compelling. It’s a record of musical contradictions, humorous yet learned, grandiose but not overblown; often beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Even on second or third listens it’s difficult to pick stand-out tracks because the bar is set so high. It’s twists and turns throughout are beguiling and never boring and something the listener will return to again and again. A remarkable record.