L’ocelel Mare is the solo project of Thomas Bonvalet and Serpentement is his fourth release under this guise and was recorded in the Protestant temple of Bergerac in France at the tail end of last year. Each piece of music, entitled ‘Serpentement’ 1 through 9, are intricately composed, featuring a plethora of notes from a barrage of instruments. A multitude of sounds are created, flooding your head as you listen, causing the listener to carefully try to pick out a nylon stringed guitar, or a harmonica or tuning fork vibration. It’s as if you’re being overwhelmed by an army of instruments trying to conquer your senses.
Bonvalet seems to be exploring the relationship between instruments and sound. He spends his time coaxing notes, sounds and noises from instruments that seem to be beyond their initial calling – throwing them together in combinations and situations that are beyond their usual remit. The resultant music forms patterns that are truly alien. Take ‘Serpentement 8’ for example. The strained notes and cries of the harmonica and strings is the sound of Bonvalet pushing the instruments way outside their comfort zone. This isn’t a form of torture, but you can’t really be sure that they’re not crying out through pain – it just doesn’t quite sound like screams of pleasure. The guitar work is amazing, Bonvalet is able to play at such a speed, and coax such skewed notes from this simple instrument, that he must be doing something unsavoury to it. When combined with the exotic concoctions of other random instruments and artefacts, then the resultant sound is, at times, overwhelming in its complexity and vision.
To me, the album reminds me of being a young boy, sitting at home with a hand-me down radio that still had a short wave setting. After dark, I would spend hours trying to find something interesting to listen to. But, as I slowly moved the dial through the SW range, I’d pick up cross-feeds from different stations. There’d be a Welsh language programme, an Irish music station and, ever so faintly, the dulcet tones of a French speaker. It felt like I was able to reach out to all these exotic and remote locations – alien sounds all easily heard in the confines of my own room. Due to the nature of SW frequencies, all these bled into one another – their frequency so small that it was almost impossible to lock onto one completely. Each of the nine pieces on Serpentement could be heard as this; distinct and alien but linked by the static, noise and vision that lies beneath and drives the album.
The word “serpentement” loosely translates to “meanderings” or “undulations”. Taking that second definition, the album makes sense: the music undulates through known and unknown frequencies, at once sounding familiar but then sounding completely foreign. For a work that’s so short and concise, there’s an impressive range and depth to the music. Each track takes in so much work, covers so much musical ground and is intricately recorded and pieced together. Serpentement sees Bonvalet experiment with what actually constitutes music, breaking free of the rigorous confines of songwriting and broadening his own views and horizons. He might be taking a meandering path to get there, but the long way to a destination is always more interesting than the short cut.