Here’s a French ensemble with a decidedly unwieldy name who have amassed enough material over their career to present this 22-track collection of previously unreleased tracks, alternative versions and live recordings. Spanning the years 1984 to 1993 (it’s unclear from the information provided whether the band is still in existence or not), the set depicts La STPO as a fairly driven avant-prog outfit, situated somewhere between Henry Cow, their descendants the Art Bears and the more discordant elements of King Crimson.
The danger with presenting an after-the-fact compilation such as this is that its contents might fail to cohere as a single piece of work. And there is indeed a patchwork and rather fragmentary feel to the album, with eleven of the tracks clocking in at under two minutes. These sound like sketches of or extracts from longer songs rather than self-contained compositions. Singer Pascal Godjkian’s vocal stylings (in French), meanwhile, come across as rather too arch and declamatory for my tastes.
When La STPO hit their stride musically, however, the album becomes hugely enjoyable. “L’Explosionniste” kicks off with a deeply satisfying eruption of Ayleresque skronk from the sax of Franck Fagon, before turning to more conventional but still rich episodes for guitar and woodwind. Elsewhere, Fripp-quality splintery guitar lines are pitted against lurching avant songcraft reminiscent of the Art Bears at their most visceral. It’s in this mode, on lengthy tracks like “Avant” and “Un,” that La STPO are at their most daring and striking. Guitarist Jim B provides a marvellously detailed piece of cover art, depicting a flock of large, gleeful birds ransacking an archive. Reels of master tape dangle triumphantly from the birds’ beaks as the library’s human curators look on aghast.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 15, 2007)