Made in Belgium II

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On 2014's Made in Belgium II, Flemish acoustic "chamber rock" sextet Aranis revisit the concept of their excellent Made in Belgium album from two years previously -- that is, they explore works written by a host of Belgian composers rather than concentrating exclusively on music penned by bassist/bandleader Joris Vanvinckenroye. Aranis have selected compositions with a broader stylistic range here, and the band is more powerfully incisive than ever, beginning with the opening track, Peter Vermeersch's "Skip XXI" from the 1995 X-Legged Sally album The Land of the Giant Dwarfs. It would be hard to imagine a more punched-up gang of avant jazz-rockers than X-Legged Sally, and while Aranis' take on "Skip XXI" is more precise and less raucous than the XLS original from two decades earlier, bringing the piece's multiple layers and astringent intervals to the fore, this version is still vigorous and kinetic -- even when performed with entirely acoustic chamber instrumentation (double bass, piano, flute, guitar, viola, accordion) sans drums. And English-language monolinguists less than enamored by the clinical sex talk samples shoehorned into the XLS original may find flutist Jana Arns' adept soprano vocalizing to be a far more appealing alternative. Arns' vocals are also featured elsewhere: the backbeat-accented "Tolles Pferd," written by Cro Magnon saxophonist Koen Van Roy, finds her assertively tackling theatrical song as if inspired by Dagmar Krause in Henry Cow or the Art Bears (with Philip Glass stylings tossed into the arrangement), and her wordless vocal in Aurélie Dorzée's magical waltzing "Funambul," which closes the album, recalls the ethereality of three female guest singers on 2009's Songs from Mirage.

But Arns' pleasing vocals are only one touch of seasoning on a primarily instrumental album that never loses the capacity to both surprise and engage, as in Walter Hus' intense, pounding "La Vague" (one of two tracks roughed up by guest Pierre Vervloesem's electric guitar), which ends with a tinge of Asian folk but nearly segues into the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" in its midsection. Additional variety arrives in several brief solo miniatures featuring Vanvinckenroye on bass or Pierre Chevalier on piano, but the longest numbers best illustrate Aranis' forte: rhythmically charged post-minimalist chamber music imbued with dark atmospheric ambience in the tradition of Belgian avant-prog pioneers like Univers Zero and Present. Revisiting the 1993 album Let's Take One More by Louise Avenue, Aranis double the length of Jan Kuijken's "Hit," alternately charging and dancing through a central interlude that ingeniously draws thematic elements from the original; Ward De Vleeschhouwer's (the pianist on Made in Belgium) "Boki II" presents a riveting extended buildup of urgency; and the nearly ten-minute suitelike "Cell Stress," penned by Univers Zero's Kurt Budé, is a masterful example of UZ-style agitated and ominous medieval-flavored avant-prog. Announced as the second installment in a trilogy, Made in Belgium II is Aranis' most accomplished, diverse, and indeed enthralling outing yet, creating much anticipation for the group's next foray into the extraordinary world of Belgian modern composition.

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