Maybe bassist/composer Joris Vanvinckenroye and his Flemish “chamber rock” ensemble Aranis were afraid of being labeled “new age” after three ethereal, mysterious female voices were prominent on the group’s previous CD, Songs from Mirage. Well, search in vain for a new age flavor on Aranis’ fourth long-player and 2010 AltrOck label debut, RoqueForte -- gone are Mirage’s vocalists, and the band's revised lineup includes violist Stefan Wellens replacing violinist Linde de Groof (violinist Liesbeth Lambrecht is still here), and Univers Zero/Present keyboardist Pierre Chevalier replacing pianist Axelle Kennes. Also on board is drummer Dave Kerman, whose particular presence might reasonably be expected to shatter Aranis’ heretofore signature drummerless acoustic sound, in which incisive riffs and melodies with a Euro-classical and sometimes folkish flavor are played on strings, flute, accordion, and piano, all driven by the powerfully deep and rhythmic upright bass of Vanvinckenroye. After all, Kerman has been prominently featured in some of the most complicated and arguably “difficult” electrified rock music on record by the likes of 5uu’s, Thinking Plague, and the aforementioned Present. On RoqueForte he proves to be an adept team player, attuned to the music’s overall chamberesque -- and at times nearly orchestral -- feel. The centerpiece photo in the CD booklet reveals that chopsticks aren't just for sushi anymore, but were used by Kerman instead of drumsticks (throughout the album, apparently). Even with those atypical implements, the drummer effectively punches up the accents and drive of the album’s bookend tracks, the opening multi-sectioned “Roque” with its clipped, spiky phrasing and keyboard jabs, and the brief closing “Forte” (which, incidentally, includes a rather gimmicky minute and a half of silence leading into the final minute-long high-energy burst of “PS”). Elsewhere, Kerman’s percussion is used quite judiciously in service to Vanvinckenroye’s darkest, most complex, and most Univers Zero-ish compositions to date, with the drums and cymbals never masking Jana Arns’ flute as it dances around the long, sometimes rather mournful violin/viola lines.
In fact, Kerman contributes little or lays out completely for long passages, sometimes almost perversely absent from the music’s most uptempo, insistently rhythmic passages, which increases the drama when he does appear. For example, drums do not enter fully until the latter halves of the extended-form centerpieces “Noise” and “Naise”: in the former, Kerman tumbles out a methodical rhythm somewhat lacking in vitality until the tension begins to escalate and he fully joins the ensemble’s truly spectacular ascending chordal buildup at the finale; in marked contrast, he offers up a nearly ska-flavored uptempo backbeat in the final minutes of the latter. On the speedy “Tissim,” driven inexorably by Chevalier’s rapid keyboard ostinato line, he remains low in the mix for most of the piece’s duration, rising to the fore close to the end when the piece takes on a more martial character. Overall, this is the most varied Aranis music to date, with interludes of experimentation or dark stasis underpinned by Marjolein Cools’ low droning accordion, not unlike the harmonium in Univers Zero’s Heresie, counterbalancing the group’s signature propulsion. Ultimately, although the aforementioned photo suggests that somebody thought Kerman’s presence and chopsticks were a really big deal and the drummer acquits himself well, he is not the singular reason that RoqueForte is arguably Aranis’ finest recording thus far. Chalk that up to the entire group’s playing and the uniquely beautiful and powerful compositions of Joris Vanvinckenroye, who continues to lead this stellar ensemble in new and increasingly unpredictable directions.