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Dionysos riff on Jack the Ripper

A novel new album


15/11/2007 - 

French rock band Dionysos drew on lead singer Mathias Malzieu’s first novel when writing the material for their last album, Monsters in Love. But this time round, the band have taken the concept of literary and recording fusion even further. Dionysos’ latest offering, La Mécanique du cœur, exists both in album and book form, the album functioning as a sort of soundtrack to Malzieu’s second novel of the same name. Malzieu says he carried out a dream ‘casting’ for the album, recruiting a host of talented singers and actors - including Emily Loizeau, Arthur H, Jean Rochefort and Olivia Ruiz - to play the characters he imagined for his novel.

The story begins one freezing, dark winter’s night in 1874 in the Scottish city of Edinburgh. A young boy called Jack is born on the coldest night the world has ever known and his heart is frozen solid. The midwife overseeing his birth, who happens to be a witch, comes up with the idea of replacing the child’s defective heart with a ticking clock. So long as he avoids powerful emotional shocks in his life, such as love or anger, he will live a normal life. But one fateful day, Jack looks into the smouldering eyes of a beautiful young street singer…

Fans intrigued by such a melodramatic opening can follow the rest of the story in Mathias Malzieu’s second novel, La mécanique du cœur, or on Dionysos’ album of the same name (the group’s sixth to date). Mathias, Dionysos’ lead singer and songwriter admits, "I’d already enjoyed making connections between the characters in my last novel and the songs on our last album Monsters in Love. In fact, I enjoyed the whole process so much that when I started writing my new novel I got this urge to write little songs for each of the characters. And then I thought to myself, ‘OK, why not take this even further and link absolutely everything between the novel and the album?’ The result is that there isn’t a single track on the new album that doesn’t have some sort of narrative function in some way. But don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean La Mécanique du cœur is a hermetically sealed concept album. People can listen to the story as a whole, but there’s nothing to stop them jumping about from track 4 to track 9 to track 3. La mécanique du cœur also functions as a traditional rock’n’roll album. I didn’t want it to be intellectually exclusive."

Music in full cinevision

Each track on Dionysos’ new album stands as a separate entity and, as Mathias points out, can easily be listened to without following the overall storyline. Drawing on the feisty old-fashioned rock sound that dominated their last album, Dionysos take listeners on a musical voyage through time and space with a nod to Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks on Candy Lady (full of squealing Mariachi brass) and Kurt Weill’s decadent cabaret on Cunnilingus Mon amour. Then, of course, there’s the impressive Messe pour le temps présent-style intro on L’Homme sans trucage. As usual in Dionysos’ work, music is never just about melody, but also about vision, movement and emotion. Take the snappy guitar riff on Le thème de Joe, for instance, which transforms a straightforward monologue into an angry declaration of war.

Dionysos’ kinetic style of composing, already much in evidence on their previous albums, achieves new heights on La mécanique du coeur thanks to Olivier Daviaud’s sumptuous arrangements. Daviaud’s stirring strings, brass and choral sections add a highly cinematic edge to things, which suited Mathias down to the ground. "Basically, the album functions as the soundtrack to the novel," Mathias says, "I worked exactly the same way I would have done if it had been a film soundtrack, both as far as the arrangements were concerned and in casting the guest singers who would play the characters from the book. I had a brilliant time doing the casting in my head. It was like ‘OK, Georges Méliès could be played by Jean Rochefort and Alain Bashung could do Jack the Ripper… I didn’t stipulate that such and such a song would be a solo or a duet. People just came on board if they liked the project. At the end of the day, I dared to dream of my ideal casting and I was very lucky to get positive responses from the artists I approached."

La Mécanique du cœur features a truly impressive line-up of guest artists including Arthur H, Alain Bashung, Eric Cantona, the French slam poet Grand Corps Malade and the Spanish actress Rossy de Palma. While avoiding the melodramatic, over-the-top tone of full-blown stage musicals, the singers and actors take evident pleasure in bringing their characters to life on the album, particularly Jean Rochefort (more zany than ever here). Music fans will be delighted to find the charismatic young singer Olivia Ruiz on four tracks, although they will doubtless be disappointed by the absence of Babet from the album. The group’s singer/violinist was kept busy with her own solo work and was not able to join Dionysos in the studio for the making of the album (although she is due to join the group on stage for a live version of La Mécanique du cœur next spring).

Keeping their spark

La Mécanique du cœur is already an album and a novel but, according to Mathias, it could almost have been a film as well. "We’ve got a lot of elements together now," he says, "We’ve got the characters, the voices, the music - and a brilliant video clip for Toi mon coeur. It only lasts 2 minutes 33 seconds, but it would be great if we could whip up enough funding to make it an hour and a quarter. Are we ready to make that leap? I can only say, without any pretension intended, that this is something I absolutely dream of doing!"

There is, it seems, no stopping the Dionysos dynamic, which Mathias defines as a question of "following our gut instincts and doing exactly what we want when we want to. As a group, we’re always on the look-out for new challenges and new adventures." Dionysos have consistently refused to be pigeon-holed by music critics, too. "As soon as we started getting a reputation for being a band that got everyone leaping up and down at live gigs, we set off on a totally acoustic tour in venues with sitting room only. It’s not like we go round trying to wrongfoot everyone all the time. It’s about proving that we can exist on several different levels at once. On our album Monsters in Love we customized a lot of acoustic instruments, using them in different ways, and then we finished up our tour with a full symphony concert. It’s like each time it’s Dionysos but with an added bonus. This is our way of keeping our magic spark and retaining our capacity to be amazed."

Fans will be able to enjoy Dionysos’ magic spark live on stage soon when the band take to the road in March 2008. The highlight of their upcoming tour is set to be three nights at the Folies Bergères in Paris (14, 15 & 16 June) when the band will perform a live version of La mécanique du cœur complete with stage sets, costumes and special guest stars. A treat for the eyes as well as the ears!

DionysosLa Mécanique du cœur (Barclay) 2007

Ludovic  Basque

Translation : Julie  Street