Along with Marc Hollander and Daniel Denis, Daniel Schell belongs to the most talented Belgian musicians of the generation that arrived in 1970s, but managed to outgrow the stylistic constraints of that era. He debuted in band Classroom, which subsequently transmuted into Cos. This highly revered Belgian band commingled European fusion and Zeuhl influences, which were often saved by Pascale Son’s airy, sensually modulated yet permanently girlish vocalizes. In later years, the band retained its name but slid towards perilous eclecticism, desperately seeking new audience.
Schell later dabbled in several idiosyncratic projects before discovering the charms of Chapman Stick, which underpinned the rhythmic pointillism of his band Karo. His cheery, exhilarating bacchanals engendered an early form of arithmetic chamber rock, delivered with freshness and disciplined fragility of a musical origami. The result was often comparable with the then flourishing Swiss ‘Alpine’ avant-rock.
Schell has since focused on film music and little of his compositional talent has been documented in a form available internationally. His overall output, considered allopatric and uneven, reflects an extraordinary range of moods and styles – from deeply reflective to almost buffoonish, from confidently pragmatic to nervously frequentist. In one case, described below, he realized a minor gem of conceptual folk-rock drama. In this venture, Schell was supported by Dick Annegarn, a popular Dutch singer who returned in recent years with a tribute to Jacques Brel.
If romantic Greeks looked up to Theodoros Kolokotronis and the Poles dreamed of Konrad Wallenrod, then the Flemish reminisced about Egmont. This 16th century prince was a vassal of Carlos V and Felipe II, but opposed Spanish invasion of the Low Countries. The story was immortalized by Johann Wolfgang Goethe two centuries later. In Goethe’s play, the tragically beheaded hero leaves behind a mourning mistress, who eventually takes her life. Dick Annegarn and Daniel Schell built their homage to this romantic edifice through a deft juxtaposition of ancient and modern, acoustic and fusion ingredients. The record opens with short, crisp notes polished delicately by Schell on oud. Soon enough, an image of a village party emerges, as if transposed directly from Bruegel’s folkloric scene. A Breton circle dancing could be the closest comparison, with its light stomping time, purely acoustic setting and simple accents on shakers.
Piume al vento
Dirk Bogart, formerly of Pazop, presents this traditional song in Italian with a light, raspy vibrato. The verse repetitions increase in velocity, maintaining all the proportions and a steady pitch. The main theme is reciprocated with acoustic guitar and alternating male and female vocals, but these quasi-instinctive reactions become patchier when the thematic repetitions plunge with an intemperate pace. This estampie closes with a savage howl and metallic clutter. And we learn that the hero “sa che vincera – pui non tornera”.
Dick Annegarn sings this hesitant ballad in French to a homely accompaniment on acoustic guitar. Then a flaming guitar transition imports an unassertively pastoral fragment. But the melodic lead vacillates and soon defaults to the stammering intro. A dustier, chewier secondary theme is brought up by Schell’s 12-string guitar, hummed along satirically. The lyrics mock foolhardy patriotism, the pace is slow and consensual, the articulation affiliative and supple.
Sabina and First Variation
“Sabina” is the first act of the trilingual, polyphonic Souterlied performed by Dirk Bogart (tenor and bass) and Pascale Son (soprano and alto). The medievalism of this metric psalm – composed by Egmont’s contemporary Clemens Non Papa – is subverted by Son’s quartzite, pre-puberty chorus. Sabina sobs over her imprisoned husband. A short solo on acoustic guitar adds some alteration to the basic cantus firmus.
La ballade du Zwin
This is a more archetypal singer-songwriter ballad, cushioned by the chamber-like purity of a duo of Daniel Schell on 13-string guitar and Michel Berckmans of Univers Zéro on oboe. The slight echo added to Berckmans’ double-reed distracts it from Pascale Son’s parallel vocalize. The translucent airiness of the passage evokes Kay Hoffmann’s unforgettable “Floret Silva”, which bathed in similarly medieval moats around the same time. Here, Pavel Haza’s cello adds a disciplined improvisation with an appropriately solemn, pining intonation.
Dick Annegarn sings here a 16th century Flemish poem. The elegiac theme, proclaiming that “Egmont is dood”, is allocated with the elegance of a spangling acoustic guitar and vernally wooden sticks. It is this pliant, lissome percussion that recalls Schell’s compatriots Aksak Maboul. Félix Simtaine’s constantly shifting percussive toolkit switches gear between the stanzas. Half way through the song, a Nordic solo on sinewy electric guitar materializes, packaged by a suddenly menacing bass (Jean-Louis Baudoin). The boreal guitar, commonly associated with Terje Rypdal’s groundbreaking recordings earlier in the decade, adds unexpected suspense to the narrative. Félix Simtaine’s adroitly impressionistic hi-hat work sets the stage for a seductively symmetrical flow. “Godt zal die wrake verhalen van die grave van Egmont – God will remember the count of Egmont”.
Un instant sous la hache
The scene of decapitation is laid out by Dirk Bogart on flute and Daniel Schell on 12-string guitar. It is a classic chamber folk duo with predetermined roles; the volant flute exploits its structural freedom with ascending breathiness. Flickering hand drum dives into the guitar’s soaring arpeggios, but the resulting tension is quickly released by a sharpened, mid-flight flute section.
Dick Annegarn adopts here the half-spoken mannerism of Serge Gainsbourg, stressing his syllables with bored insolence – “I rebel against your second hand deaths”. The narrator eschews direct irony, even though Schell and Annegarn share their own vision of Egmont as a reluctant hero, an antithesis of Goethean creation. “Granvelle” is essentially a rock song with a slinky fusion backing, stenciled with a jazzy guitar and suppliant drumming. Pascale Son makes some harmonically consonant bypasses on oboe, leaving behind a somewhat hapless guitar solo. Her instrument is highly pitched and lyrical, but limited in energy and almost breathless in legatos. The long awaited Ilona Chale squeezes little more than a desperate proclamation of a life terminated.
Sabina and Second Variation
The second act of the “Sabina” triplet. We revisit here the polyphonic singing in French, Italian and Flemish with an ecclesiastical touch. Pascale Son’s innocuous voice has been deservedly likened to Haco’s. The theme closes with a solo guitar side-track.
Ein kleiner Mann
Parading her infantile innocence, Pascale Son declaims a nursery rhyme about a little man. This piece, a variation on a march from Wortel, collects pleasant verse suspensions and proceeds unassumingly aboard whistles and an electric guitar in its Nordic, nostalgic mantle. While the rhythm section syncopates, a jangly acoustic guitar wobbles drunken, as if parachuted from an ESP anti-folk recording. After this variegated interlude, Pascale Son returns, hushing out again the verses about the little Man who sacrificed his life.
Back to the polyphonic voices, huddled somewhere under the architrave. Unfortunately, the somewhat strangled tenors marginalize the female counterparts into mere Nebenstimme role.
The ff BOOM
The tragic story is memorably rounded off by these 12 minutes of quintessentially European cosmic jazz. It is as if the final, Aristotelian catharsis provided a necessary closure for the tragic story of human misfortune. Jean-Louis Baudoin clutches his acoustic bass with deft fingering, in expression ranging from dry and pungent to semi sweet and voluble. Félix Simtaine opts for Jon Christensen-like cymbal ubiquity. Schell’s elaborations on electric guitar appear topologically simple yet highly fluid. Windy effects haunt us from the back until a synthesizer glissando interrupts this flow. Underpopulated by skin’n’cymbal rattle and distant groans, the trio audibly searches for clues. When Baudoin eventually re-establishes the ostinato, we face not one, but two guitar tracks – a funky quack, and a gnarly amp-distorted rock solo. Drumming has now become segmented and metronomically basic. Taking advantage of this hysteresis, the grimy guitar hashes up the remaining material until the gusty effects cleave the rhythmic procession.
COS: “Postaeolian Train Robbery” (1974)
COS: “Viva Boma” (1976)
COS: “Babel” (1978)
Daniel SCHELL & Dick ANNEGARN: “Egmont and the FF Boom” (1976-78)
COS: “Swiβ Chalet” (1979)
COS: “Pasiones” (1983)
COS: “Hotel Atlantic” MLP (1984)
Daniel SCHELL & KARO: “If Windows They Have” (1986)
Daniel SCHELL & KARO: “The Secret of Bwlch” (1990)
Daniel SCHELL & KARO: “Gira Girasole” (1993)
Schell’s knack for easy melodiousness too often misled him into wacky terrains. The only other positions I can fully recommend are the first two Cos Lps and the first two Karo records.