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Atoll — Rock Puzzle
(Musea FGBG 4024.AR, 1979/1993, CD)

by Jon Davis, 2005-09-01:

Rock Puzzle Cover art

I always thought of Atoll as being the number two French symphonic rock band in the 70s, after Ange. Like Ange, they applied the ideals and techniques of progressive rock to French culture and came up with something unique. Also like Ange, they tend to be very dramatic, especially in the vocals, which are sometimes spoken or whispered. But Atoll are probably more accessible to the non-French listener, with a sound that is a little less divergent from the British pioneers like Yes. They released three classic progressive albums and, struggling to find their way in the musical landscape after the advent of punk rock, one forgettable attempt at more commercial fare. After a truly solid debut as a five-piece in 1974, personnel changes resulted in a six-man group that recorded what is generally regarded as their masterpiece, L’Araignée-Mal, a stunning work full of great compositions, interesting sounds, and varied moods. The addition of violin acts as a wonderful counterbalance to new guitarist Christian Béya, whose technical prowess often propels the band in the direction of jazz fusion.

Turmoil following the second album led to the loss of the violin, and as a streamlined five-piece, the band made a conscious decision to move away from the fusion elements toward a more symphonic sound on their third album. Tertio was the first Atoll I heard, and remains a special favorite, though I give L’Araignée-Mal a slight edge in quality. By this point, the band is quite accomplished at their unique version of the genre, with an energetic rhythm section, lots of Mellotron backing, and great guitar work, both on chording and solos.

When it came time to record their fourth album, the band found themselves in a climate no longer friendly to complex symphonic music, and like many other progressive bands, sought to maintain relevance by simplifying their music. The result, Rock Puzzle, still has some progressive elements either woven into the songs or as uneasy interjections within them. The arrangements often feature a horn section in awkward counterpoint to the guitar and keyboards. It doesn’t always work, but it’s no more embarrassing than the efforts of other prog bands of the time. As a curiosity, this CD includes three tracks the band recorded in 1981 with John Wetton for a project that never got off the ground just before he joined Asia.

These reissues provide a welcome spotlight for one of the great bands of the 70s. For those who already own any of these on CD, the sound is greatly improved, with the previous Musea discs sounding muffled by comparison – Tertio is especially improved. The bonus tracks (particularly on the first album) are the exception: the live recordings still sound tinny and distorted, but they are easily enough ignored.

by Henry Schneider, 1999-12-31:

Rock Puzzle is the long awaited CD reissue of Atoll’s fourth album recorded in 1979. True to their practice of releasing high quality CDs, Musea included an extra 33 minutes of six unreleased tracks! Three of which were songs composed by John Wetton (ex-bass and vocalist for Family, King Crimson, and Asia) and performed under Atoll’s name prior to Wetton’s Asia recording sessions. One of these songs is the original version Asia’s big hit "Here Comes the Feeling." Besides the Wetton songs, the three other previously unreleased tracks are remixes of "L’Ultime rock," "Puzzle," and the only Atoll song ever performed in English, "Atari, that’s a game! (Smarto Kitschy-American mix)." Atoll was France’s premiere progressive band. Over the course of their four albums Atoll continued to explore and experiment in the sophisticated rock music of the seventies, a progressive band in the truest sense of the word. Rock Puzzle is a rockier album than their previous outings with "Smarto Kitschy" being an attempt at reaching a mainstream audience. Besides this throw away song, the remainder of the album teems with elaborate keyboard and guitar work bearing the Atoll trademark. Musea again reissues a much sought after recording from the annals of French progressive rock with a beautiful color picture CD, original cover art, and a 16-page booklet of lyrics, history, and a perspective by John Wetton. Rock Puzzle is an essential CD for the French rock collector.

Filed under: Reissues , 1993 releases, 1979 releases

Related artist(s): John Wetton, Atoll, Christian Béya, André Balzer

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