In the early days of this millennium, Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (aka Vitalic) was one of the reigning kings of dance-music maximalism. Beginning with 2001’s Poney EP and culminating with 2005’s OK Cowboy long-player, the French producer shook up clubland with an aggressive new sound, one that wed the late-night joy of disco and to fist-pumping exuberance of rock-n-roll, with buzzsaw basslines, stomping kicks and a keen sense of dynamics underpinning his adrenaline-rush melodies. It was a big, brawny, powerful sound that, arguably, helped paved the way for much of the EDM that followed.
Following 2009’s relatively subdued Flashmob, Vitalic came roaring back with 2012’s Rave Age, an album that signaled a return to his maximalist roots. But with the new Voyager, released through his new Clivage Music label in early 2017, he’s reversed direction once again with a release that references the kind of synthetic sound pioneered by electronic explorers like Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre, and later perfected by the likes of synth-disco godfathers Giorgio Moroder and Patrick Cowley.
There’s a kind of synth-disco classicism that runs throughout Voyager, with decidedly retro cover art to match. Minor-key melodies, stately rhythms, emotive arpeggios, and an aura of late-night neon glistening against black leather are the LP’s ingredients; even the more raucous tracks, like the stomping “Nozomi” or the squelching “Levitation,” have a sophisticated patina that may come as a shock to those who know the producer through his gut-busting older material.
He’s hinted at this direction before, notably on Flashmob—but on Voyager, Vitalic’s committed himself fully to the sleek, sexy pleasures of this sound. “It’s music that I have to make right now,” he says. “I needed to tell stories again, and I wanted to put synthesizers in the front.”
He also sees Voyager as a reaction to the over-the-top feel of much of today’s electronic music. “It is a reaction to excesses of EDM, and also even to some of my own music,” he claims. “Focusing on energy and power, we may forget to give some depth and tell stories.”
In interviews, Vitalic described Flashmob as “experimental and romantic,” and the second half of that description certainly holds true for his new material as well—it’s some of his most seductive music yet.
“But I don’t think its romantic in the cheesy way,” he’s quick to say. “Its romantic because of the man-machine marriage, and all the projections and fantasy we put into that. This man-machine aspect appeals to me, and it’s how I perceived that when I was a kid and started to listen to music, thinking about cosmos and travelling is also about hope and evasion.”
In practice, actualizing that “man-machine” symbiosis meant a reliance on analog synths, with Vitalic utilizing a mix of retro equipment and synths of newer vintage to achieve the album’s classic sound. “I used mostly analog stuff, not by snobbism and because it’s fashionable,” he explains, “but because I like to use real machines that have some kind of life inside. I have two Buchlas—and those are tricky to use, but they are very special. I also used Polymath from Analog Solutions, the Arp 2600, the Moog, and the Boomstar from Studio Electronics.”
The instrumentation, not to mention the sound, of the album might set it apart from his earlier work— but Vitalic doesn’t feel he’s strayed all that far from the productions of his early days. “Really, I could still make it with an MPC 2000 and record on an eight-track Roland thing,” he claims. “The core elements are always there: melodies, energy and a kinky twist. I go around those three elements, but approach them in different angles. I am very proud of ‘Poney Part 1,’ of course, and that was a good song in 2001. We are now in 2016, and Voyager is like a different juice from the same fruit—elements assembled in a different way.”
The analog feel of Voyager imbues its tracks with an elegant humanity, one that’s enhanced by the occasional inclusion of vocals. Miss Kittin lends her chilled-to-the-bone coo to “Hans is Driving,” while “Waiting for the Stars to Arrive” features yearning vocals from David Shaw, and Mark Kerr adds a distinct sense of drama to “Use It or Loose It.” And then there’s what’s probably the album’s toughest, oddest tune, the “Warm Leatherette”–esque “Sweet Cigarette,” featuring a somewhat ominous spoken-word diatribe equating the joys of smoking with those of amour. (“I suck you in, I blow you out—I’m always in the mood for a long, slim and smooth… sweet cigarette.”)
Says Vitalic: “I met the singer for that one in parties in Paris, where he is also known as a freak called Blanche Poubelle. These people come from very different horizons, and that make the whole thing interesting and rich.”
That richness comes despite Vitalic’s rather relaxed approach to songwriting and production. “There is no real process,” he admits. “Sometimes I do have everything in mind, and I just have to arrange everything. Sometimes I make drafts with some elements and I finish that later—some tracks take one year! And sometimes I just let myself go and there is a nice accident, but that doesn’t work very often. The most effective solution is simply accumulating some ideas that might lead to a finished track sometime later.”
That methodology can sometimes mean that the finished product may not be exactly what Vitalic had in mind when he embarks on a production. For instance, most of Voyager’s cuts are, to varying degrees, club-worthy—but the original intention was to make music that wasn’t really dance music at all—that were more Vangelis, perhaps, than Cerrone. “Well, I wanted to make a try,” he says, “but there was too much melody and not enough energy. I guess I am just not ready to make an album of ambient music.”
He’s equally ambivalent about returning to his maximalist roots. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I still play maximal stuff in my show, but at the moment, I’m into cosmic stuff. I’ve also set up my label, Clivage, as a place to promote this pervert disco I like.”
But whatever the case, we’ll be hearing from Vitalic in one form or another for years to come. “Of course!” he says. “I’ve devoted most of my life and I feel I am well rewarded.” And his followers, whether they’re fans of his balls-to-the-walls sound or his new, lustrous direction, are remunerated in kind.