Biologic Music - Heerlens Percussie Ensemble (Album Reissue Review)
20 May 2020 (1986 Reissue)
Album Rating 4 / 5
Live Potential 5 / 5
Solo Performances 4.5 / 5
Diversity in Songs 4 / 5
Favourite Songs Black Africa, Biologic Music
French reissue label Hot Mule return with their latest gem, the 1986 album Biologic Music from Dutch group Heerlens Percussie Ensemble (HPE).
In the south of the Netherlands, Heerlen is a city with a musical heritage and culture that broadens out across the region, filled with numerous conservatoires and music schools. HPE founder Jelmo 'Pio' Piovesana started talent scouting in the Heerlens area in 1973, as well as Limburg where he was based, and by 1979, HPE had its members set to explore a range of music styles that mixed Jazz, Latin, African, Brazilian, Modern, and Minimal music.
Recorded in a school over two days, Biologic Music sees masters of their craft exploring uncharted territories using vibraphones, bells, marimbas, electronic drums, balafons and tibetan prayer wheels, among others to produce their fusion and improvisational music.
As you've rightly guessed, the album is percussion heavy yet if you're comfortable listening to the aforementioned genres, this won't put you off. There's lots of space for methodical but beautifully crafted buildups and tribal patterns to dance to, with the most discernible '80s' sound from Biologic Music to come on 'Back to Factory' which utilises the powerful thuds of electronic drums and some spectacular improvisation from Leo Janssen on the soprano sax for the fusion element.
HPE member Henk Mennens mentions how the addition of "the bass themes of Jan Hollestelle, but certainly also the influences of Leo Janssen (saxophone), gave us a strong boost. Keep in mind Leo and Jan didn't know the songs at all. But thanks to their musicianship they were able to perform incredible jazz improvisations." The ominous intro for this song owes also to their varied influences of genres, as it starts off like an ominous early Pink Floyd spookery.
'Black Africa' is the only other track that features Hollestelle and Janssen, a pulsating rhythm that drops out and allows for the toms to really push you into a trance led by the bass drum. The song feels more urgent as the tenor sax erupts into another solo that bounces off the marimba nicely. The flow between genres certainly was not something founder Pio initially found comfortable, as his traditional studies of the timpani, xylophone, marimba and vibraphone meant he wasn't as well versed in improvisation. HPE member John Jacobs stated:
"We went to the annual North Sea Jazz festival where we discovered wonderful acts who made big impressions on us. Pio did not like this, it went against what he stood for, the traditional approach, so he rejected these ideas quite radically at first."
But once Pio had let go of following traditional methods and techniques, the group's sound changed hugely. Paul Franken remembers how Pio "really wanted 'to keep up' with us youngsters and even took lessons at the more progressive Ruud Wiener Conservatory. I remember having a lot of respect for that back then." This desire for creating music from a complete amalgamation of influences and percussive instruments excited the group, as they knew their sound was unique but its 'feel' would intrigue the audiences. Franken reiterates "we really felt we were different: the whole groove, swing, feel and excitement of our music mainly came out of improvisations and, above all, the feel we would get from each other as players."
'Black Africa' features one of many unusual percussive instruments, with the Tibetan prayer wheel rubbed between hands to create the 16th note groove heard at the end of the song. 'Greenpeace', a track that did not make the cut for the album, had sounds created to "simulate whale vocalisations, navigation at sea, various water effects, rumbles from an engine room and even a harpoon shot. I [Maurice Schipper] was using a bucket full of water with a sponge: above it a microphone was placed to capture water noises in the background." The stylistic instincts of HPE clearly allowed for individual freedom of expression through any means, something Frank Rademakers reveals: "we did not go the easy way but kept looking for innovation."
Title track 'Biologic Music' has a soft-stomping and strutting feel to it as the marimbas, vibraphone and balafon create a colourful, sunshine atmosphere to sway to. The song features a low rumble in the intro, something Mennens explains here:
"The effect was produced by rubbing a moistened finger over the head of a large concert bass drum. The skin vibrated enormously as a result, creating that very deep sound. We came up with the idea for the uplifting bass drum driving the groove by playing an 18 inch open bass drum with a rod. These particular sounds became very characteristic of the HPE aesthetic."
The motivation in HPE to really push each other's musical boundaries is astounding as the range of styles seems endless. 'Kpanlogo' and 'Adowa' are nods to Ghanian music, the former with an ostinato groove to allow for the improvisation to dance to, whilst the latter celebrates the 'Adowa' traditional dance of the Akan people. 'Spektakel' is the only completely written composition as opposed to the other jams, with the liner notes to the LP explaining due to "the complexity of its polyrhythmic structures, different tempos, time signatures" it was extremely difficult to perform.
HPE toured successfully after the album was released as they interacted with audiences live to foster a "contagious enthusiasm" for their "fascinating" music. Dan Snaith (Caribou, Daphni, Manitoba) even created an edit of HPE's music after finding this album in the early 2000s in a five-euro bin at the Utrecht record fair. He states:
"It is one of those records that proves the adage: you should always judge a record by its cover... and the instrumentation listed on the back [...] the hypnotic rhythms on the record swaggered in a way that sounded like nothing else."
Despite each members passion for the project, various other commitments meant HPE ceased performing in 1988. HPE's mastermind and percussion master, Jelmo Piovesana passed away at the age of 80, in May 2018. His wife Lilly gave the blessing for the reissue, a wonderful gesture that will certainly inspire an abundance of percussionheads and experimental music fans who want to delve deep into the world of Heerlens Percussie Ensemble and explore world music at its finest.
Buy Biologic Music here:
Heerlens Percussie Ensemble are:
Frank Rademakers, Henk Mennens, Jelmo Piovesana, John Jacobs, Maurice Schipper, Paul Franken, Jan Hollestelle (Bass), Leo Janssen (Tenor and Soprano Saxophone).
Visual Design – Marc Donkers
Engineer – Toine Mertens
Producer – Arno Van Nieuwenhuize, H.P.E.
Audio restoration: Frédéric D’Oria-Nicolas
Audio mastering: Nicolas Thelliez
Lacquer cut: André Perriat
Artwork restoration & additional design: Erwan Coutellier
Project management: Louis Hautemulle