Del Cielo: Sur Des Braises

Del Cielo, from Rennes, is a duo that was manufactured by chance. Record label Range Ta Chambre played matchmaker by asking a group of male musicians to write songs for a group of female artists and letting the latter choose the track they wanted to collaborate on. Maybe this is why they appear to be dressed as a just-married couple on the cover, both looking at some (unseen) object outside the frame, bringing to mind Žižek's oft-quoted description of the ideal couple being two lovers not looking into each others' eyes but standing hand in hand and looking outward to a shared cause. Since this album's called Sur Des Braises – 'over hot coals' (a strange reversal of the first album's title, Sous Les Cendres – 'under the ash'), though, you could easily read it as a bleak take on coupledom. It's a nicely poised image.
'They', incidentally, are Liz Basterd (real name Cécile Bellat, who is also a plastic artist) and Gaël Desbois, a veteran of several local groups including Mobiil which he formed with probably the hardest working guitarist in France, Olivier Mellano. It was clear on Sous Les Cendres why they had decided to pursue their working relationship – something undoubtedly clicks between Bellat's voice and Desbois's industro-hip-pop settings.
Bellat's lyrics are essentially spoken, in what one might describe as a 'little girl' voice if it didn't convey so many shades of experience. Without histrionics, in fact precisely because she avoids them, Bellat can slide convincingly from acid accusations and recriminations to determination or blank-eyed resignation in the space of a line or two. The lyrics are almost always directed at an 'other' (that is, not just the listener): 'Laisse-moi', 'Veux Tu', 'Ma Vipère', giving voice to the intimate struggles and subterranean dialogues between partners. The songs circle themes obsessively, often returning repeatedly to “la phrase qui tue” - “the killer phrase” - not just a chorus-hook, more like the knot, the nub of the problem, the block that won't be overcome: “et quoi encore” (“now what else”), “vas-y passes devant” (“go on ahead”), “fais gaffe” (“beware”).
Desbois complements this with tracks that are like 'beats' in the hip-hop/r n b sense; closed systems that never really resolve, though layers of guitar and synth arpeggios are built up and removed and there might be 'B' sections. Rising tension is created by Bellat's repetition/accumulation of phrases over these revolving sequences. The songs don't 'go anywhere' – which is both the strength of Sous Les Cendres (it has an emotional and thematic consistency) and its limit.
The tracks that feel like refinements of ideas already laid out on Sous Les Cendres, like 'La Foudre' with its Depeche Mode-like textures or 'Casoretto', on which Bellat is joined by Dominique A, are satisfying. It's actually at the points where they open out the template, as with the minimal techno pulse of 'La Densité' and the doomy, almost Bad Seeds-y ballad 'Si L'Encre', that I find myself willing them to push further, expand on the ideas – I can't help wanting to hear an extended mix of 'La Densité', which at 3 mins 11 comes to a halt just as it could be getting going.
But perhaps that kind of release (of the format, of tension) would be the undoing of what keeps Del Cielo interesting. That's my own circular thinking on Sur Des Braises right there.
David McKenna