X-Tet (France): Première Ligne (FLVM 3034, 1981?)
Josée Paley (keyboards, backing vocals)
For the most part, this obscure album offers powerful, complex prog with distant, echoey vocals and manic, multilayered synthesisers recalling early Eskaton (but without the zeuhl influence). Elsewhere they offer more relaxed modern jazz that occasionally tends towards the noodling, but there are no obviously weak cuts on here. GRADE: B–.
XII Alfonso (France): The Lost Frontier (Muséa FGBG 4183.AR, CD, 1996)
Caroline Lafue (lead vocals)
Inspired by a visit to the countryside surrounding Hadrian’s Wall, XII Alfonso’s debut mostly offers short instrumentals interspersed with sound effects – some folky, others symphonic, all delicate and pastoral. Unfortunately, there are also three actual songs: one a straightforward ballad, one a power ballad and one a neoprogressive rocker. The end result is an album that’s pleasant, atmospheric and quite distinctive, but also (despite the lengthy running time) somewhat slight. GRADE: C+.
XII Alfonso (France): Odyssées (Muséa FGBG 4303.AR, CD, 1999)
Laure Oltra (occasional vocals), Sandrine Rougé (occasional vocals), Judith Robert (occasional vocals)
Like its predecessor, this is a long, rather disjointed album consisting mainly of shortish instrumentals, interspersed with a few songs. Unlike its predecessor, most of the instrumentation is electric, most of the percussion is programmed, and the folky influences have been replaced with ethnic touches. Also unlike its predecessor, different vocalists are used on different songs, with the band’s lyricist Laure Oltra making her first appearance as a performer. Overall this is as distinctive as their first, whilst being more dynamic and involving, but once again its fragmentary nature means that the whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts. GRADE: C+.
Douze Alfonso (France): Claude Monet – Vol. 1 (Muséa FGBG 4397.AR, CD, with booklet and slipcase, 2001)
Bévinda Ferreire (joint lead vocals), Catherine Alcover (joint lead vocals)
This is where it all came together for XII Alfonso (or Douze Alfonso, as they credit themselves this time round): their musical biography of Claude Monet is a rich pastoral symphony, deeply suffused in French folk traditions and nostalgia, and as far removed from any notion of rock as one can imagine. The whole thing has a dreamy, impressionistic (sorry!) feel that makes it resemble a film soundtrack rather than an album proper, with lots of classical references and plenty of variety; occasional narration helps to stitch it together and makes it feel coherent, unlike their earlier work. Beautiful packaging, including a 52-page booklet featuring numerous Monet works and associated memorabilia, is the icing on the cake. GRADE: B–.
XII Alfonso (France): This Is (Muséa FGBG 4502.AR, CD, 2003, recorded 1998)
I’d wondered how the unusual, delicate material on The Lost Frontier would translate to a live setting. This 1998 concert, issued five years later, succinctly answers the question: brilliantly. Whereas the studio versions were gentle and hesitant, the live takes are vivid and energetic, bolstered by an excellent recording, creating a fine concert document. GRADE: B–.
XII Alfonso (France): Charles Darwin (No label XIIALF 07.08.09, triple CD, with book sleeve, 2012)
Huong Thanh (occasional vocals), Sand Roman Garcia (occasional vocals), Maggie Reilly (occasional vocals), Jayney Klimek (occasional vocals), Tadeo Zavala (occasional vocals)
Given the excellence of Claude Monet and the live album, I had high hopes for XII Alfonso’s magnum opus, but Charles Darwin constitutes three pretty unsatisfactory hours. Whereas Claude Monet steered clear of rock and aimed to capture a period ambience, this time round a lot of the songs have a soft rock flavour, not helped by the choice of male singers. Add in lots of saxophone (not an instrument I favour, even when played by Raphael Ravenscroft) and subtract narration and the result is a disjointed set of rock, folk and ethnic music that signally fails to illuminate the life of its subject. At least the packaging is beautiful. GRADE: C.
XII Alfonso (Mali/France): Djenné (No label, CD, France, 2016)
Angélique Dione (principal vocals)
In a radical change of direction, the core trio behind XII Alfonso teamed up with three Malian musicians and recorded this album in Mali with numerous local collaborators. Abandoning almost all vestiges of their former style, this is a straightforward fusion of world music and a little rock – unusual and refreshing, bolstered by a sparkling recording. GRADE: C+.
Xox-Rock (West Germany): Xox-Rock (Caeton 66.22 625-01, split LP, with insert, 1982)
Kirsten Fiscian (lead vocals)
This obscure German band’s sole release was a split LP with the all-male outfit Q-Rios. Their seven short songs are hard rock with a new wave edge, although some early seventies Krautrock influences occasionally show through; in a sense, they probably indicate how a band like Arktis might have sounded had they formed five years later. GRADE: C+.
Nikos Xylouris & Afroditi Manou (Greece): Dionyse Kapakairi Mas (EMI Columbia SCXG 87, 1972)
Afroditi Manou (joint lead vocals)
With tracks alternating between the two singers (a not uncommon practice for Greek seventies LPs), this mixes orchestrated singer/songwriter fare with slightly more uptempo folk/rock, both with lots of ethnic elements. The penultimate ‘Silent, Wandering Young Men’ in contrast is heavy psychedelia with lots of fuzz guitar, and easily the best track. GRADE: C+.