There is a need to begin this review with a direct quote from its band leader, saxophonist Arnaud Guichard : “This record is dedicated to all the victims of sexual violences in DRC and to Dr. Denis Mukwege and his team who work hard at restoring the pride and dignity of all the victims of these atrocities. We hope the war that has killed millions of people and continues to destroy so many lives comes to an end.”
I’d like to approach this 5 track album with this statement in mind, as it seems important not only to the composer himself, but even more so significantly contemporary and relevant to our time. It is the role of a musician to mostly create to convey emotions which we all feel, can connect to , and join in universal spirit It is also sometimes the role of the artist, to shed light on the issues that need to be spoken about. Such is this album, and such is the music, which , if observed as if one were to narrate such a dark tale, it needs to be told as directly as possible.
The entire album is centeretd around a female protagonist , a woman who was violated. Arnaud took a great ( and much needed ) risk to try and portray what she , and many women on the planet, experienced. The fusion of a wildly improvised solos scattered across the album, combined with intricative and evocative West African spiritual harmony offers the listener with the point of view of its composer, rather than the woman itself. This is actually a good thing, as in my mind, I feel instinctly that this was Arnaud’s intention: as an artist , he dove deeply into the complex and devastating world of a woman who was violated, offering how he himself felt , as if to converse his own pain . So in a sense, the albuum is a conversation ,a very moving and authentic acknoeldgment of the artist towards female pain.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking. The opening track ‘ I am just a little girl with a dream ‘ instantly depicts a frenetic feeling of violation, fear and desperation. ‘Fighting my own Demons’ could be seen as the track following the woman’s journey , as she tries to reconcile with her past. It offers a groove, against a backdrop of daunting horn lines and eerie guitar, performed exquisitely by Florent Jeunieaux. ‘ Born to be Free’ offers a more spiritual human like quality to the frenetic energy of previous tracks in comparison. Aesthetically and politically, the track makes a bold statement that in this day and age we shouldn’t still be making. With a likeness akin to Ornette Coleman and even Jean Toussaint ( his Trinity professor ) , there is a clear London- Brussels voice in his willingness to let lose in Arnaud’s solo. Drummer Matthias de Waele does stunning accompaniment here, bringin back the hymn like chorus in full splendor towards the end. I wonder if the more vibrant, even jubilant ‘ Dancing with my Desires’ is a reference to creating one’s own identity despite a traumatic past? ( The title certainly suggests so ). Perhaps the heavily orchestrated polyrhythm suggests a glimmer of hope for the female protagonist of the story . The album resolves on a nuanced and almost devout acceptance of it all, with title track ‘ They call me the Queen of Fire’. Essentially, I feel Arnaud is reminding us that this is ‘Her’, or the ‘Queen’s ‘ story ; she still stands,as the music shifts , in utter endurance, divinity and empowerment. There’s a suite like element to this composition- the beginning re-introduces us to the deity of women; the middle turns to a darker, electronic ambient sound to remind us what the circumstances that she was forced into. There is a complete visual of the ghosts of her past, trying to toy with her – it’s performed with such command by Arnaud and Jeunieaux. The song shifts again into melancholy, before picking up the groove again reintroducing her theme, that of a woman, like many before her, who emerged triumphant and who refused to be broken . The ending is ethereal in sound , and mighty in delivery.
An album that is meant for those who truly want to listen to the story behind the music, behind the performance.
‘ Queen of Fire’ is available on all major platforms on May the 7th.