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The Belgian Mix-Up: ABBA to Beefheart

Sprouting From Brussels: Rock & roll lives even in a pop-cultural backwater like Belgium, the home of dEUS' multilingual influence blenders.

dEUS evokes a secret world of lust, romance and imagination on 'In a Bar, Under the Sea'

By Gina Arnold

IN 1814, NAPOLEON'S quest to unify Europe was stopped short on a field in Belgium at a battle called Waterloo. Belgium hasn't been in the news much since. Culturally speaking, the tiny country that Thackeray termed "a nation of shopkeepers" has not traditionally been a Mecca for art.

And yet, for a generation of Belgians who are no longer being overrun by foreign armies, Belgium is clearly a marvelous observation point from which to process the rock of nearby Holland, Germany, England and France, and even the U.S. Belgium's bigger cities--Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges--are all popular stops for indie-rock bands, and every summer there's a giant rock festival there called Pink Pop. With America and England beginning to feel all played out on the rock front, perhaps it's not surprising that Belgium--cosmopolitan, multilingual and worldly--is finally emerging as one of the more fertile music scenes around.

Belgium's dEUS is a case in point. Its members met in Antwerp, where they were art students; before forming the band, they spent time busking (playing and singing on the street for spare change).

But according to vocalist Tom Barman, they didn't sing the usual songs by Dylan and the Beatles: "I did a lot of Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground and the Pixies, and the others did Pavement and Sonic Youth. 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door'--never!"

The band has now been together for about five years (with one major lineup change). It consists of a couple of art students, a champion squash player, a violinist and a Scot. Among them, they speak an incredible number of languages, a fact that may contribute to what Barman--speaking by phone from Quebec, where dEUS has just played a festival--calls the "Belgian sponge factor. We don't have our own identity historically. Our country only exists on a piece of paper, and that makes us open to everything."

Barman himself confesses to speaking four languages fluently: Flemish, English, French and German. Judging by the lyrics of songs such as "Fell off the Floor, Man" and "Guilty Pleasures," his command of English is fairly remarkable. He is more articulate, in some ways, than many a native English speaker.

"My father's Norwegian, and my uncles lived in England. I just always heard all these languages at home," he explains. "Also, I learned some from my record collection. And when I was 16 or 17, I was a bit stubborn; I always preferred to read books in English rather than the Flemish translations."

Barman adds that Craig Ward, dEUS' Scottish bass player, has a degree in literature and philosophy. "He has a humongous vocabulary," says Barman, who merely by using that word proves he has one himself. "Sometimes I read my lyrics to him and ask if they sound ridiculous. He's a pretty good referee."

Barman's mixed-up linguistic skill goes well with the band's mixed-up musical influences. "When I was a teenager," he admits, "I liked Wham, ABBA and REO Speedwagon, and I still really love those groups. But I got a tape of Captain Beefheart and that opened up my mind a lot.

"I also just started to really love jazz, but I'm at the bottom of that mountain! I hope that on our record all those influences are apparent, not just one of them. We have our own values as well."

On that point, Barman's mind should be at rest. dEUS' influences blend seamlessly on In a Bar, Under the Sea, its second domestic release. (The first, 1994's Worst Case Scenario, was, to quote Barman, "dead at birth.")

In a Bar, Under the Sea is full of edgy, eerie rhythm-driven songs and ballads all about sex and the weirdness of urban life and exuding all the pent-up energy and tension that indie-rock from more ordinary locales lacks right now.

THE BAND actually managed to get itself signed at its very first gig outside of Belgium, when it was fortuitously swept up in the wake of a bidding war for the headlining act, Girls Against Boys. But since then, it has played mostly in Europe.

In March, dEUS performed its first U.S. gig ever at the SXSW music event in Austin, Texas, in front of practically every rock critic in the country, whom dEUS mightily impressed, earning immediate raves in Spin and Rolling Stone. Besides its riveting frontman, dEUS' current lineup includes a fabulous drummer (Jules DeBorgher) and an electric violinist (Klaas Janzoons) whose antics lurch from soft and folky to loud and experimental.

But despite that off-puttingly eclectic description, dEUS thankfully does not play the kind of overintellectualized rock that's influenced by jazz, the Residents and Neu. Instead, its music is noisy and poetic--and full of multilayered vocals created when the singers, Barman and Ward, use doubled-up microphones with different effects pedals on them within each song, as well as lots of echoes and bizarre falsettos.

For all that, the band's music is suffused with American indie-rock reference points (such as Sonic Youth and Pavement). In fact, the group's current producer, Eric Drew Feldman, is a former Beefheart sideman and sometime member of Pere Ubu

But dEUS is both sexier and more sincere than many of its ilk, and within its noisy and poetic sonics exists a core of melody. Unlike most art-rock groups, dEUS never ever loses sight of a tune.

The two softest numbers on In a Bar, Under a Sea--"Little Arithmetics" and "Serpentine"--are wonderful, as are the louder and more fractured songs, particularly the transcendentally morbid "Roses" and the sharp, druggy opus "Fell off the Floor, Man," which evoke a secret world of lust, romance and imagination.

But for me, the highlight of the record is the song from which the title image is culled, "Disappointed in the Sun," an elegiac number about drowning in the ocean and being reborn in a bar on the bottom. The lyrics are sad, but the music itself is so uplifting that it becomes an argument against suicide. The song, if nothing else, is much too lovely to leave behind.

dEUS, whose reputation already stands high among many American musicians who have seen it in Europe, first toured the U.S. in April, opening for Morphine.

The group was about to go on tour with Cake this summer, when Cake had to cancel. Now, dEUS is on tour by itself. Catch the band now before it starts playing places bigger than Belgium itself.

dEUS performs Wednesday (July 23) at 9pm at the Cactus Club, 417 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $5/$3. (408/491-9300)

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From the July 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro.

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