Greg Northrup 29-Sep-2006 Grimaces + Le Petit Violon de Mr. Gregoire + Avant Qu'il ne Soit Trop Tard

Mona Lisa was one of the more popular French symphonic prog groups of the late 70s, and a close follower of the seminal group Ange, with perhaps even more of a Genesis influence. The music was extremely melodic and refined, often very catchy, but perhaps most defined by the theatrical antics of front man Dominque Le Guennec, whose overpowering voice and emotional urgency dominated the group's approach. Songs and albums were constructed around the characters he portrayed, and apparently translated into awe-inspiring live performances. Perhaps not understanding French significantly detracts from my appreciation, but much of the humor and charm of the group is still evident, and their intense playing and powerful compositions can't be denied. The band is a personal favorite of mine, though I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say they would suite everyone's tastes. The material can be abrasive due to the extreme vocals, and definitely over the top. Sometimes, the material borders on neo-progressive, with its intensive Genesis emulation, and even sports a pop sensibility at times. Just as often though, the group tears into passages of Ange-like fury, and I doubt anyone would accuse Mona Lisa of possessing a particularly original style. The group invited Genesis comparisons with Le Guennec's "Mr. Gregoire" costume, which clearly bears a significant similarity to Peter Gabriel's "Musical Box" getup.

As far as their individual albums go, my taste seems to split from the general consensus. To most, Le Petit Violon de Mr. Gregoire is their opus, though it sounds a little half-baked to me, being fraught with some negligible filler. I much prefer both its predecessor, the rawer Grimaces, and the subsequent album, the more consistent Avant Qu'il Ne Soit Trop Tard. Still, all three albums are quite good, though two other albums from their 70s era are reportedly slightly weaker, L'Escapade and Vers Demain. Mona Lisa reformed in 1998 with a new album, De l'Ombre a la Lumiere, which is by all accounts quite good. The reformed lineup features a stable of younger musicians supporting frontman Le Guennec and were well received by the crowd at Progfest 2000. Mona Lisa are definitely one of the essential French symphonic prog groups from the 70s, and fans of theatrical, emotional music who can't get enough Ange would do well to check out one of the band's prime albums. Avant Qu'il... is probably the best place to get started. Grimaces

Though I was initially unimpressed with Grimaces, Mona Lisa's second album, it has grown to become my personal favorite of theirs. Grimaces is much rougher around the edges than subsequent albums, and most would argue that the group would still be in the midst of developing their own style. However, the raw charm of this album has become a huge selling point for me, being much harsher and more abrasive than subsequent releases, bearing little similarity to the neo-progressive style or to the slicker approach of Avant Qu'il.... Not that that was a necessarily bad approach, but I am just blown away by the gruff melodicism, aggressive vocals and hellish carnival feel of this album. The band sounds closest to Ange rather than Genesis on this one, which is fine by me really. This album is definitely the most eccentric of the three I'm familiar with, and also relies more on vintage equipment like organ, Moog, flute and acoustic guitars as opposed to the extensive synthesizers they would later employ. Like all of Mona Lisa's albums, the weak point for me is the drumming, which is for the most part excessively straightforward and hampers the overall complexity of the group. However, on Grimaces, this only contributes to the already rough overall vibe. Vocally, lead singer Le Guennec takes on a number of different characters, and his theatrical style is less refined and more emphasized on this album. The vocals are mixed extremely loud on this one, and were downright annoying at first, so I certainly wouldn't recommend Grimaces as a starting point for Mona Lisa.

"La Mauvaise Reputation" is a weak opener, apparently a cover tune that sports a fairly annoying vocal part. However, the album picks up right away with "Brume" and keeps up the powerful approach right through until the end of the album. "Complainte pour une Narcisse" is a big highlight, a hugely theatrical track that relies on an angular verse riff before erupting into a thundering anthemic chorus. This is followed by the equally impressive "Le Jardin des Illusions," which is driven by a nice distorted guitar riff over sustained organ notes. The track breaks down into an amusing folky mid-section featuring great snare rolls, flutes and whistles before closing out in a fiery guitar-led inferno a la Ange. "Au Pays des Grimaces" is driven by Le Guennec's characterizations, but is highlighted by its ferocious chorus riff and phenomenal melodies. The live track is basically negligible, hampered by poor sound quality and probably only really worthwhile if you understand French, as it contains a significant amount of on-stage banter.

Grimaces is probably my favorite Mona Lisa album, definitely the rawest and most aggressive of the bunch. This album is to Mona Lisa what Nursery Cryme was to Genesis, though it draws equally from prime Ange as an influence. There is a huge emphasis on the characters played by Le Guennec but with a similar fire and emotional urgency, as well as a musical balance tipped more towards guitar than keyboards. Grimaces is very raw, yet very cool, definitely an underrated French gem.

Le Petit Violon de Mr. Gregoire

Mona Lisa's third album, Le Petit Violon..., is often remembered to be their magnum opus, surprisingly being the theatrical group's only apparent stab at a concept album. It's hard for me to verify to what extent the other albums function as concepts, not understanding French, but Le Petit... makes a pretty overt attempt due to the inclusion of the awesome title suite. The album is at the level of their two other albums I own, Grimaces and Avant Qu'il..., though I'm not sure I would put it above either one of them. Fittingly, the album straddles a middle ground between the harsher, more Ange-like approach of Grimaces, and the slicker Avan't Qu'il.... Mona Lisa's style alternates between bouncy anthemic tracks and heavier driving passages of swirling keys and biting guitar lines. Omnipresent are the powerful pipes of Dominque Le Guennec, who adopts the roles of various characters throughout the tracks to deliver the story lines.

The problem with this album lies in the seeming abundance of filler tracks. Of the first four songs, the only truly essential track is the intense "Allons Z'Enfants," two of the others being merely pleasant instrumentals, and the other a spoken word narrative. For a group whose strength is without a doubt their vocalist, it doesn't seem like this is the best way to start an album. "Solaris" is particularly good, showing off some incredibly melodic guitar licks. However, the record is carried by the phenomenal fire-breathing title suite. "La Folie," a subsection of the suite, attacks with a straight keyboard/drum riff under an addictive Le Guennec vocal line. This is an aggressively anthemic track that really rocks out. The success is upheld by what could be the best Mona Lisa track ever, the jaw-dropping "De Toute Ma Haine," which absolutely explodes out of the speakers. A hellish vocal melody that functions as perhaps the most intense moment from a very intense singer, is followed by an earth shattering Moog workout. Great stuff. The momentum is let down on the following tracks, but again, they're not bad by any means. Overall, this could be the most inconsistent of the Mona Lisa albums, but its better moments are among the group's finest.

Avant Qu'il ne Soit Trop Tard

This album is perhaps the best place to start with Mona Lisa. It is by far their most accessible work of the ones I've heard (Grimaces, Le Petit Violon..., and this one). The production is stunningly slick, and there is much more of a reliance on synthesizers and catchier song structures than on previous albums. It's by no means commercial in a bad way, as Dominique Le Guennec's vocals are as over-the-top and emotive as ever, and the song structures remain relatively complex. However, complexity was never the group's strength, and Avant Qu'il... could be the most consistent and crystallized vision of the band's core sound. Extremely catchy tunes are all over the place on this one, incorporating a poppy influence and even veering dangerously close to neo-progressive at times. However, the French eccentricity of the group remains their defining characteristic, and the band seems to step out of the shadow of Ange a little more.

I realized while listening to this album a few weeks ago that one of the only things I don't like about Mona Lisa is the drumming. He plays some extremely simple parts, only providing the necessary beats where needed. As opposed to Ange's exceedingly active and chaotic rhythm section, Mona Lisa have a very empty sounding foundation, and I can't help feeling the band's complexity is held back by this factor. Unfortunately, it seems the same drummer played on all their albums. The bassist, while definitely competent, doesn't seem to be given very many interesting rhythms to work with by the drums, and his playing seems hampered as a result. On the other hand, the guitar and keyboards have plenty of breathing room, and the focus of the group is on their stunning interplay, along with the excellent vocals. Melodically, the group is extremely rich and inventive, perhaps never more so than on this album.

Highlights include the incredible "Souvenirs de Naufrageurs" with a tremendous guitar/Moog melody that develops into a rousing vocal line. "Tripot" features a syncopated drum rhythm as the foundation for yet another great vocal part and exciting Moog riffs, though the highlight of the album is without a doubt the furious "Creatures sur la Steppe." The track begins with a soft and emotive vocal line which builds up ominously before exploding into a ferocious guitar led finale, over which Le Guennec's demonic bellows reach an emotional high point. The track fades out with various sound effects, and thus closes out the album. The live tracks on the CD are a nice addition, featuring versions of some of the album's stronger tracks. Overall, this is a great place to start exploring Mona Lisa, and a much more consistent album in comparison with the better known Le Petit Violon...

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