Credit: Vitalic
by Paul Attard Featured Kicking the Canon Music

Vitalic | OK Cowboy

March 29, 2021

If one were to properly date when Pascal Arbez-Nicolas’ cultural ascension commenced — from his humble beginning as a no-name disk jockey, steadily slumming it in France under the moniker of Hustler Pornstar — it would be easy to attribute his rise to an off-chance encounter with electroclash producer The Hacker, who would eventually befriend and convince the young musician to send an EP’s worth of new material to International DeeJay Gigolo Records’ head DJ Hell. So, that would date his take-off to sometime in the late ’90s, right around the time when European house music began to take over the world. However, the larger truth of this narrative should be scrutinized, if only because it hardly credits Arbez’s skill as a producer for his own success and characterizes him more as a benefactor of circumstance; so, for the purposes of historical accuracy, we’ll say the precise moment when this shift occurred was on October 5th, 2001 — the day that Vitalic released his Poney EP, a monstrous collection of punky, abrasive techno heaters that were so popular among Parisian club-goers that Arbez was afforded four entire years to assemble a follow-up.

Suffice to say, the songs on this short release would not only cement the young man’s notoriety, but also define his artistic sensibilities for most of the remaining decade. It should be no surprise, then, to find that three of the EP’s four tracks were re-used on this subsequent debut album — missing is the hypnotic, Italo disco-flavored “You Prefer Cocaine,” for obvious marketing reasons — but their inclusion on OK Cowboy never feels like a blatant act of merely phoning it in. Rather, they’re sequenced in a way that provides the record with a clear structure, where the more lowkey, album-friendly material is able to cohere around these larger-than-life cuts — which, ultimately, delivers a more varied and rewarding listening experience than the dirty, short-term jubilation provided on the Poney EP.

The child-like waltz of “Polkamatic” properly kicks the album off (unless you count a secret bonus that’s only available if you manually rewind your CD at the start) and smoothly transitions into the cosmic groove of “Poney Part 1,” while the organ-sample-heavy short exercise of “Wooo” and Jean-Michel Jarre-inspired ambient “The Past” supply enough breathing room (before and after) for the colossal “La Rock 01,” a song that continues to tear the dance floor up some two decades after the fact — by virtue of the fact that it sounds like two buzzsaws are competing with each other for who can do the most damage. It’s a composition that’s as awe-inspiring as it is seductive, aggressively sensual until it almost assaults you, a euphoric rush that never ends; it’s about as hedonistic as techno gets, matched in intensity only by “Newman,” which sounds like Daft Punk’s “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” if the distortion pedal’s settings were somehow cranked up even further. “Poney Part 2,” a more texturally complex, elongated, and inverted version of the first installment, finds greater emotional gravitas paired alongside “Repair Machines” — with its gorgeous stuttering vocal sample that serves as a jumping-off point for the track’s more anarchic tension building — than it did being centered around the more gargantuan soundscapes of the previously listed singles.

But make no mistake: this isn’t a case of a singles artist hammering out a prestige product for a first “proper” release either. As reflected by how notoriously flippant Arbez was in regards to his contemporaries at the time (he called most other electronic albums “boring”), he considered this type of grandstanding to be a big joke. At heart, he’s a rockstar who saw the appeal in making rockstar music without instruments — or, at least, saw the humor in people claiming he wasn’t a “real” musician because he didn’t play “real” instruments. The sentiment is lampooned a few times on the album, like on “No Fun,” opening with a detached vocal sample from what’s credited as “Brigitte,” a vocal synthesis program, repeating the mantra “No guitars. No strobes. No leather. No fun” across its bouncing melody; or on “My Friend Dario,” Vitalic’s most rock-oriented affair that paradoxically features only, as Arbez put it, “fake guitars, fake vocals, and fake drums.” He even ends the album with a series of fake snare drums (“Valletta Fanfares”) and a semi-fake love song (“U and I”).

Indeed, the entire conception of OK Cowboy was made with this ethos in mind: Arbez declared on his personal website that, while the instruments used on the project were synthesized, “the emotion that galvanizes [my] music” was the one thing he couldn’t fake. Considering the music he released across this four-year span, well, he certainly didn’t need to — the euphoria, ecstasy, and enjoyment come naturally. And while Vitalic has since calmed down and trimmed away most of his maximalist tendencies in recent years, there might be an easy explanation: that because the bar he set for this sort of thing was so stratospheric and the precedent unmatched, perhaps he’s simply never felt the need to repeat himself.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.