Beauty and chaos intermingle in these early-1970s touchstones of avant-garde folk. The French-Portuguese singer’s unearthly voice and searching lyrics made them cult classics.
The first three records by the French-Portuguese singer Catherine Ribeiro and her inventive, psychedelic backing band Alpes are the types of elusive record-collector gems that feel like transmissions from another world. These new reissues from Anthology Recordings mark their first official release in the United States, and, up until now, their legend was due in part to their scarcity. Kim Gordon, one of Ribeiro’s most vocal supporters, recently noted that she only discovered Alpes’ 1971 sophomore album, Âme Debout, around a decade ago, possibly hipped to it by Jim O’Rourke. A lot of people arrive at Ribeiro’s music with similar stories. You hear this unearthly voice emerging from somebody’s speakers. You listen to the wild, visionary music accompanying it. Suddenly you need to know everything.
Ask Ribeiro, and you won’t find many answers. The accompanying liner notes sketch her life prior to Alpes’ debut, 1970’s Nº2, in stark terms: “It was an immense pile of waste and solitude,” is how she summarizes her formative years. In her 1999 memoir, L’Enfance, Ribeiro dives deeper. She was born in Lyon, France during wartime. Her brother died as an infant. She spent an inordinate amount of her youth hiding in the darkness of a makeshift bomb cellar. Before she immersed herself in music, Ribeiro was an actor, appearing in Jean Luc Godard’s 1963 anti-war film Les Carabiniers. In her most memorable scene, she watches her soldier husband display a series of surreal, beatific postcards from the war. The message was simple: Look how we suppress and miscast the brutality of our lives; look how we reenact that violence on others. Ribeiro swore to never make this mistake in her art.
With Alpes, Ribeiro filtered nihilism, anger, and empathy into triumphant, multi-layered collages, galloping and stuttering as though the acid had kicked in midway through a hike at sunrise. “Peace to those who howl because they see clearly,” goes one of her iconic lyrics. Ribeiro does just that, but her voice is such a versatile instrument that it cannot be limited to one mission. She laughs, she caws, she screams, she mourns, she barks, she brays. She sings about suicide, about motherhood and madness, about doomed affairs between Eastern European women and politicians from imagined countries. The music—which calcified into the sound of an identifiable avant-garde-leaning psych-folk band throughout these three LPs—touches on the swirl of 1960s rock and the theatrical swell of 1970s prog, stretching both genres to their most impressionistic extremes. As a group, Alpes can sound eerily beautiful or demonically possessed, sometimes whiplashing between those modes as if satirizing the entire scope of rock music.
Prior to the formation of Alpes, Ribeiro mostly sang folk songs. Among her first recordings was a French translation of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” In her home country, where solo singers were still more fashionable than bands, she summoned a backing group called 2Bis, featuring her husband Patrice Moullet. Their music rattled and buzzed like something wild in a too-small cage: You could hear Ribeiro trying to break free. When she rebranded as Alpes, Ribeiro fully embraced chaos. Nº2’s “Poème Non Epique” spans 18 minutes as she intones with ferocity against Moullet’s rumbling backdrop. Inspired by Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano (and the hallucinogens Lowry reportedly ingested to complete it), Ribeiro aimed to make music that spoke to her “cravings for freedom, for incomplete epiphanies, for spontaneous careless decisions.” Smoky and uncontainable, Nº2 finds her embarking on that journey like she’d been waiting her whole life to take it.
From here, her music would grow more disciplined and more boundless. Moullet would remain the only consistent member of her band, alternating between gorgeously fingerpicked classical guitar and noisy, invented instruments like his “cosmophone,” which looks like a lyre but sounds like a buzzsaw. Âme Debout, the sparsest release of the three, peaks with its ballads at the beginning and end: “Diborowska” and “Dingue,” acoustic laments that Ribeiro sings in a frayed, desperate tone like she’s trying to tear them apart from the inside. At the center of the album is a series of tracks titled “Alpes” that feel improvisatory, almost drone-like, save for one thrashing element (Claude Thiebaut’s restless percussion in “Alpes 1,” Ribeiro’s unsettling growls in “Alpes 2”). The crescendo resolves with the wordless “Aria Populaire,” a prayer that forecasts the emotional clarity to come.
If Âme Debout was the sound of a band finding its footing, then 1972’s Paix is when they become airborne. It stands as Ribeiro’s masterpiece because it comes the closest to containing her multitudes, housing her most beautiful composition (the love song “Jusqu'à Ce Que La force de T'aimer Me Manque”) and her most wildly experimental. The music is driven by an incessant rhythm, echoed by Patrice Lemoine of the prog/space-rock band Gong on organ (maybe the sound that most directly time-stamps this music to its era). Throughout, Ribeiro gazes toward the future. The final third of the epic title track resembles doom metal in its descending bassline and Ribeiro’s spectral vocals. But instead of building to a roar, it simply sustains, melting into the closing “Un jour... la mort”—a nearly half-hour piece that’s alternately ambient and explosive, earthy and weightless.
For all its hallucinogenic qualities, Ribeiro’s work, as you dive deeper, proves to be less of an escape than a magnification: She zooms so deep into her psyche that all its turmoil appears as stillness. Unlike some cult acts, Ribeiro’s career has continued long after these quietly influential albums. Among her later recordings are faithful covers of Edith Piaf’s songbook: music that, even at its most traditional, Ribeiro can’t help but scour for its latent mayhem. Listening back to her early work, you can hear her challenging herself to find the darkness within traditionally beautiful sounds—the horror that’s always on the other side of awe. “Calm is not of this world,” she commands in “Dingue.” “What’s the point of being calm? I want to go crazy.” It’s the legacy she created, a mantra for the legions of disquieted minds who heard themselves in her voice and howled along.