France’s Art Zoyd, the long-running music collective who has been granted a gloriously comprehensive career overview, are something of a musical anomaly. While often instrumentally akin to progressive rock, the music itself transcends such easy, overly-simplistic classification. Over the course of 12 CDs and two DVDs, 44 ½: Live & Unreleased Works shows the group to be an amorphous, musically fluid core of ideas that encompasses and touches upon everything from psychedelia to collective free improvisation to film scores to minimalism and other forms of modern classical music. So broad is their creative range that to label them merely “progressive” would be almost an insult – an oversimplification of something far grander than even the most ambitious of progressive acts.

Originally formed in 1969, Art Zoyd would not truly come into its own until the mid-‘70s. It’s no coincidence that 44 ½ picks up the narrative thread in 1974 and continues all the way through to their 2015 performance at the Rock in Opposition Festival in France – one richly captured over the course of nearly two hours on the collection’s first DVD. It’s fitting that this command performance would take place as part of the Rock in Opposition movement they helped found along with groups like Henry Cow, Aksak Maboul, Stormy Six and Art Bears. The Rock in Opposition movement started as a collective of like-minded musicians with progressive musical sensibilities whose music was largely ignored by the music industry. While Art Zoyd did not performance at the inaugural Rock in Opposition Festival in 1978, they could certainly ascribe to its claim of presenting “rock groups the record companies don’t want you to hear.”

With Cuneiform’s definitive Art Zoyd release, this particular tagline is rendered null and void as 44 ½ offers all of the Art Zoyd you could ever hope to hear and then some. At 12 discs (plus two DVDs), the collection is a daunting body of work to approach. With the group’s ever-shifting musical sensibilities, it becomes nearly impossible to neatly summarize the box set, let alone the group as a whole in any of the eras represented here. Furthermore, the constantly shifting lineups helps to ensure a range of sounds and styles indicative of the instrumentalists in the group at the time.

That said, the core group of Thierry Zaboitzeff (bass/cello), Jean-Pierre Soarez (trumpet), Patricia Diallo (keyboards) and Gérard Hourbette, (violin/keyboard) is present throughout, lending even those performances separated by decades and countless personnel changes an aesthetic and ideological through line. And indeed, Art Zoyd is very much its own beast in terms of its artistic sensibilities. “Tone Reverse,” composed by Hourbette and taken from a live performance in 2000 is an art-damaged nightmare of competing and contrasting tones and melodic and rhythmic ideals. Sounding at once free and intricately structured, it shows the group to be more in-line with a progressive, modern classical sound than anything even remotely rock oriented.

Zaboitzeff’s “A Drum a Drum” is an industrial mélange of sounds and textures that clatter and rumble their way through the track, occasionally giving way to sinister sounding minimalist hisses and whines that will in turn explode into a sort of mutant big band wailing trumpet, guttural vocal growls and Wayne Shorter-circa-Weather-Report-esque sax lines. It’s a whiplash-inducing series of stylistic shifts indicative of the Art Zoyd aesthetic, here captured in one single – albeit 20-minutes plus – piece. And while this may sound off-putting to some in theory, in practice it provides an exhilarating listening experience.

Of the 12 CDs 44 ½ has to offer, eight are devoted solely to live performances, all of which are arranged aesthetically rather than chronologically, while the remaining four are chock full of unreleased recordings, demos and outtakes. To single out any one particular track or period would be to sell short the entire almost 16-hour listening experience. That said, given the nature of the collection’s assemblage, listeners can drop in anywhere and find themselves transported to entirely new worlds of sonic exploration. It’s an insane amount of material, but those with an open mind and an adventurous ear will find themselves enthralled for the better part of a day.

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