If you claim past or present membership in the Flat Earth Society, you could have been part of a youthful psychedelic pop band in Boston during the '60s, or perhaps you feel that gravity, manned flight to the Moon, and the state of Idaho are all part of a vast conspiracy to conceal the truth of humankind's true place at the center of creation. Then again, maybe you're part of an adventurous avant-garde big band from Belgium, particularly that part of Belgium that has historically been known as Flanders. The topography of the Flemish land is about as far from rugged alpine terrain as one can get, and is truly flat earth of the most literal kind. But some particularly unruly music, with many jagged peaks and deep valleys, has sprouted from this part of the world. With a bit of support from the Flemish government (which recognizes a good thing when it hears it), the Flat Earth Society have emerged as one of the most exciting big bands to launch from European terra firma during the late '90s and 2000s. And perhaps to avoid confusion with any group -- musical or otherwise -- that might argue against the concept that our planet is spherical, the members of this Flat Earth Society often identify themselves simply as FES. Before founding FES in December 1998, bandleader Peter Vermeersch was probably best known as the leader of X-Legged Sally, an avant-garde jazz-rock band with a taste for tight horn arrangements, driving rhythms, memorable hooks, hot improvisations, and Zappa-influenced compositional complexity. Vermeersch also took XLS in some rather arty directions during the '90s, and his own personal projects have tended to skew in a decidedly avant-garde direction. With FES, it appears that Vermeersch wishes to strike a balance, not abandoning experimentalism, but rather incorporating his exploratory tendencies into a big-band jazz framework that pretty much anybody could enjoy. This is reflected by the band's choice of cover material by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Godley & Creme to the Residents, not to mention Vermeersch's own composition of the soundtrack to a children's film about a woman who sips a mystery potion and changes into a cat. The first FES concerts were held in Ghent and Brussels in February 1999, followed by a live broadcast on Belgian National Radio (Radio 1); eight songs from the broadcast were released on a Viakra label EP entitled Live at the Beursschouwburg in January 2000. In January 2001, the band's first full-length CD, Bonk, was released on the Zonk label. Later that year, FES toured with Josse De Pauw's theater play Larf and released a CD recorded at a live performance of the play in Bruges, and 2002 saw the release of Minoes, the soundtrack recording of the aforementioned feline film for children. Next came Trap, followed by The Armstrong Mutations in 2003. These recordings (all on the Zonk label) feature noteworthy performances by an 18-member ensemble that includes a handful of former XLS members (Bart Maris, Michel Mast, Peter Vandenberghe, Danny Van Hoeck), Think of One guitarist David Bovée, and engaging vocalist/accordionist Anja Kowalski, who is adept singing material ranging from "What a Wonderful World" to "The Electrocutioner" to "Servus Sagt die Schöne Stadt der Lieder." In the States, it has been difficult to acquire FES CDs, but that appears to be changing. In 2004 news came of a planned collaboration with American pianist/composer/conceptualist Uri Caine and the 2004 stateside release of a Isms -- featuring 19 tracks from previous FES albums and unreleased material -- on Mike Patton's Ipecac Records. Making the move to Belgium's own Crammed Discs label (whose releases are distributed in the U.S. by Ryko), FES released Psychoscout in 2006 and Cheer Me, Perverts! in 2009, the latter including former XLS guitarist Pierre Vervloesem in the band's lineup. One hopes that Flat Earth Society will continue to gain a larger audience outside their topographically challenged corner of Europe, acquainting jazz and creative music fans in other parts of the world with the group's earth-shaking sounds. ~ Dave LynchPortions of Content Provided by Rovi Corporation.
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