French electronica artist College, otherwise known as David Grellier, became known following the release of the brilliant Nicolas Winding Refn film Drive in 2011. Much of the film’s success was as owed to its phenomenal ’80s electropop soundtrack, which included the throbbing synths of College’s A Real Hero. The song could not have been more suited to the stylish film, and the recognition led to the upper echelons of the French charts.
Grellier, who is also involved in electro collective Valerie, has always strived to create feelings of nostalgia with his synth music, focusing on sounds influenced by American 1980s pop culture. It is for this reason that A Real Hero felt so perfect for Drive. This emphasis on nostalgic sounds is something that was also integral to College’s previous two albums, 2008’s Secret Diary and 2011’s Northern Council.
And it remains the case on third album Heritage – as demonstrated by the title. Speaking about the concept behind his new record, Grellier spoke of the memories that came flooding back when he found some old sketches that he had drawn as an imaginative child. It’s an appropriate image to hold on to when listening to Heritage, which often veers towards the fantastical with its sprawling new wave synths.
The title track begins proceedings with foreboding rumbling synths, which slowly and gradually escalate towards the climax, before fading away at the end. The song leads straight into the reverberating beats of Depart, where occasional slices of out-of-this-world synths evoke images of galaxies far away. The influence of sci-fi is clearly prevalent throughout the record and is something Grellier acknowledged when talking about Heritage.
When speaking about finding his old childhood sketches, he said: “I realised then the fascination that works like ‘Starwatcher’ had exerted over me and how formative French Science Fiction had been in the way I compose music.” Interestingly, this realisation has led to Grellier fully realising his sci-fi roots, with tracks such as the mystical and spooky Tempete Magnetique far more purposeful than previous releases by College.
Following the success of A Real Hero, it would have been easy for Grellier to make an album more accessible to those who enjoyed the Drive soundtrack. Instead, he has stuck to his guns and even delved further into the introverted world that his music so often embodies. In fact, there is nothing on Heritage that verges on the more pop-orientated aesthetic that has made fellow French producer Anthony Gonzalez so successful with his band M83.
Frontiere is a particularly dark and brooding highlight, with its icy darts of synths as unwelcoming as A Real Hero’s swelling synths were comforting. It feels almost like Grellier is soundtracking the proceedings of a battle in space, something further emphasised by the sparse, but nevertheless affecting, Peige, which bubbles under the surface like a predator stalking its prey – albeit, without ever going in for the kill.
As the album nears its conclusion, things begin to become more tangled and some of the early tension does start to wane. Alter Ego sounds hugely indebted to video games from the ’80s, with its ticking, light-hearted synths almost an invitation for Pac-Man to come rushing in. While the rampaging synths of Un Long Sommeil are another highlight, the dreamy Revelation and rather irritating Le Choix unfortunately are unable to continue the momentum.
However, the album does recover on final track Nouveau Chapitre – something of a fitting tribute to A Real Hero – with its prominent bass line and addictive synths reminiscent of Grellier’s best work. It’s a suitable way to conclude an album that, for the most part, is an impressive return from an artist dealing with a new sort of expectation. It’s by no means perfect and it does feel slightly one-paced, but the layers of Heritage are undoubtedly worth unravelling.