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Saga De Ragnar Lodbrock - Saga De Ragnar Lodbrock CD (album) cover


Saga De Ragnar Lodbrock


Prog Folk

3.20 | 20 ratings

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4 stars You have to be a fairly dedicated student of progressive music (or a real history buff) to have something like this in your collection. There is no band named Saga de Ragnar Lodbrock, by the way. This was a rather arduous labor of literary and theatrical love for Patrick Alliard and François Proust, a couple of French theater acquaintances who decided to turn a historical novel about the life and adventures of Ragnarr Loðbrók into a musical score. Lobrock was an eighth-century Viking who conquered the Normandy region of France and took the title of king before perishing at the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria in modern-day Britain. In reading the history of the album and subsequently the history of Ragnar Lodbrock my interest was piqued, probably in much the same way Alliard’s was when he read these tales himself more than thirty years ago. Obscure history can be as addictive as progressive music it seems.

Alliard had composed some music and put together a rough demo tape with the help of fellow musician Daniel Lysensoon in early 1977, which he and Proust presented to yet another acquaintance (Patrick van der Kempen) that autumn. With the help of Proust’s brother Oliver (an actor and stage director), François and van der Kempen expanded Alliard’s music drafts into a full-fledged epic composition, suitable for the stage with multiple scenes and both sung and spoken lyrical passages. Once complete the trio moved into the Solaris Studio of Armand Frydman, who agreed to not only allow the use of his studio but also recruited famed jazz percussionist Jean-Louis Mechali to take part in the recording sessions. The result was an eighteen-minute grandiloquent and multi-layered work which Frydman enhanced through the use of his studio’s mellotron by adding flute, strings and chamber choir sounds to produce what would become “Chants Funèbres de Ragnar Lodbrock”, the requiem dirge for Lodbrock’s death.

An historical aside here: Ragnar Lodbrock is said to have perished in primal fashion at the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria, whose lands the Viking had invaded with the intent of plundering in the early ninth- century (he must have been a pretty old yet spry Viking to be taking on such an ambitious task at that point in his life). Anyway, King Ælla is said to have thrown Lodbrock into a pit of vipers to bring about his death in a slow and painfully public fashion. Some say the Viking did not die immediately, possibly thanks to the sturdy chain-mail garments common to Viking warriors of that day, so Ælla ordered him stripped naked to allow the snakes’ venom to do its job. Two of his sons when learning of his death, swore revenge. Hingwar (Ivar the Boneless) and Hubba led the notorious Great Heathen Army to York post-haste, relatively-speaking (in the ninth century post-haste apparently meant about a year later), and sacked York before eventually capturing King Ælla and executing him by staking him face-down to the ground, slitting his back open, and pulling out his lungs between his ribs in a sort of winged fashion so that he would suffocate (aka a ‘blood eagle’ as featured not too long ago in the horror film Saw III). So you see how history can be so fascinating (check Google or your local library for answers to the next burningly obvious question, which is how Lodbrock’s son got the name ‘Ivar the Boneless’). There’s so much a guy can learn with a library card and internet access these days….

Anyway, back to the story of the music.

A second attempt at gathering the original musicians to flesh out “Chants Funèbres de Ragnar Lodbrock” into a full-length album was unsuccessful, owing mostly to the various participants all having lives and other commitments. But Frydman now owned a 16-track studio and Alliard still had a vision, so in late 1978 he, van der Kempen and the Proust brothers reconvened in Frydman’s new studio to finish the job. Mechali was no longer available, but the group managed to secure the services of an American (Kirt Rust), who happened to be in France at the time as a member of the French Zeuhl band Weidorje. So there’s your American and progressive music connections, all in one fail swoop. Avant- folk artist Jean Cohen-Solal was also convinced to stand in for these sessions to add real flute tracks instead of ones manufactured by the mellotron. Another progressive music connection there, in case you are keeping score – Cohen-Solal had released the flute ode to mysticism known as ‘Captain Tarthopom’ a few years prior to this record.

This time the recording sessions went off with few hitches and the group managed to record the remaining music that would become the preface to “Chants Funèbres de Ragnar Lodbrock” and the first five songs on the resulting album. Mitia de Gialluli, another artist who was among those in the studio providing backing vocals, carved the emblem that became the album’s cover, and the final package became album number 001 on Frydman’s Solaris label in 1979. Plans for a second album based on the battle of Roncevaux Pass, an eighth century defeat of French soldiers at the hands of Basque invaders, was eventually abandoned.

So what about the music? Well, all that background is sort of necessary to understanding this record, which is not exactly progressive music in any sense most fans would recognize. The feel of the music is quite dated, and not as in the Gods or Procol Harum or some other early prog band. I mean dated as in medieval-sounding, circa the tenth century or so which is probably when the tales Alliard wrote about first became legend. The long requiem track is quite dirge-like with heavy, somber chamber vocals (courtesy of the studio mellotron). The rest of the tracks offer serious backing vocal chants as well, but these are the real-deal, sung by various members of the cast and others who seem to have just been in the studio at the right time. The various flute, brass and piano arrangements throughout are classically- oriented and very professionally played, but again I would consider them more theatrical than progressive. And the vocals are clearly sung by men accustomed to aggrandizing voices of the sort needed to project out into an audience like in a stage play, not like those used in singing usually heard in popular music. And several passages feature spoken-word poems to augment the sung lyrics, so the overall impression is one of a recorded stage production, not a studio album.

The original release of this album was limited to 1,000 copies on vinyl and released in France. Getting your hands on one today (if you even can) would probably set you back hundreds of dollars, which unless you just really dig collecting obscure stuff would be a real waste of money. Musea reissued the album on CD in 1999, which is the one I picked up for a much more reasonable price (although even then I did have to have it imported into the United States). This version also includes seven short tracks composed and recorded by François Proust. These have nothing in particular to do with this album, but they are of the same period and are also minstrel-like stage compositions. Proust plays all the instruments and does all the singing on these, including overdubbing himself to create harmonizing on most of them. The theme of these tunes seems to be something about ancient Notre Dame or some such thing. Which brings up another note – on the Musea reissue all the lyrics are printed out, but they are also all in French, so be forewarned if you are a monolingual dullard like myself.

Like I said at the outset, this is music for very serious (and nerdy) folk music and history buffs. It is not a progressive music album in any sense most fans would recognize. So with those caveats I’m going to give it four stars as a very unique and extremely professionally produced folk offering, and recommend it only to those who find that description enticing.


ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |


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