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Harmonium - Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison CD (album) cover




Prog Folk

4.35 | 1349 ratings

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5 stars Warning - There Be (Spectacular) Hippy Music Here

Harmonium's Si On Avait Besoin D'Une Cinquieme Saison ("If We Needed a Fifth Season") extremely high marks on the PA charts have raised some eyebrows over time. Certainly, the album is much more a folk album than a rock album, and its flowery hippy music vibe is just not going to appeal to all tastes. One could argue that if this album were in the Prog Folk category, people would understand it in context a bit better. That is, this album has more in common with Strawbs, Pentangle, or some RPI music than Yes or King Crimson. (There are some occasional similarities to Genesis.) The band started as a French Folk trio, and the dominant instrument is the acoustic guitar. The vocals are gentle and melodic in a very accessible way. It is not surprising that fans coming from a heavier (even Tull) background are not going to appreciate what a colossal achievement this album is.

I've personally spent more time playing late 60's, early 70's folk influenced hippy music than probably any other genre, and I can say that this album is one of the most musically lush and fully developed pieces out there. What's more, the recording and production are among the best ever created in the genre. The mix is overwhelmingly full on headphones, yet perfectly balanced. The stereo field is used to great effect, each instrument having a place in a soundscape that one can simply fall into. The guitar sounds are shimmery with just the right echo, not unlike Jimmy Page's on "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You." In fact, the soloing on "Depuis L'Automne" is quite reminiscent of the Led Zep track during the center section. But where Zeppelin kept the texture fairly even with a repeated heavy break, Harmonium uses a more composed, evolving style on this semi-epic that ends in an almost sing-along chorus with a soaring melody.

While this album is unmistakably beautiful (it's perhaps the only prog album my wife actually enjoys) the band's use of texture and occasional dissonance are far from easy-to-digest campfire fare. The instrumental sections are composed pieces utilizing several instruments with interweaving lines, never mindless noodling. There are a few jazz-tinged solos but the level of taste and build make me think these are only semi-improvised. The wind instruments (sax and flute) and keys are, again, composed pieces of a whole, never showcases for the player.

The album itself has a definite sense of pacing, as it is a concept album of 5 seasons (Spring through winter, and a fifth imagined season). The first song invites the listener in, presenting a bright folk song with added texture than is the folk-rock norm, but not yet demanding a lot in return. The second tune is a New Orleans jazz inspired number intended to represent the playfulness of summer. In that intention it succeeds perfectly. It is great fun, an enjoyable listen. It is also the least memorable track in the end. The aforementioned track for autumn is perhaps my favorite, the first extended piece that really covers a wide degree of emotional territory. Winter starts with a dissonant keyboard before opening into a sad, plaintive song with dramatic dynamics.

The climax is the extended "Histories Sans Paroles," "Stories without Words." The 17-minute epic builds layer upon layer to produce a pastoral soundscape reminiscent of Genesis, Anglagard, or even some Opeth. By far the most classically progressive song on the album, it relies on mellotron, flute, complex piano lines, selective dissonance, quirky layering, and effective dynamics to create a masterpiece that should delight the prog fan of virtually any background. This is the payoff and what a payoff it is. The only vocal enters at around 8:00, a new female voice without lyrics that is used as yet another layer rather than a lead instrument. The melodic figures evolve and bounce among instruments, the mix thickens and becomes sparse, flowing in waves of emotion. It would not be unreasonable to use this track to explain to a newcomer what prog was all about.

It takes quite a few listens to actually appreciate the compositional excellence, both within each song, and between songs as they evolve the concept album as a whole. The fact that an album that is essentially without lyrics for non-French speakers like myself still functions so well as a concept album is a testament to its genius. Unlike superficially difficult music that announces from the first note that it's going to take some work to finally "get it" (hello CTTE) this album is so beautiful that it is easy to not put the same kind of effort one puts into, say, Larks Tongues in Aspic. This would be a shame, for this album has at least as much going on musically as that classically challenging masterpiece.

So the common question of "why the high ratings?" I think has two answers. Either a listener simply does not have a taste for folky-hippy music, or they've been lulled into not digging deeply into the album. Despite already having listened to this album many times, the extra more critical spins for this review have actually increased my appreciation of the album rather than burning me out. It deserves its place in the upper reaches of the PA charts. Enjoy this album which I'm glad my fellows chose for my 100th review.

Negoba | 5/5 |


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