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Alan Stivell - Chemins De Terre CD (album) cover


Alan Stivell

Prog Folk

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4 stars Chemins de Terres was also released in other countries as From Celtic Roots, Attention! (German release on Fontana with awful cover, as was the case of the other Attention! series released in that country) and Celtic Rock (strangely also released in Germany, this on on Vertigo). I can understand why Alan Stivell would be included here in Prog Archives. It's because, in his brand of Celtic folk/rock, prog rock tendencies show up, and I'm willing to bet that Dan Ar Braz was very much in to the prog rock scene, as his guitar playing is frequently in the prog style of playing. That really shows with the cover of the Irish song "Susy MacGuire". Here Stivell sings in Irish Gaeilic (how he grasps these languages outside of Breton, I can't say). The music is undeniably Celtic, but at the end is proggy electric guitar playing. "Ian Morrisson Reel" is a truly stunning Scottish reel, with great Highland bagpipe playing in a rock context, not to mention fiddle playing. This is so incredibly intense, it'll blow you away. The album states it was written by someone named P. McLeod (can't get more Scottish than that name). I have found very little info on this P. McLeod, but at least we know it's neither a traditional piece of unknown origin, nor Stivell's original composition. "She Moved Through the Fair" is one of those often covered Irish songs that everyone including Fairport Convention has covered. This one has a stronger Celtic feel than many other versions you might have heard, his harp playing is also included. It also sounded like he needed to brush on his English. Then comes "Can y Melinydd", a Welsh folk song. This is a great piece, and I really enjoy the fiddle and banjo playing. Much more recently a Welsh folk band named Carreg Lafar did a great version of it on their 1995 CD Ysbryd y Werin (a great CD of Welsh folk music, and I think they're closet prog folk fans, as a lot of the music has that tendency, even though no electric instruments were used), although it's entitled "Ton y Melinydd". The reason for Alan Stivell's international recognition: he did not concentrate exclusively on Breton folk music (since Irish folk music, for example, gets the highest exposure), because if he did, he would not be know far beyond Brittany. "Oidhche Mhainte" is a Scottish song, sung in Scottish Gaelic. Surprisingly no bagpipes here, there's a more choral feel, with piano, reminding me a bit of Welsh choir singing (choir singing is a big Welsh tradition), although of course, this is Scottish. The second half is all Breton, except for one of his own compositions. All the songs are in his native Breton, and bombarde (Breton double reed instrument), fiddle, harp, guitar, bass, and drums. "Brezhoneg 'Raok" is his self-penned piece and it ventures into hard rock territory, with lots of electric guitar work from Dan Ar Braz. "Kimiad" is the closing piece, but a little Mellotron cello actually surfaces. This is probably the only Celtic folk album I've ever heard that had the Mellotron used, although it's only on one cut.

No, Alan Stivell won't appeal to the diehard prog rock fan, and if you have little tolerance for Celtic, it's best to stay away. I have to admit I'm not big on Celtic folk (so far it's been Alan Stivell and the Welsh group Carreg Lafar that had blown me away), but a lot of his albums have convinced me, and this is one of them.

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Posted Sunday, October 10, 2010 | Review Permalink
Retired Admin
4 stars The bridge

Coming from a family that, at least on my mother's side, used original folk music as the way it was intended - as a means to communicate with each other beyond words through dancing and facial expression when you hear that particular melody that goes way back with your blood roots. As far back as I can remember, my family has always ended big get-togethers spanning from weddings to birthdays - with a traditional song where everybody stands together in a huge circle, in one big meat embrace, singing about the land and nature where we grew up. When I was smaller, I didn't understand the significance of it, even if I did sense a togetherness beyond the mundane, - but as the years roll by, I've begun to look around at these familiar faces, and especially my grandfather - and quite magically during these musical family injections, his normal rock steady face begins to quiver and journey out above the wheat fields and forests. He looses himself for a moment or so, but I'm sure he goes somewhere. That's when it struck me, even if I think that most of these people listen to god awful music - that we as humans all have something that moves rock - inspires hope in us and strengthens the brotherly love. I may not be that different after all, I just don't enjoy Hansi Hiterseer...

I get that same feel with Alan Stivell, and I can just imagine old Celtic families dancing around to a wee little ditty listening to some of the more traditional tracks on offer here. If you don't know Stivell, then imagine this musical prodigy from the 19th century suddenly stepping into a time-machine - ending up in the 70s with all these long haired musical pioneers - searching back and forth in time and history for something special, unique - something that touches the soul. Alan shows them what he can do with the Celtic harp, which he has been playing since the age of 9 - and by a strange touch of faith, a truly stunning meeting of new and old takes place. Stivell actually means source, and when you listen to this record - you quickly realise why. Dulcimers, banjo, fiddle, all kinds of acoustic guitars - that beautiful otherworldly harp as well as something I'd never ever dream of infusing in a rock setting, had I not heard Korn actually, which is the bagpipes. All of this creates original Celtic folk music - yet somehow that's not entirely what it's all about. Just like ELP were about bringing the classical world into the rock n' roll - you too have that same sense of fusion here. There's electric guitars and bubbly organs - shining through in the midst of things, emanating a certain psychedelic rock attitude, - as well as sprucing up the endemic folky atmospheres with a modern peep into the start of the 70s, where everything was a-go. It was indeed a time of magic - finding out what musics could be glued together to form some kind of new and enticing cohesive whole.

Alan Stivell's voice is something that deserves a paragraph for itself. Like a twitching baby bird in the morning sun - a frail piece of organic mater, his voice shakes and trembles without ever becoming whiny or depressive. This man pushes forth sentences like setting small paper ships to sea in a puddle. They fit so beautifully with the harp - hitting those same kinds of intimate heights - oozing heartfelt warmth.

There are moments on this album that make my skin crawl like a welcoming rush of young baby caterpillars climbing my torso. It's beauty like crystal, though never as sterile and clear - it is folk music with heart and soul - something dug straight out of the ground like a pound of potatoes - something familiar and old. The last track for example uses bag pipes in a way that stretches the imagination - and serves up something entirely different than all those burial scenes you get in Hollywood flicks - though a thousand times more gripping and essential - essential in a manner that makes you think you're from Ireland or Scotland and have fought with William Wallace, but in a modern war where you afterwards went out drinking beers and listened to blues whilst dancing, twirling and yelling profanities in the street. This music bridges time itself - brick by brick - all the way back to the original Celtic tradition - straight up to the electric guitar and all of the fire it brought with it.

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Posted Wednesday, July 4, 2012 | Review Permalink
4 stars 12.5/15P. Hands down, this record which is actually buried in oblivion, features about 30 minutes of pure magic - electric folk of its finest kind and not a bit less majestic and unique as the critically acclaimed work of Steeleye Span and others. And the remaining 10 minutes are absolutely good, too!

I got this album when I didn't have a clue what Celtic folk was actually about. You cannot imagine how amazed I was when I dug that one out after having falling in love with all the electric folk stuff from the UK. And it's today I found out that Dan Ar Bras (later of Fairport Convention) and the Yacoub siblings (of Malicorne) contributed to that album as well.

The farewell song Kimiad is just an experience of its own. I'm a big fan of Steeleye Span's Saucy Sailor, but this one tops it for me. There's Alan Stivell's gravelly voice, the fluent acoustic guitar picking, the majestic wailing of the bagpipes, the sad and low-key rolling of the percussion - and an extended mournful Mellotron cello counterpoint (at 1:50) lamenting underneath this overwhelming piece of beauty. Kimiad actually is a Breton farewell song, and every departing man or soul who is released to these sounds may be envied - it's really that good. The brief Oidhche Mhaith isn't a tad less fascinating, but restricts itself to the swirling backing of Alan Stivell's harp and Pascal Stive's Hammond organ. Marie Yacoub, a gorgeous folk singer who was sadly underused on Malicorne's debut album, is one of a bigger bunch of backing voices, but is easily distinguishable. The moment when the Hammond organ enters is proof against everyone who believes that folk music and electronic instruments don't belong together.

In spite of Stivell's thick accent, or maybe even because of it, She Moves Through The Fair is my favorite interpretation of that English ballad, which is surely the best-known tune on this album. The harp spins relentlessly around the calm drone of the bagpipes in the second half of the song, at some places the acoustic guitar takes over the job of swirling around without me actually realising the change in instrumentation, and who would have thought that adding some distant tablas to the instrumental playout of the track could be so effective? Usually, tablas on folk records annoy me (Steve Ashley's Stroll On is an exception), but this is simply perfect. An Hani A Garan is another ballad which falls into the category of the previously mentioned songs, but adds an icy three-part tin whistle (or 'pipe', as Morris men mayhap would put it) arrangement which takes over the lead in the last minute of the song. A treat!

But some of the recordings on this album drive the folk rock approach even further. The most radical and hard-rocking one is the Ian Morrison Reel, a blasting piece of folk'n'roll with a marvellous fiddle tone and more bagpipes rushing away on a tight rhythm of drums, bass and electric guitar. Check out the early albums by the Scottish band Run Rig, too, if you're into this particular kind of folk rock. Brezhoneg Raok (I think this means 'Breton Rock' in English) is a rock number composed by Stivell, and although it's got hardly any relation to folk music it suits the rest of the album fine. Some might call Dan Ar Bras' electric guitar tone a bit murky, but I get on with it really well since he doesn't dominate the songs and because what he plays is really good - fuzzy dual lead guitars, some theatralic string bends and jazzy flourishes. And most importantly the rhythm section isn't just another copy of Dave Mattacks et al., but a machinery of its own, as the weird but successful Celtic/jazz fusion mix-up of Metig reveals. This piece moves from spacy Hammond organ carpets beyond a dance part with some wordless singing to some military drum rolls before entering into a swinging band coda. Utterly enjoyable music, and this applies to all of the aforementioned tracks!

The three pieces which are 'only' in the 4-star realms are An Dro Nevez, Can Y Melinydd and Maro Ma Mestrez. The first one is a jig type of piece floating away on a laid-back band groove, bagpipes and fiddle taking the lead and mountain dulcimer and a slightly funky electric guitar in the background; it's just a wee bit too long for its own sake with the same melody being repeated over and over again. Can Y Melinydd, with - as it seems - dual lead vocals by Alan Stivell and Gabriel Yacoub and Yacoub's sister on spoons, is a pretty upbeat song led by banjo and twisted bass lines. Maro Ma Mestrez turns out to be more psychedelic again although the first verses - sung a capella - actually promise a more traditionalist rendition of this tune. It's a spacy lead guitar and, again, the Hammond organ which finally turn the cards during the second half of the song.

This leaves us with the opener Suzy MacGuire, which is one of the rare examples in which true psychedelia and folk music touch each other at the right place, creating something really groundbreaking altogether. In the very beginning there's only Alan Stivell and a muted drum, but then the dulcimer enters the fold and propels the song further on until Stivell's reedy harmonium adds a grievous note to the song. In the end you find crashing cymbals, swirling harps and wayward piano vamps turn around a reverberated electric guitar solo. A real piece of genius again!

First of all - this album brought the tentative ideas of the French electric folk group Malicorne to perfection. They were much too diffident and stubbornly traditional on their very first album which came out at around the same time (although the magic La Pernette makes a difference). Chemins De Terre is among the real classics of the seemingly inexhaustible folk genre and, as other reviews have already stated, manages to create that special connection between you (as the listener) and the earth you stand on - at least if you want to. If you have the chance to visit the countries where this kind of music comes from, be it Ireland, France, Scotland, England or maybe even parts of Germany - use your time to empathise with the country and the music. This album is the perfect soundtrack for a day at the sea. As well it is a suitable addition to the collection of anyone who has at least some relation to folk music.

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Posted Wednesday, October 31, 2012 | Review Permalink
Prog-Folk Team
5 stars "Chemins de Terre" celebrates a raunchy wedding between Celtic and Rock and roll music. While at times violent culture clashes occur between the in-laws, ultimately they all fall into bed together in a happy heap in the wee hours. Alan Stivell, who had already produced several groundbreaking disks by this time, with his adept fingers and old soul vocals blew this tsunami over the Celtic world. If he didn't quite launch the careers of DAN AR BRAZ and GABRIEL YACOUB, both of whom play prominent roles on "Chemin de Terre", he certainly changed their courses. In the meantime, in Nantes, TRI YANN were taking note, and, in waves across the channel, bands like STEELEYE SPAN, HORSLIPS and PLANXTY were under the spell as well.

Offering a seamless blend of the traditional and original with the raucous and the ethereal, STIVELL offers a varied assortment of instrumentals and songs that never drag. Fiddles, harps and pipes are all predominant but so are the more traditionally rock instruments and even a touch of mellotron strings on the closing number. The alternative currents running through this subversive recording do not seem contrived in the least, even though it's clear what Stivell was trying to do, and he certainly didn't try to hide it, which is perhaps part of its charm.

It's a little difficult for me to pick the now oft covered traditional songs as highlights even though "Suzy MacGuire" seems to have captured the primordial atmosphere in its grooves. For me, the album peaks on the gorgeous but brief Scottish song "Oidche Mhaith" with Stivell largely unaccompanied on voice and harp, slowly brought to term by organ; the breathless pipe led instrumental "An Dro Nevez" and its banjo and rhythm and lead guitar layers; and the mournful Acapella "Maro Ma Mestrez". I'll also add the lovely "An Hani a Garan" which which combines the sensitivity of "Reflets" with plucking reminiscent of "Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique". But nothing here is remotely superfluous, even if some prog fans may balk at the predominance of traditional instrumentation.

While Stivell has enjoyed a charmed career by any yardstick, and his "Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique" remains perhaps his best known, "Chemins de Terre" represents arguably his most significant contribution to Celtic Rock as a thriving genre, and the endearing subset of those earthy folk we classify as prog.

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Posted Monday, December 25, 2017 | Review Permalink
Heavy Prog & JR/F/Canterbury Teams
4 stars Alan breaks out of his gentler rock-infused presentations of traditional Celtic (Breton) folk music to issue full-on rock renditions of classic Breton folk tunes.

1. "Susy Mac Guire" (3:35) What sounds like a kind of modernized version of an old folk song suddenly turns rock with the introduction of a lead electric guitar in the final minute after Alan has stopped singing. Not a fan but I have to admit that it doesn't exactly ruin what was a nice Prog Folk song. (8.75/10)

2. "Ian Morrison Reel" (4:09) a very rock-ified version of an old Celtic reel. Smooth but not really a fan.(8.5/10)

3. "She Moved Through The Fair" (4:13) a more gentle though still electrified rendering of this classic Celtic tune. Nice. Great singing. Kind of a JOHN MARTYN sound and feel. I love the harp work. A top three song for me. (9/10)

4. "Can Y Melinydd" (1:59) flat and dull. (4/5)

5. "Oidhche Mhait" (1:53) great more-traditional rendering. Love the vocal work. The organ is nice, too. (4.4/5)

6. "An Dro Nevez" (3:45) fiddles dominate the opening before rest of the pagan music ensemble joins in, but then drums and electric bass join in and make it a rock song. (Nice bass play; drums are fair.) Strumming rhythm electric rhythm guitar joins in for the next. Then banjo while the electric guitar starts infusing some lead licks here and there. A completely instrumental song, the weave is most successful when drums and electric guitars stay out (though the guitar becomes respectfully distant [muted] in the final minute].) (8.75/10)

7. "Maro Ma Mestrez" (3:08) an a cappella song sung in what sounds like an Arabic (or Gypsy) tongue. (Is this Breton/Breizh?) It does sound familiar from all of the SEVEN REIZH albums I've collected. (8.75/10)

8. "Brezhoneg' Raok" (3:08) what starts out sounding like an Ian Anderson-led JETHRO TULL rock song turns into an outright LYNYRD SKYNYRD jam as multiple instrumentalists solo each for all the attention and glory over the final minute and a half. I don't know why I feel as if I'm betraying someone or something, but I'm ending up loving this! (Bassist Dan Ar Bras is really good!) (8.875/10)

9. "An Hani A Garan" (4:11) another great acoustic folk weave over which the lead singer seems to dive into another foreign (non-French, non-Gaelic) language. It is, admittedly, quite beautiful--even heart-wrenching. A top three song. (9.333/10)

10. "Metig" (4:07) swirling organ rises and is then joined by male vocal and then male chorus vocals in antiphonal support but then at the very end of the first minute violin introduces the rest of the band--a real ensemble of troubadours (using hand drums instead of drums). At 1:49 searing electric guitar joins in ejaculating intermittent lines to mimic/mirror the violin. Machine gun like snare drum and Scottish drum work also join in, taking the fore for a bit before the whole ensemble bursts into song together. It is interesting and kind of works. (8.66667/10)

11. "Kimiad" (3:34) a distant parade of bagpipes seems to move in the background behind the warm, intimate gentle picking of an acoustic guitar (or two). Male lead singer enters at the end of the first minute to sing a plaintive tale of woe in a low tone, within the mix, for the rest of the beautiful song. (8.875/10)

Total time 37:52

I have to admit to being quite resistant to the rock-roided versions of old classics (or even modern-sounding new compositions/variations of Celtic themes). It's kind of the same effect/reaction I've always had to Keith Emerson's rock treatment of classical pieces. But I have to give Alan credit: here, on Chemins de terre, Alan and company have made them work. Plus, he's incorporated enough respectfully more-traditional versions of the Celtic fare to allow me to slowly get used to the more aggressive rock versions or applications.

The Yacoubs broke away from Alan and produced two albums in the next year (Pierre de Grenoble and the Malicorne debut). The choice of the Yacoubs to collect and render songs from the greater French traditions instead of Bretonese songs leads me to believe that they were inspired by Alan but chose (perhaps out of respect for Alan) to stay out of Alan's territory--a commitment Malicorne would remain steadfast to for the band's duration.

B/four stars; an excellent excursion into Prog Folk's rock side, something every prog lover should hear (though not all will necessarily like). If you like the folkier side of Jethro Tull, you'll probably like this.

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Posted Saturday, March 7, 2020 | Review Permalink

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