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Conventum - Le Bureau Central des Utopies CD (album) cover




Prog Folk

3.94 | 32 ratings

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4 stars A musical "Greek chorus" and prog-folk classic.

Conventum were a collective of musicians from the Quebecois scene of the late 1970s. This was the second and final of their two proper albums and it is a monster. I cannot thank the esteemed Shakes (our Josh) for turning an old dog on to this new trick with his amazing review, especially motivating was his closing line where he says he pities the ears that die before digesting this masterpiece. Since death can arrive at any moment for any of us I figured I'd best take Shakes' advice to heart and pick this up. It is truly amazing that on websites like this one where so much time and space are given to discussing the PTs, DTs, and SBs of the world that artists like Conventum, Pererin, Ripaille, and even Harmonium largely fly under the radar. Nothing against the big artists as they have done some fine work, yet it's a shame that the balance of attention is so skewed by image, promotion, and let's face it, market forces over and above the art and soul of music. Nothing new of course and yet tragic it is. I mention those artists above with Conventum not because they sound alike but because they are in the same universe of both genre fans and quality. To go wider still I would have to include fans of groups like Oregon and Gryphon in the group of people that need to check out Conventum.

Often described as "avant-folk" the band in reality just plays very complex chamber-folk music, or acoustic music with classical and some avant-garde and jazz leanings. To use one of those nonsensical blender descriptions think perhaps of a French flavored and largely vocal free Gentle Giant mixed with Fripp's League of Crafty Guitarists mixed with Gatto Marte. With a chaser of Stormy Six on the side. The primary instruments are acoustic guitars and violin augmented with bass, both acoustic and electric, mandolin, flute, e-guitar and occasional percussion. There are a few vocals but the album is largely instrumental. The playing is aggressive and yet beautiful, it can be light and folky at times, fiery and fusiony at other times. The material is very well considered and arranged and yet able to give the illusion of chaos, these contradictions almost always a sign of mature and talented musicians. "Le reel des elections" pits acoustic versus violin with spectacular bass commentary in one of the more traditional feeling songs. "Ateliers" features guest Jean Derome stretching out some marvelous flute passages against the guitar and violin backdrop, beautiful but not altogether serene. Conventum is not as pretty as other similar artists. There is a good deal of tension and "edge" in the ferocity of the playing. "Foundation" is another good example of this with tense violin and sprightly mandolin "dancing." It builds along with some terse bass playing to a fevered pitch before they pull out a succinctly crafted ending. A highlight among highlights is the stunning "Choregraphie lunaire" which features some electric guitar work from Rene Lussier. At over 8 minutes it is one of the two impressive longer tracks we are treated to. Lussier paints pure atmosphere here along with Cormier's violin. When his electric guitar finally emerges from the dream about halfway through, it is something else. Others have mentioned a Crimson guitar sound as a reference point but I will say it also sounds a bit Oldfield. "La belle apparence" reminds me of the first Harmonium album just a bit, lively with a bit of drum thrown in and like the first track somewhat traditional. "Fanfare" shifts gears completely, the guitar and bass rhythmically playing a trance-like bit while the violin goes just ape-sh*t over the top, quite intense again. "Trois petits pas" is one of the calmer tracks on the album with some beautiful violin over acoustic and mellow electric guitar, a nice moody piece. "Le reel a mains" uses handclaps and sound effects along with the energetic fiddling to create a footstomping jig. The title track is last and it clocks in at over 10 minutes. Elaborate, rich, tense.some of the adjectives coming to mind as I listen to this unfold. This song has some vocals which don't amount to much and they don't need to. The electric guitar does some harmonizing with the violin though it stays restrained letting the strings lead. Eventually it cuts loose and treats us to a lead sounding unique because it's fiery but without distortion. Good closer. The first bonus track "Le pays du bruit" is a live track, mostly spoken, that sounds like some hilarious theater. The second bonus track was their last recorded work a few years later, "Le commerce nostalique" which features more electric instruments and a full band sound. It's great and a tantalizing tease of what might have been had there been a full album at that time.

As a veteran guitar player in many Friday night basement jam bands over the years I know a thing or three about noodling. Conventum music is not noodling. It is highly conversational material where the musicians are both listening and speaking musical dialog. Listening to the dialog is fantastic and never gets boring in the way that some "jam" bands, acoustic or otherwise, occasionally are. I like to condense good descriptions of a band's sound from other perspectives when possible. One of the finest insights into the essence of the Conventum sound is from Progressive Ear's "maribor" who writes "the album is characterized by plenty of acoustic guitar from both guitarists. On top of that there is great violin playing and electric guitar, with the bass a bit lower in the mix....Bernard Cormier must be one of the most underrated violinists I have ever heard. Sometimes he plays in a purely folk style but he occasionally effortlessly switches to a style almost classical in nature. The acoustic guitar passages are very tasty but used mostly to supply the basic melody. It's the violin that seems in charge." [maribor] He goes on to write later that the only thing that could make this album even better might be some keyboards and I would agree that a bit of piano in places would be heavenly.

Conventum is so challenging and intellectually satisfying that I would also like to make sure this gets recommended to RIO/Avant genre fans. I do believe many of you would love this as would a wide swath of prog fans across this site. ProgQuebec has done an outstanding job on the reissue which features good sound and a booklet with a nice history and photos. Much of the text is in French but there is a brief English portion. The large center photograph shows the band relaxing in the home where they recorded this classic in 1979. It's a great photograph and looking at it while listening to this wonderful music makes me wish I could have been a guest during the sessions and soaked in the scene. Occasionally the young people at PA get knocked around a bit in the forums and sometimes they do have it coming. But we also have some very insightful and smart kids here-I was turned on to this obscure, amazing band by a 15 year old kid. When I was 15 I was on a strictly Jimmy/Angus listening diet. So when I can get a pick like this from our teen contingent around here it gives me great hope about the future of our collective musical taste! Thanks Shakes!

Finnforest | 4/5 |


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