Progarchives, the progressive rock ultimate discography
Harmonium - L'Heptade CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.10 | 312 ratings

From, the ultimate progressive rock music website

Prog Reviewer
4 stars 13/15P. Harmonium's magnum opus. Compared to this, Si On Avait Besoin d'une Cinquième Saison pales quite a lot - in spite of the considerable lack of mellotronic action.

Maybe you need to have sit through folk ballads with more than 20 stanzas to be sufficiently prepared for L'Heptade. Maybe you have to love 12-string guitars and keyboard soundscapes as much as me to be mesmerized throughout the whole two discs. I don't know the actual reason for my huge sympathy for this album, an album situated (just like England's Garden Shed) quite uncomfortably in the years between the classic sympho-prog era and the earliest ventures into neo-prog. Usually I get cynical when bands present me ambitious mixtures of operatic and orchestral stuff, of easy-listening jazz and pop and chanson and whatever. But when I listen to this album I'm able to excuse the lengthy academic piano études, the well-behaved woodwind melodies, the orchestra parts and the female backing voices. And I don't simply tolerate them - more and more I start to really relish these fairly huge arrangements, which are stylistic devices which give this record the glossy finish which it definitely deserves.

1973 brought up Harmonium's energetically jubilant song Un Musicien Parmi Tant D'Autres which, without any doubt, was a first big masterpiece. The politocritical and lavishly floating Depuis L'Automne from Les Cinq Saisons was a grand piece, as well. But somehow the Saisons album, actually dealing with a coherent cycle of natural stages, turned out too uneven for me to be able to appreciate it as an entity. Good songs per se, but a bit of a mess when taken as a 'concept album' of sorts.

Many reviews criticise that L'Heptade is blatantly overlong, suffering from songs which need too much to time to get going, let down by instrumental filler interludes and similar means to use the precious vinyl resources efficiently. For the second LP this argument is justifiable - I experience it differently, but I see the point in this opinion. But on the first LP Fiori et al somehow seem not to know where exactly to put all those great and inspired melodies. The band jumps between lots and lots of different song fragments in just one piece - but they always manage to stick these parts together again. During Comme un Fou, for instance, you'll find the main musical anchor in a *heavenly* Moog melody with a full band backing, including great drum work and Serge Fiori on a lovely 12-string electric guitar. (It's no Rickenbacker, but seemingly a Fender XII, so rather expect tight'n'simple chord textures à la Pye Hastings (Caravan) than a Byrdish jangle.) Definitely you wouldn't expect such a part to creep out of a song which starts with laid-back jazz guitar strumming, just like a genuine French chanson with lots of add9-chords. This song, by the way, is the only one which fully features Michel Normandeau as a guitarist - he left during the album sessions. The chanson, as a musical genre, maybe appears to be an uncommon component of progressive rock music to most people. French stylings, a certain amount of retro associations, love balladry, maybe even an accordeon somewhere - the chanson is widely known as (maybe slightly jazzy) feel-good music which is gladly used time and again by record company functionaries to give songs a pseudo-emotional component. Today, eclecticism means that you take superficial glances at different (mostly 'retro') genres, use them merely as effects in modern productions and sell them as a total innovation. Especially against this background Serge Fiori's take on chansons is incredibly inspiring. His songwriting is firmly rooted in folk music, but augmented by these wide-ranging harmonic patterns which might well be an expression of the Francocanadian culture: surely influenced by American multiculturalism, but firmly rooted in the French culture and its language. This - along with the typical chord progressions, the occasional clarinet solos and the other jazz allusions on this album - might be pretty unusual for some listeners, but Fiori fills these structural frames with lots of feelable emotions - and great melodies. The chanson concept really works pretty well in the context of pastoral folk music and progressive rock - even were it only for the jazzy chord cadenzas which allow a lot of exciting improvisational interplay, such as in the first groovy part of Chanson Noire with the busy work on flute and electric piano. Supertramp might be one popular band which comes fairly close to this in terms of arrangement; Caravan - who were quite fond of those relaxed bossa-nova-style shuffles - as well.

The music on L'Heptade does ebb away at some time, yes. But, strangely, I don't feel any dissatisfaction about that. This kind of music invites you to let yourself take away, sometimes into varied sonic landscapes, sometimes on a mountain in mist, on which you might see nothing, but still perceive a lot - some moments, like the extended keyboard carpets of Le Corridor, for example, which appear after the brief Fender Rhodes ballad sung by Monique Fauteux, are beautiful in their monotony. Others, like the delicately arranged L'Exil, are radically slow. But the lamenting first part is pure melancholy to the core and always leaves me in awe, it shines in the fragile sophistication of the arrangement with some of the best (and best-produced) 12-string guitar playing I have ever heard, just to end up in a stompy folk rock piece with a convincing orchestra backing. Another particular highlight of this track is the stunning Ondes Martenot solo on top of a shimmering Hammond organ, later to be accompanied by the orchestra. (The Ondes Martenot is an early synthesizer, quite alike the Theremin in terms of timbre, and has curiously been used by a lot of Canadian bands as an eerie lead instrument, mostly to good effect.)

A minor let-down is Le Premier Ciel, probably the piece with the biggest rock ratio on this album. While the first three contemplative minutes, basically Serge Fiori singing and accompanying himself on this beautifully ringing electric 12 string (treated with the Shin-ei Uni-Vibe, I suppose), are as good as everything else on this album, the upbeat middle part is a bit weaker. I believe this is simply because the melodies - particularly in the chorus - are stiffer and less catchy than what you'll be used to by the time you've listened to the previous tracks. But even there plenty of nice parts abound, for example the soaring multi-tracked guitar solo - I, at least, don't see any reason to skip any track on this album.

The three instrumental orchestra pieces, which also seemed queer to me when I first saw the tracklist of this album, sound a lot like atmospheric film music and are light-years ahead of the easy-listening orchestra fiddling on The Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed. The brief Sommeil Sans Rêves, the orchestral interlude on the first LP, notably indulges in some pretty odd chord progressions which competently convey a pretty eerie and surreal mood. Interestingly, the violins are 'muted' most of the time, making a pretty unusual sound and providing a certain nostalgic flashback at given points. The Prologue and Epilogue are lengthier, but the ambience rather reminds me of the eerier moments on Sigur Rós' Heima film than of a standard overture of an opera. The orchestra also appears in the band compositions and really adds to the whole sonic spectrum - I've rarely heard albums in which the orchestra really manages to create a coherence which wouldn't exist without these orchestral snippets. Comparisons to Harry Robinson's arrangements for Nick Drake's River Man and Sandy Denny's Next Time Around surely aren't far-fetched.

After one of these tasteful orchestral introductions Comme un Sage, a great favorite of mine, continues as another heavenly 12-string-led ballad which spawns enough great ideas to nourish the next seven minutes, plus the great finale which rejoices in an instrumental orchestral reprise of the chorus melody. The track doesn't only feature the orchestra, but also a set of female backing voices - voices that, contrary to the women who accompanied the Pink Floyd on their 1974 tour, really colour the music instead of wailing around pointlessly. Apart from the folk components there's also a certain amount of 'pastoral fusion' to be found here; I mean the Fender Rhodes jazz chords, fresh flute improvisations and the folky guitars in the background - again Caravan springs to my mind. There are not a lot of compositions which are able to embody an ambience of 'transition' that well - a transition of whichever form, be it a passing, the start or the ending of a relationship. Comme Un Sage ends the album on a reflective, but hopeful note. I'm not a sufficiently fluent French speaker to fully get the lyrics, but the song seems to be a pretty holistic thought on death and love, and the forms in which they might exist. 'The love finds itself a body to be able to journey', the lyrics roughly say. And again and again there's the question of how love and insanity go together - maybe as a more personal continuation of the thoughts on power and insanity on Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. The dual scatting/wailing (by Fiori and a female soloist) in the end of Comme Un Sage even feels like a musical pendant to The Great Gig In The Sky. Even though you're allowed to be sceptic about a wordless Fiori vocal solo - he surely ain't a big vocal acrobat - the atmosphere of despair conveyed by his vocals is (positively) spine-chilling.

All in all, L'Heptade is delicious food for both thought and soul, best served on a warm summer's day, somewhere in a countryside which inspires you. It might support you during a good meditation on whatever you wanna think about. If you don't understand the French language, this can be both a handicap and a benefit; you won't understand the pensive and emotionally resonant lyrics, but you'll be able to take the vocals as just a part of a magnificent whole. It's a close-to-perfect record which hit me much more than Harmonium's previous album - highly recommendable to all friends of progressive rock, especially to those who were unsettled by the length of this album. It's by far more diverting than you'd expect it to be!

Einsetumadur | 4/5 |


As a registered member (register here if not), you can post rating/reviews (& edit later), comments reviews and submit new albums.

You are not logged, please complete authentication before continuing (use forum credentials).

Forum user
Forum password

Share this HARMONIUM review

Social review comments () BETA

Review related links

Copyright Prog Archives, All rights reserved. | Legal Notice | Privacy Policy | Advertise | RSS + syndications

Other sites in the MAC network: — jazz music reviews and archives | — metal music reviews and archives