Review Summary: L’Heptade takes you to unexpected heaven with no hope of coming back (except than to play it again).
Harmonium were arguably the most beloved and best known progressive rock band to come from Québec. The first version of the group was a trio, consisting of the singer/songwriter Serge Fiori, guitarist Michel Normandeau and bassist Louis Valois. Musically, their first and eponymous record was acoustic and sophisticated folk, containing plenty of vocal harmonising with some very minor progressive hints. Si On Avait Besoin D’Une Cinquieme Saison
(also called ‘Les 5 Saisons’) was more elaborate, and incorporated light symphonic prog sensibilities (features no trace of percussion) in the vein of early acoustic Genesis, and always combined it with their folky roots. For l’Heptade
, however, Harmonium took a decisive step towards the symphonic prog genre, incorporating a full-blown orchestra into the mix. Following up the sheer beauty of ‘Les 5 Saisons’ was always going to be a tough task, but they greatly succeeded. Their three LPs and single live album all are deeply rooted in Québec’s musical folklore, and are all considered important artistic statements.
Each album displays a marked progression from the previous one, painting a picture of a rapidly developing band, and so Fiori’s ambitions kept getting bigger with each album. He demanded the line-up to change and expand, in order to set the table for what had to become the ultimate Harmonium masterpiece. In fact, a lot of people feel ‘Les 5 Saisons’ deserves that honour (which is indeed a masterpiece in its own right). However, l’Heptade
is proving to be much more lush and ambitious. Although a tad overlong and indulgent for the non-initiated, it does represent a step up compositionally. In fact, l’Heptade
is one of the best utilisations of symphonic and classical structures in a rock context. Compared to the pleasantness of ‘Les 5 Saisons’, it is by turns dramatic, melancholic, moody, ambient, rhythmic and gentle. Some songs are upbeat, featuring joyful multi-vocal harmonies, folksy positive, (Le Premier Ciel
, Chanson Noire
) but others are sombre ballads, dripping with sadness (L’Exil
, Le Corridor
). Some of the ambient passages throughout are tear-jerking in their beauty; the album offers exquisite songwriting that gets both the details and the big picture right.
When the band started to create this ambitious concept, Fiori recruited their first full-time drummer Denis Farmer, who is prevalent on most tracks, flutist saxophonist Libert Subirana, vocalist Monique Fauteux and guitarist Robert Stanley, who filled the gap created by the departure of the band’s co-founder Michel Normandeau, who left during the recording sessions because of creative differences with Fiori. He did receive many songwriting credits, so he was obviously still extensively involved in the creation of the record, even if he isn’t featured on much of it. Classically trained pianist Neil Chotem was brought in to conduct musicians of the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, and compose and arrange orchestral bridges between the songs. These interludes are somehow there to make the transition to the next piece, much alike to The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed
. They are variations of the songs’ themes in order to hold them together.
The album’s concept is based on the seven levels of consciousness of a person throughout his daily life. Wrapped up in this package, the songs make for irresistible listening. Even if the orchestra is coming from the background, it plays an important supporting role. While fluid and never imposing, the classical instrumentation makes up a good portion of the sonic blueprint and interludes, yet melts together with the main instruments. It never dominates the main tracks, though there are no fewer than three pieces consisting entirely of orchestral sounds. These short instrumental pieces sound quite a bit like atmospheric film music, which is not a bad thing in itself, serving successfully as backdrop to the themes. There are some pleasing, buzzing synthesizers and floating Mellotrons that play some of the main themes, which mixes pretty well with the orchestral backing.
What may prove to be a bit of a barrier to many English-speaking fans is that the lyrics are delivered in French, with the typical Quebecor accent. Fiori’s expressive, soulful vocals suit the music very well, so they can be just as effective as an instrument. He has one of the most unique voice in his genre, and he uses it to full emotional effect.
Once you begin to grasp the album’s whole purpose, which requires a number of listens, everything falls into place. The long movements which seemed overlong on the first runs suddenly have a legitimate role. l’Heptade
is a carefully crafted album, in which the occasional emotional bursts are built out slowly and delicately, and where each wait is more than worth it. The arrangements are lush and impressive, without getting too pompous. The flow of the album is rarely interrupted by any quick time changes or extreme dynamic shifts, as the songs seem to prefer to quietly build up to their next logical dynamic point. You won't find much music that is more thoroughly and beautifully arranged than this. l’Heptade
showcases the band’s instrumental expertise and their cultured ear for pretty melodies. Harmonium set out to elicit a sentiment of wonder and tranquil awe; They succeeded. They delivered some moving, elaborate and refined music without being pedantic.
The band reportedly broke up in 1978 after touring for the album everywhere in Canada, the US’ West Coast and Europe, opening for Supertramp. It is strongly rumoured that they called it a day because it became obvious to Fiori and consorts that they had given their very best. According to their first manager, the band had missed its fate when they refused an attractive contract with the multinational record label Warner Music, including an English album and the promise of an international career. On the other hand, Harmonium always had a dedication to their musical tastes and to their own sound. They created a style of their own which cannot be labelled easily. So in order to keep their integrity intact and to keep on singing in French (all these virtues were truly threatened), Fiori did not want to play the game, opting to stay true to himself. Harmonium didn’t want to be the product of anyone but themselves. As it did on many occasions, the show-biz industry prevented the spontaneity and creativity of another legendary artist from further fruition.
‘French is the richest and most beautiful language to translate the emotion’ ~ Serge Fiori