The history of progressive rock is literally littered with super-ambitious albums exploring well beyond the boundaries of the three- to four-minute pop song. Some of these albums fall well short of their mark. Some are very pleasant but not earth-shaking. And very few achieve the transcendence their creators aimed for. This is one album that does.
Harmonium was a Quebec-based band operating in the mid- to late-seventies, led by Montreal singer, guitarist and songwriter Serge Fiori. The Quebec music industry is very interesting. The province is a French-speaking one lodged in the middle of Anglo North America and hence has a distinct language and culture of its own. This distinctness has been the subject of much tension and controversy in Canadian politics for many decades, but I have no intention of getting into that here. The reason I mention this is Quebec’s language isolation has produced a very strong, self-contained and successful arts culture. Bands can go platinum and make a living just by releasing albums aimed at the 8 million or so consumers in the province (with presumably some outreach to other French-language nations). While English-speaking artists find themselves buried under an avalanche of competing American and UK content, Quebec artists find a supportive culture able and willing to give their works a chance.
The seventies saw the development of a proud Quebec-based French-language music industry, and this album is the jewel in its crown. The reason I point out all this is that if this album were in English, it likely would have achieved much wider listenership and acclaim, mentioned in the same breath as The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, The Wall and other classic double albums.
Harmonium had given little sign that something like this was coming. The first album was a collection of jazzy folksongs, very pleasant but unembellished. The second album, Si on avait besoin d’une cinquième saison, is considered a Quebec classic and expands the group’s palette to include mellotron, longer and more dramatic songs and arrangements, and even the use of the fabulous ondes Martenot oscillator. But the overall style is still pretty folky. After that album, Fiori conceived of an extremely ambitious suite of songs that became L’Heptade. Essentially he’s the R. Waters of this album, taking control and directing the proceedings, but with the help of other former, current and supplementary members.
Instead of telling some personal family story as Waters tended to, Fiori is aiming much higher on this album: “evoking the journey of a man in one day through seven levels of consciousness”, according to the Wikipedia entry, levels which, it seems, contain sorrow and anguish, love and happiness, spiritual awakening and ultimate transcendence. I interpreted all that with what’s left of my broken high school French! I can only imagine how much more I’d enjoy it if I could truly appreciate the nuances of the lyrics.
Fiori retired to a country house with a big cast of musicians, including classical composer Neil Chotem, whose participation was integral to the album. The recording is a suite of songs linked with orchestral interludes reminiscent of Debussy or Ravel’s impressionistic works. They lend the album an elegant air and contrast with the jazzy/proggy and folky songs. I cannot emphasize how much Fiori is going for it on this recording — each song has several sections with elaborate, meticulous arrangements and some truly mind-blowing playing from all the musicians. And yet despite it all there’s an earthy earnestness to the proceedings — no pretense at all. This guy was laying it all on the line here, his very musical soul, and I’m happy to announce that he nailed it.
Fiori himself is a musical monster, possessed of one the most magical voices I’ve ever heard, moving from a smooth baritone to an unbelievably rich falsetto that Brian Wilson would die to possess. It’s also incredibly expressive, to the point where in a few places it appears to be breaking from emotion. Whether that was for real or an affectation, I don’t know, but it’s moving either way. He also is a great acoustic player (specializing in 12-string) and his songs are upliftingly melodic at all times.
But musical skill aside, it’s the naked, unashamed longing for higher things that provides the emotional pitch to this album and makes it so compelling.
Here’s how the album unfolds:
After a lengthy orchestral prologue by Chotem, “Comme un Fou” starts in a jaunty, French-jazzy way not dissimilar to Harmonium’s compadres in Beau Dommage (the other famous Quebecois group of the period) with Fiori’s voice swooping over virtuosic backing (the bass playing in particular is quite something, and there’s a ton of amazing synth work on this album) and choral backing vocals that set the tone for the entire double album. The song goes through Genesis-y sections to an aggressive gang-vocal midsection, resolving in an impressive synth solo.
“Chanson Noir” is possibly the cheeriest piece, a super-jazzy song more reminiscent of Harmonium’s first album.
It’s in the heart of the album, wherein presumably the soul in question is in its darkest phase, that we find the really beautiful stuff. “Premier Ciel” starts as a delicate folksong with string section and Fiori in ultra-dramatic vocal mode as the song builds gradually to a giant prog-rock synth freakout over the end — with horns and orchestra! An impressive way to spend eleven minutes.
Now things get really melancholy — perfectly so. “L’Exil” (“Exile”) is based around lovely broken 12-string chords and moody, magisterial organ. Fiori truly sounds like a broken angel as he sings this lament. In the centre of the piece is lengthy and very haunting solo on what has to the be ondes Martenot, accompanied only by the strings. It is, no foolin’, one of the most beautiful sections of music I’ve ever heard, unabashedly so. This is one of my favourite pieces of music.
The second LP starts just as auspiciously with “Le Corridor“, a ballad sung by Monique Fauteux over tinkly, bubbling Rhodes. Again Fiori astonishes us in the second half of the tune with a hypnotic closing section based around repetitive acoustic guitar chords and a string pad sound I didn’t even know existed back then — there’s even proto-ambient music on this album!
And then we have the pièce de résistance, “Lumières de Vie“, wherein all the stops get pulled out. Solo classical-style piano moodily leads the track in, building up to a Romantic climax and leading into another broken-chord ballad, this time based around delicate nylon-string parts and swirling strings. A positively avant garde section that would do Morton Feldman proud takes up the middle section (eerie atonal voices and waves of electronics) before a truly astonishing lengthy section of solo piano that leads into the missing element so far: a tasteful harmony electric guitar lead to end the piece. All of our art-rock dreams come true in this one slab of music.
The wistful but happy-sounding “Comme un Sage” leads our soul to the light with its repeated, infectious chorus intoned joyfully by many heavenly voices. There’s one more surprise in store as Fiori and Estelle Ste-Croix ecstatically duel in gospel-style vocalise before the song’s crescendoing finale for full band and orchestra. After a final section of quiet strings, it’s over.
Talk about a labour of love! This is truly one of rock music’s most astounding achievements. No doubt each of these wonderful musical sections I’ve described has its place in the narrative, but honestly, I don’t even need to know what that might be. The music speaks for itself. What this album proves to me (other than that musical ambition can be truly glorious when it’s achieved) is that you don’t need to fluently understand a language to comprehend an album’s intended message. L’Heptade has had a profound emotional effect on me as a listener and will always be one of my very favourite albums. Do me and Monsieur Fiori a favour and have a listen to these links. Then get the album, which is quite available. I can say especially that any Canadian who considers him or herself a serious student of our musical culture should take the time to enjoy this essential contribution to our heritage.
(Note: there is also a live version of this suite, Harmonium en tournée, where the smaller ensemble provides a rawer and very different feel to the songs…well worth hearing)