Review by: Steve Andrew Robey
Album assigned by: Jonathan Hopkins
For true connoisseurs of progressive rock, this album has become revered as an excellent example of the progressive folk subgenre. A progressive rock website I used to frequent placed it in the all-time top 20 albums at one point (based on consolidated site member ratings). When I first heard of this album several years ago, being not particularly interested in skinny guys with pointy ears and beards prancing through the forest playing flutes, I was not particularly quick to give this album a listen. Simply because when I heard “prog folk”, that was the image that came up in my head. Subgenres and classifications are easy to fall prey to – once you think you know a subgenre, you tend to think you know what a band will sound like even before you put it on. This is a mistake which I try to prevent myself from making, but old biases die hard. In fact, I considered myself “burned out” on prog rock in general about a year ago, and although I have a fairly extensive prog collection and have even written reviews for prog publications in the past, I really haven’t listened to much prog in a while.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When Jonathan assigned this album for me to review, it seemed to be an ideal time to approach it. Since I’ve been away from prog for a while, I could give it a fresh listen, not as a prog album/prog-folk/whatever-new-genre-tag-has-been-invented-this-month, but as a piece of MUSIC played by PEOPLE using their own particular creative vision and skills. That’s something that’s easy to forget when approaching music from an academic, neatly-categorized angle: all those great progressive bands from the late 60s and early 70s were basically making it up as they went along, in the best possible sense. They were in an environment where they were encouraged to be as creative as they liked, and as a result all these new combinations of musical ideas started happening. Take Yes, and “Close to the Edge” – I read somewhere that the band admits they really didn’t know WHAT they were doing, only that they wanted to take chances and really push themselves to make something original, and just see what works, using their own particular talents to their greatest advantage. BOOM. A timeless classic is born. They weren’t going down some checklist of “elements of a prog song” and checking them off.
Harmonium seems to me to display that kind of spirit as well. Hailing from Quebec, they began as more purely folk but by their second album the decided to broaden their scope and see if added complexity could aid in painting a more sophisticated musical picture than the more traditional music forms they had tried thus far. They took a chance, and history has proven that whatever they did worked like a charm. So what did they do?
The title of this album translates to “If We Needed a Fifth Season”, and it so happens it is a concept album about the seasons, with five tracks. See where this is going? The first four tracks each represent one of the four seasons (Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio,…. no wait, wrong seasons), and the fifth, epic-length track represents the hypothetical fifth one. Not a bad conceit for a concept album, but nothing mind-blowing either, though I confess I don’t understand French, so the lyrics may be a revelation for all I know.
Musically, they keep it mostly acoustic and gentle, with flutes, clarinets, acoustic guitars and basses, warm Rhodes electric piano, and Mellotrons. The vocals often employ excellent harmonies. Very little drums or percussion, if any at all. I was often reminded of Anthony Phillips’ solo work – with “pastoral” being the operative idea, except that in place of Phillips’ classical leanings we have an almost jazzy feel at times. If you’ve ever heard the classic early albums by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, their quiet sections remind me of this album too.
Where this album sets itself apart is in the sense of fun and playfulness in some of the material. The opening track “Vert” (representing Spring) begins rather austerely but soon acquires a certain swing, with groovy electric piano. The second track “Dixie” (representing Summer) employs an honest-to-goodness Dixieland style, with rollicking clarinet and barrelhouse piano and a brisk tempo. These two tracks set a unique tone for the rest of the album; even though the remainder of the album tends much more towards the serious side of things, you somehow know that anything might happen. And while they never employ whiplash-inducing shifts in style or tempo, they do put each piece through a number of subtly different movements that gives their musical painting a more three-dimensional perspective.
Most of the attention from prog-lovers goes to the aforementioned fifth track/season, “Histoire Sans Paroles” (translates to “Story Without Words”). It does in fact feel like a separate work, a “concerto” to which the other four tracks serve as a prolonged introduction. While it does have some lyrics, it doesn’t have many, and the focus is clearly on painting a detailed portrait of what this fifth season would look, feel, and smell like. After four or so listens, I find I still have a hard time keeping my attention all the way through, but I can vouch for the fact that it is a beautiful piece, probably falling somewhere between autumn and winter mood-wise (the autumn and winter pieces on the record are notably more somber than the spring and summer ones).
In conclusion, I have mostly good feelings about this record, though I do often wish it displayed a bit more aggression, if only to put the quieter sections into greater contrast. Of course, to insist on something like that is probably missing the point, and I recognize that. This album does not want to beat you over the head, and it doesn’t want to advance the idea that the passing of seasons is any more action-packed than it is. It is a tribute of sorts to the beauty of the natural processes and cycles that characterize our earthly existence. And it’s done with impeccable taste (nothing cheesy about this album, and no show-offs allowed), sensitivity (a mature perspective on the complexity and perfect balance of nature), and even humor. If this is how the Earth’s natural processes feel to them, then this must be a pretty nice place to live.