Sound: A little history on Harmonium before we begin: They formed in 1973 as a folk-rock band from Montreal, Quebec. The backbone of their sound on their self-titled first album was 12-string acoustic guitars and Serge Fiori's delicate and fragile voice. Their sound did change quite a bit for their second album, Si on avait besoin d'une cinquime saison (translation: If we needed a fifth season), in that their songs became longer, the instrumentation became much more sophisticated, and the song arrangements became more complex. The band still lacked a drummer at this point, lending them to be pigeonholed as a progressive folk band.
When the band went on to create this album, they had undergone some major lineup changes. Michel Normandeau, the band's co-founder, quit the band due to creative differences with Fiori, and Fiori hired on a drummer, an entire chorus of singers, and most notably, he tapped Montreal's symphony orchestra and composer Neil Chotem to create orchestral backdrops for the album.
The result is a sound that's about as lush as it gets. The orchestra rarely ever dominates the main tracks of the album (though there are no fewer than three tracks consisting entirely of orchestral sounds, and the ending half of "Le Corridor"), but their presence is still impossible to deny. They make up a good enough portion of the sonic blueprint of the album where removing them would make the album feel like it were missing something vital (though if you REALLY want to hear the album sans orchestra, they recorded a live performance of the album and released it as "En Tournee", which has not been released on CD but can be found as a bootleg). The band's former backbone, the 12-string acoustic guitar, is still heard, but to a much lesser extent, usually buried under layers of vocals, bass, and Serge Locat's amazing keyboard work. Volumes could be written of his keyboard playing alone, from the electric piano underpinning the delicate female vocal on "Le Corridor" (sung by guest/later full-time member Monique Fateaux), to the epic synth solo closing "Le Premier Ciel", to the solo piano moments in "Lumieres De Vie". Also of note is the band's use of the Ondes Martenot, an early precursor to synthesizers which has a much more expressive sound than a Minimoog, closer to that of a Theremin. When they toured Canada with Supertramp, they introduced that band to the instrument. While there's not a lot of lead guitar moments on the album (unless you listen to the aforementioned live version, which features many extended solos), the few there are fit in with the album really well, and never feel like tacked-on performances. While the drummer is hardly a Neil Peart-like virtuoso as many would imagine all 70s Canadian drummers to be, he keeps the beat as well as just about any drummer out there. He seems to be one of the few drummers I've heard that has mastered the art of knowing when NOT to play. But the fill before the climactic ending of "Comme Un Sage" is one of those really fun moments that lets you know when things are about to get seriously awesome. The bass also locks in with the drummer really well and sets up some really good in-the-pocket grooves.
Musically, parts of this album will remind you invariably of Opeth's softer material (it's said that Mikael Akerfeldt's influences include many "obscure 70s prog bands", lending credibility to Harmonium having influenced him in some way), in its sometimes dark demeanor, as evidenced in songs like "Comme Un Fou" or "L'Exil", but there are moments in many of the other songs which are brimming with a folky positivity, like "Le Premier Ciel" or "Chanson Noire", and some harder-rocking moments that seem to evoke an almost funky attitude, such as "Comme Un Fou" or "Le Premiere Ciel". 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. The songs usually take up to 14 minutes to complete themselves, but never seem to truly meander meaninglessly. The songs play less like typical prog epics, and more like little symphonies.
This is 1976 prog at its finest. The flow of the album is just perfect, and while the musicians are certainly quite adept at their instruments, none of them ever seem to take any entirely unnecessary incursions into wankery, and prefer to play mostly whatever the song calls for. If there was ever an album whose sound is deserving of a 10/10, its this one. // 10
Lyrics: The lyrics, delivered by Serge Fiori in his peculiar French-Canadian accent, are sung entirely in his native tongue, which may prove to be a bit of a barrier to many English-speaking fans. The lyrics talk about a main character that starts off with many inner conflicts, revolving a lot around opposites like night and day, light and dark, black and white. He overcomes these conflicts through love, and the realization that true appreciation of love can only come from an uplifting mind.
Unfortunately, I'm no French major, and many of the album's lyrics are too difficult for my 3rd-grade French comprehension level, and translations of their lyrics are almost impossible to come by (I've only managed to find one for "Comme Un Fou"), but the delivery of the lyrics speaks volumes of the themes in play. Serge Fiori's voice is deep and yet, fragile and sensitive. He has one of the most unique voices in his genre, and he's always such a pleasure to listen to, especially when he reaches into a falsetto register for higher parts like in "Comme Un Sage". Monique Fateaux sings on "Le Corridor", as well as some backing vocals on other tracks, and her voice is also thoroughly pleasant. The interplay between the two vocalists in the ad-libbed part of "Comme Un Sage" is breathtaking.
I wish I knew more about the lyrics so I could feel right giving this a 10, but a 9 feels more deserved if I'm basing it more on delivery than words. // 9
Overall Impression: Overall, there's not a thing I'd change about this album. Every song is impressive in its sophisticated splendor and grandeur, but not a thing about this album ever feels completely out of place. If there were one criticism I'd have of the album, it's that the synth solo in "Le Premier Ciel" never seems to last long enough, despite its tasteful build up.
Compared to their other albums, L'Heptade is clearly their winning album. The band reportedly broke up in 1978, two years later, since they felt that no matter how they tried, they could not write an album that even matched half the power of this record, and felt frustrated that they made such a perfect album. That's not to dismiss their other two studio albums, which are also greatly underrated classics, but this album is just so grand that it's as damn near perfect as you can get in the genre.
Compared to other artists from the time, it's almost a crime that this band went on to be as underrated as they are today. Considering that the other prog masterpiece from Canada that year was Rush's "2112", in some ways, it's clear to see how this album could have slipped under the radar, but at the same time, it leaves me wishing sometimes that "L'Heptade" were the album that got the acclaim "2112" did. The band fared really well on their tours before and after this album, spending a Canadian tour supporting Supertramp, where they gained many fans and a lot of respect from the press.
So overall, this album is probably one of the few albums I TRULY feel deserving of the score of 10/10. I understand the importance of not throwing that score around on every album that's "somewhat good" or "very well-known", but this album EARNED that score in my books. With every listen, it grows on me that much more. It's incredibly inspiring as a work of art, and I would recommend this album to any prog fan, or even just any music lover with an open mind. There is so much brilliance filling these 85 minutes that it'd be a crime to continue to let this album slip under the radar. Go get this album. Chances are, you will not be disappointed. // 10