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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Alan Stivell: Raok Dilestra


1) Ar Gelted Kozh (Les Anciens Celtes); 2) Ar Vritoned 'Ba' Inis-Breizh (Les Britons Dans L'Ile De Bretagne); 3) Ar Vritoned D'An Arvorig (Les Britons En Armorique); 4) Rouantelezh Vreizh (Le Royaume De Bretagne); 5) Dugelezh Vreizh (Le Duché De Bretagne); 6) An Aloubidigezh Gant Bro-C'hall (Le Traité D'Union Franco-Breton); 7) Emsawadegoù (Révoltes); 8) Dispac'h Bro-C'hall Ag An 19e Kantwed (La Révolution Française Et Le 19e Siècle); 9) Lodenn Gentan An Ugentwed Kantwed (Première Moitié Du 20e Siècle); 10) Eil Lodenn An Ugentwed Kantwed (Deuxième Moitié Du 20e Siècle); 11) Da Ewan (A Ewan); 12) Gwriziad Difennet (Racines Interdites); 13) Marw Ewid E Fobl (Mort Pour Son Peuple); 14) Naw Breton 'Ba' Prizon (Neuf Bretons En Prison); 15) Tamm-Kreiz New' (Nouveau Tamm-Kreiz); 16) Plinn (Slogan).

For the layman at least, Stivell must be at his most interesting when he is at his most ambitious. Harp-centered minimalism is all right for a while, but not when one is dealing with hours and hours of music varying only through slight nuances. For grand purposes, however, Alan is always ready to go berserk with extra instrumentation and genre-mixing, and this is where even a regular prog-rock or folk-rock fan can safely board his train.

Raok Dilestra («Before Lan­ding») is his loudest, brawniest album so far; no wonder — its ambi­tion is to capture pretty much everything there is to capture about the achievements and the prospects of the Breton people. Side A is entirely dedicated to a multi-part suite detailing the his­tory of the Bretons, from their ancient Celtic roots through all of their migratory tribulations and right down to the 20th century — a musical lecture of sorts, alternating sung passages with infor­mative voiceovers over the instrumental sections. Side B, subtitled 'The Present', is a bunch of disconnected songs dealing with... uh, various Breton-related subjects.

As a sort of symbol of how much Raok Dilestra is «integrated» into the better known musical world of its time, it should be mentioned that the album features guest contributions from Richard Harvey on woodwinds (of Gryphon fame) and Dave Swarbrick on violin (of Fairport Convention). Most of the instruments are, however, still played by Alan himself and his regular band (Dan Ar Bras on guitar, etc.) — and there's plenty of them, ranging from atmospheric background syn­thesi­zers (used quite intelligently and moderately) to sitars (which, believe it or not, go quite well together with bagpipes. Sometimes).

The opening suite takes some time to build up, starting off with a bit of moody bagpipe-backed chanting, devoid of rhythm section support, then getting louder and louder and rockier and rock­ier as we slowly progress into the Middle Ages and the modern epoch — 'The Breton Kingdom' and 'The French Revolution' are musically associated with complex, constantly signature-chan­ging progressive bombardment reminiscent of Yes, and 'The 20th Century' relies heavily on elec­tronic sounds, incorporating a sci-fi element (despite our lack of knowledge about the degree of Bretons' involvement in space travel and nanotechnologies).

As impressive as the suite is, it suffers somewhat from the usual illness of all conceptual suites — the concept sometimes overshadows the music — but the illness is thankfully absent from Side B, which contains several of Stivell's strongest, most individually memorable melodies. 'To Ewan My Son' is a tender/powerful personal message, sung as a gorgeous duet with a supporting lady friend, and backed with a barrage of synthesizers, acoustic and electric guitars, harps, and pipes that is so dense and so constantly shifting emphasis from one instrument to another that one al­most forgets about the droning nature of the song. 'Dead For His People' is a hard-rocking kicker, dominated very much by (Swarbrick's, probably) violin playing and ranking up there with the best of Fairport Convention's material. 'Nine Bretons In Jail' begins in standard kan ha diskan man­ner, then clicks into fully-arranged mode, again, jumping from one lead instrument to another as if it were matching each of them with each of the nine unfortunate Bretons (well, three or four of them, at least).

And, of course, how could an album so concerned with Brittany not end with a stern and serious call to freedom ('Plinn (Slogan)')? Keep in mind that if you are singing along — and it is tempting to sing along — you are formally expressing solidarity with Breton separatism, and position your­self as opposed to the long-term stability of the French government. On the other hand, Bre­ton separatism is little more than a nice spiritual game at the moment, and if playing this game helps people like Alan Stivell to make such excellent music, I'm all for playing.

In short, while the subject matter may be a bit too constrictive here, and Stivell's «Celtic egalita­rianism» forgotten in favor of a rigid nationalistic approach, Raok Dilestra still shows the man at the peak of his creativity, and arguably at the absolute peak of his bombastic creativity; easily in the top 5 or so of the thumbs up issued for his output.

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