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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Alan Stivell: Symphonie Celtique


1) Beaj; 2) Gwerz 1; 3) Loc'h Ar Goulenn; 4) Divodan; 5) Emskiant; 6) Kendaskren; 7) Imram; 8) Dilestran; 9) Ar C'hammou Kentan; 10) Ar Geoded Skedus; 11) Ar Bale; 12) Gouel Hollvedel; 13) An Distro.

It could make sense to say that, perhaps, releasing one's longest, densest, deepest, broadest, most ambitiously conceptual double LP in the year 1979, several hundred days into the heyday of punk, New Wave, and disco, was not the smartest idea to emanate from Stivell's pathologically artistic spirit. But then again maybe it wouldn't, because (a) 1979 was, come to think of it, also the year of The Wall (which was also long, dense, deep, broad, ambitious, conceptual, and still sold like hotcakes — granted, most people bought it for "we don't need no education", while Stivell was way too conservative to seduce people with "Disco Druid"); (b) Stivell's corner of the market was fairly well defined and covered anyway — his audience never depended on trends. So what did he stand to lose? Nothing but an All-Music Guide review, and even that situation is so scandalous that eventually someone is bound to remedy it.

Tír na nÓg is the name of one of the Irish mythical worlds — the «Land of Youth» that few mor­tal men have reached, except for the legendary tribe Tuatha Dé Danann, the legendary hero Oisín, and the Marx Bro­thers right after they dumped Zeppo. I am not sure if the entire album is strong­ly dedicated to exploring this legend; but it is very appropriate, when you are basing a concept album around a mythical world that emanates from a Celtic conscience but also trans­cends it, to make sure that the music, too, transcends Celtic motives. Surely, if the Irish believed in a land of eternal youth located somewhere in the Caribbean, they didn't think all of its people would be playing the Irish harp and the bagpipes all day long?

A mind-boggling seventy guest musicians play on this album, ranging from an entire Berber female vocal group to a whole pack of Indian artists. It is Stivell's equivalent of Lifehouse: some­thing so utterly grandiose in its idealism and spiritualism, the listener is supposed to almost feel the chains of flesh shatter and fall to pieces all around the immortal soul. Except, unlike Life­house, this album did come to pass. So?...

One thing is for certain: Symphonie takes quite a bit of time to start properly working its magic. The entire first LP relies more on drones and ambience than dynamic themes, even if, at times, there seem to be more instruments involved in the procedure than on any of Beethoven's sympho­nies. Still, one has to admit to a certain interest when a composition is an Indian raga, an Irish mood piece, and a modern classical experiment at the exact same time ('Divodan'). Throw in a few electronic background textures, surround it with church organ and mild chamber pieces — quite a heck of a melting pot.

Lazy listeners may, however, safely skip the first six tracks and enjoy a shortened, but more «ac­tive» experience starting with the textbook Celtic rock of 'Imram'. This is where the record pro­perly becomes a «symphony», with all the required formal grandeur and cathartic moments. Amu­singly, the stately rhythmic pieces have an almost Mike Oldfield feel to them: devoid of confusing, unpredictable signature changes, smooth nearly to the point of becoming «commer­cial» (but in the good sense of the word).

And most are fine, but the truly awesome parts are cle­verly hidden from view until the end: first, the complex vocal overdubs on 'Ar Bale' weave out a pattern of absolute happiness and tran­quility, one of the finest «visions-of-angels»-type pieces of music I've ever heard, and then the repetitive, but intelligently expanding melody of 'Gouel Hollvedel', with fifty different variations on its danceable theme in a row, eventually bursts out to become Stivell's own little ode to joy — probably the most overtly celebrative and uplifting piece of music he ever did. The transition, fou­r­ty seconds into part IV, when the strings and pipes take over the theme, is my favourite mo­ment in all of Stivell's catalog — and, as far as my knowledge extends, the perfect moment in the synthesis of Celtic folk values with symphonic ones.

It is hard to tell if the presence of all those seventy musicians was truly justified, but maybe it is not so much their actual playing that matters as, indeed, the presence: now that they are all here, there is no backing out of the grandiosity of it all. And thank God for that — flawed and all, yes, with plenty of parts that are fairly weak on their own, Symphonie Celtique is still a one-of-a-kind record that fully justifies the concatenation in its name; a grand thumbs up.

The sad news is that the effort pretty much drained Stivell: the creative surge that started with Renaissance De La Harpe Celtique and, all through the decade, goaded him into curious expe­riment after curious experiment, ends here — the remainder of his career, although not without its moments, is basically just one lengthy footnote after the final glorious notes of Symphonie have faded away. But what's a poor Breton harpist to do after he has completed his predicament? Go fishing? Poaching boar? Carving menhirs? Every Celtic rocker has as much of a right to jump the shark as anybody else.

Check "Symphonie Celtique" (CD) on Amazon


  1. "So what did he stand to lose? Nothing but an All-Music Guide review, and even that situation is so scandalous that eventually someone is bound to remedy it."

    Hey, seems like Bruce Eder reads your blog George.
    Not that it was much of a review...

  2. Given your day job, I'm surprised you didn't comment on the languages - Alan here breaks some record on ways to not be understood by the majority of people, by singing in Breton, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Algonquin, Berber, Irish, Quechua and God knows what else.