ALAN STIVELL: AMZER (2015)
1) New' Amzer — Spring; 2) Other Times — Amzerioù All; 3) Matin De Printemps — Kesa-no Haru; 4) Mintin New' Hañv; 5) Au Plus Près Des Limites — Je Marcherai; 6) Purple Moon; 7) Postscript; 8) Kala-Goañv — Calendes D'Hiver; 9) What Could I Do?; 10) Kerzu — December; 11) Halage; 12) Echu Ar Goañv? — Till Spring?.
For several years, word has been leaking out about the preparation of a new Stivell album, but then the process became so stretched out that eventually everybody lost interest. When it was finally released in 2015, it was done to such tiny fanfare that even some of the regularly updated Internet databases failed to register the event — but yes, there it is, finally: a brand new Alan Stivell record that shows the man ready and willing to settle into very old age, but unwilling to abandon his dedicated search for the last cosmopolitan chord.
Once again, this is not so much a «Celtic» album as a fusion between several genres, or, at least, a «Celtic perspective» on different parts of the globe. In addition to the predictable vocal and musical motifs of French, British, Brezhoneg, and Gaelic origin, Stivell now displays a fascination with traditional (and I stress — traditional!) Japanese culture, even inviting a couple of Japanese ladies to recite some classic haiku lines on some of the tracks. Actually, that's not really a lot of internationalization: musically, Stivell remains closely tied to his harp and the Celtic tradition, and he might be a little too old now to try and pick up the koto. On the other hand, it does count as a symbolic recognition of the close connection between all sorts of folk traditions, Eastern and Western, and the link between Celtic harp melodies and haiku recitals feels almost surprisingly natural. So, hey, if this is any help in getting some Japanese cultural fund to donate to the preservation needs of Brezhoneg culture... why not?
The problem with Amzer (which, by the way, is the Breton word for 'time, weather, season' and announces the rather obvious conceptual theme for the album) is that most of the actual music here is not very interesting. According to Stivell himself, it was largely based upon his improvisation routines, and also reflected a growing interest in studio experimentation — many of the tracks feature elements of «computer-assisted deconstruction-reconstruction», which sounds cool on paper, but in reality makes the whole thing very confusing and unfocused. There are really no memorable melodies, just a lot of atmospheric «harping» around, usually at low volume and with very little energy — bordering on sheer ambience most of the time, really. As atmospheric background muzak, it's every bit as good as any Stivell product that remained unspoiled by silly technology: pretty harp, chirping birds, cloudy synths, and Stivell's voice, despite the aging process, has not lost a shred of its friendliness or expressivity. But where even Emerald was, after all, a collection of compositions, some of them very memorable, this is a decorative piece — yes, like a cute little Japanese garden or something.
The only actual «song» is ʽWhat Could I Do?ʼ, a strangely un-cozy, blues-tinged dirge with bits of distorted guitar and wheezing synths cluttering the background and a general atmosphere of worry and even depression. It is not completely out of place, because it fits in rather naturally with the ensuing harsh coldness of ʽDecemberʼ, apparently illustrating a grim winter mood. But most of the time, the atmosphere is very light — not exactly joyful, but optimistic and spiritual-celebrational, right from the opening ʽSpringʼ and until the album closing instrumental ʽTill Spring?ʼ that brings us full circle. A quiet, unpretentious affair: despite all the digital experimentation, Amzer is first and foremost an album by somebody who's got absolutely nothing new to say, and does the next best thing — sits on his front porch and cooks up nice radiovibes, dissipating as quickly as they are generated but leaving a pleasant aftertaste.
I do have to state that if this is really the best that the man can come up with over a six-year period, this means that he's largely finished as an artist. But then again, who at this time could expect a new Symphonie Celtique from him? These «front porch improvisations» are nice enough to serve as background music for the time being — and if it happens to really be his last album after all, who knows, maybe repeated listens in the future will make it seem like the perfect musical goodbye from an old tradition-cherishing geezer who decided to go out with a gentle breeze rather than a stunning bang of an album.