Mike McLatchey 24-August-2002 The Hexagone Years

Malicorne - Malicorne (1974)
Malicorne - Malicorne (1975)
Malicorne - Almanach (1976)
Malicorne - Malicorne (1976)
Malicorne - Quintessence (1977)

Marie and Gabriel Yacoub's album Pierre de Grenoble is the obvious precursor to the outfit known as Malicorne and could be considered the band's first album in all but name. Like many French folk/medieval groups, Malicorne found its initial genesis in the membership of one of Alan Stivell's line ups. Founding member Gabriel Yacoub formed Malicorne with Marie, Laurent Vercambre and Hughes de Courson in largely the same spirit as Stivell: the modernization and exploration of ancient musics with a progressive spirit.

The first eponymous Malicorne album (also called Colin due to the album's short beginning and ending pieces and its cover with the band pictured) was largely a step forward from the aforementioned Pierre de Grenoble. While Malicorne was still far away from experimenting with rock and other fusions, by their debut they had already set themselves apart from the average folk group by the quartet's unusual and forward-thinking arrangement skills. One aspect of the band's music, their a capella material, would remain part of their repertoire for their entire career (a collection of these pieces form a compilation called Vox). Largely acoustic, the debut Malicorne introduces the band's music, a fragile collection of updated traditionals played on guitar, violin, bass harmonium, dulcimer, and a variety of other stringed instruments. While the results are not as forward looking as what would come, the album already sets a formidable ensemble in motion with its thoughtful arrangements, superb vocals and classy songs.

Malicorne's second eponymous album (which bears a yellow cover with a tree/house in front and whose first song is "Le Mariage Anglais") was anything but a sophomore slump, and might even be the best in a series of powerful studio albums. Stylistically similar to the first album but infinitely more mature, the quartet was already moving in a more compositionally interesting direction by infusing the traditionals with multi-instrumental arrangements of great thought. The use of the crumhorn in the classic "Le Mariage Anglais" brings the music closer to what Gryphon was creating across the channel, a similarity solidified when Brian Gulland later joined the group. The diversity here is exquisite, including a somber ballad ("La Fille aux Chansons"), an a capella piece ("Marion les Roses"), a lively instrumental ("J'ai Vu le Loup, le Renard et la Belette") and much more. Already, Malicorne were starting to incorporate electric instruments into the mix to good effect, pushing this, their second album, even closer to progressive areas. The arrangements, tracking choice and sheer musical quality makes this one of the best folk albums of the 70s.

The band's third album expanded their musical strengths with a conceptually linked set of pieces entitled Almanach, earning the quartet a gold record. The original LP was ornately decorated, inlayed with a lyric booklet arranged as an antique almanac in keeping with the album's 12-month conception. This album was the first evolution in the band's style, incorporating an almost classical/baroque feel at times. The two longest pieces also deliver a slightly more epic feel. The near eight-minute "L'Ecolier Assassin" is a mesmerizing, melancholy ballad as well, but mostly takes its time in telling a story rather than hopping through styles. Again, the diversity here is impressive with highlights like the gorgeous "Le Luneaux" (a piece sung by Marie), the extremely Gryphon-like "Branle de la Haie" (with more crumhorn) and the Christmas celebration "Nokl est Arrivi." It all makes for the band's second classic in a row, a brilliance perhaps only approached by that of Stivell himself.

Malicorne's final studio album for Hexagone returned to their habit of not titling albums, this one picturing a grandfather and son looking at a constellation of two twin mythical beasts in a late evening sky. The band by this point was slowly moving away from traditional arrangements with four originals here and the addition of synthesizers and a full-time bassist. There are only a few advancements as far as fusions with other music, perhaps even less than on Almanach. Yet the diversity, always a Malicorne strength, still reigns, with a gavotte, several ballads, and one of the band's most impressive a capella pieces, "Daniel Mon Fils." In a genre where the vocal strengths, perhaps, make the strongest impact, Malicorne's talents are at the apex. "Le Deserteur" with its string accompaniment would hint towards Malicorne's far more eclectic, post-Hexagone career, a moodiness expressed fully on L'Extraordinaire Tour. Equally, the strange, almost electronic-sounding "La Blanche Biche" would foreshadow Le Bestiare with its extreme modernization of ancient musics. The fourth Malicorne may be one of the band's most challenging releases, but one whose charms are further revealed with each listen.

As the band would move from Hexagone to de Courson's Ballon Noir label, a retrospective of the first four albums was produced entitled Quintessence. It covers the period fairly, including a non-album single called "Martin." It was my introduction to the band's music years ago, spurring me on to seek albums that grow harder to find every year but whose treasures bear witness to the hunt.

The digital availability of these albums is close to nil in North America. Hexagone was a subsidiary of a major, and while the CDs were distributed by Sony Music at one point, they are extremely difficult to locate outside of Europe. The early Hexagone catalog is full of gems by the likes of Dan Ar Bras, Kolinda, and La Bamboche that are virtually forgotten by the majority of modern music dealers in the US. Malicorne's progressive take on ancient and folk music (which would continue to peak on later albums; see Exposť #13, p. 76 for more info) is a great example of a time when the ethic and not the style was of premiere importance.

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