Loreena McKennitt’s An Ancient Muse is at times haunting, at other times simply beautiful, but mostly the Canadian alternative/world music artist is spectacular.
“The Incantation” provides a dark, moody introduction to An Ancient Muse. John Welsman’s string arrangement serves up a superb collection of violinists, viola players and cellists.
In her liner notes, McKennitt divulges her personal journey to discover the roots of the Celtic people. The singer’s fascination with Celtic music has been her calling card over the years. An Ancient Muse is somewhat of a historical travelogue that explores those roots as well as other cultures.
The strings of the oud and the vibrato of the kanoun are enchanting and immediately immerse us in an ancient Turkish mystique as “The Gates of Instanbul” open to welcome us. Athenian lyra player Sokratis Sinopoulos’ bow gently caresses his instrument, as he joins forces with Berklee graduate and violist Donald Quan. The duo possesses an eclectic background in music with Sinopoulos’ past forays into jazz and Quan’s past adventures including classic rock.
McKennitt embarks on a journey of rediscovery as she explores ancient cultures and their affect on one another. She also examines how various religions have found expression within those cultures. Music becomes the vehicle through which she travels, and “The Gates of Istanbul” are only the first stop on a wondrous journey. McKennitt wrote all the music and lyrics for An Ancient Muse with the exception of the lyric for “The English Ladye and the Knight”. The words to this song come straight from the pen of Scottish literary giant Sir Walter Scott.
McKennitt (who has done a masterful job of producing her own album) is spectacular in her vocal performance on “Caravanserai”. She, as well as Sarah Brightman, may very well be the most expressive singers of our day. The words arise from McKennitt’s Turkish and Mongolian experiences. She paints vivid pictures of The sand shimmering in the morning light / And dancing off the dunes so far away. Listeners are pulled into the experience of both seeing and experiencing what they hear. Through the travelers’ eyes, you see tents, now tiny against an immortal landscape. McKennitt is not content to say that it is hot, but helps you to feel “searing heat”.
“The English Ladye and the Knight” would be worth listening to if only for the beautifully romantic yet tragic story of lost love. McKennitt provides a tender and passionate reading for Sir Walter Scott’s poetry. The choral voices give you goosebumps.
If you are neophyte in the world of the tabla, then you will want to listen to Ed Hanley’s elegant hand percussion on “Kecharitomene”. The tabla is an East Indian drum that is beginning to appear in a variety of genres, including rock music. “Kecharitomene” will also introduce you to the hurdy gurdy, which at first sounds like something your grandmother warned would happen to you if you misbehaved. Also known as, the wheel fiddle, the stringed instrument is believed to have originated in the 10th century. The sound often resembles that of the bagpipes. You will also hear the elegant chords of the Celtic bouzouki. The instrument is a cousin to both the Greek bouzouki and the lute.
“Penelope’s Song” is the wooing song (my words). If there is an ounce, a wee bit of a morsel of romance that beats within your heart, then you will find a warm glow from deep within as McKennitt coos. The music takes a background to her vocals and to the lyrics. The charts are kept simple and yet pretty. The remaining tracks, “Sacred Shabbat”, “Beneath a Phrygian” “Sky and Never-Ending Road (Amhrán Duit)” are songs you will also come to treasure.
An Ancient Muse written, produced, and sung by Loreena McKennitt, is the most beautifully orchestrated and thoughtful album I have ever reviewed.