Music Reviews

 

Last Updated 07 December 2005


Sigur Rós

Takk…
Geffen, 2005

Track Listing: Takk…, Glósóli, Hoppípolla, Með Blódnasir, Sé Lest, Sæglópur, Milanó, Gong, Andvari, Svo Hljótt, Heysátan
Highlights: Glósóli, Sé Lest, Sæglópur, Andvari, Heysátan; the song builds/crescendos, and in general the album’s divergence from mainstream pop/rock
Lowlights: The falsetto voice can be annoying, especially when the volume is to high from cranking the parts that bring the rock, limited edition digi-pack (and environmentally friendly paperboard case) has, disappointingly, no liner notes accompanying it, but visiting the web sites helped.
Overall Rating: 98/100 (This is my favorite album of 2005)

Takk…- A great prelude to the album. The sustained chord and the build of the electronics, then the changes, set the tone for the rest of the album. Great segue into the following song. Like what watching the Northern Lights must sound like…

Glósóli- Probably my favorite song on the album. Brilliant bass and the sound of ticking clocks call the soaring vocals to resound. The rhythm is so hypnotic one can’t help but tap along with the foot. Again, the familiar Sigur Rós building of sound, the electrics overlay the tinkling music box, then the fuzz of the guitars. This is a wall of sound as cool and icy as the glacial tundra featured in the haunting video for the song. The vocals remain at a low decibel, moving from near whisper to the clear bell of Birgisson’s falsetto. My gods, does this song pay off when it builds…ROCK!

Hoppípolla- Subtle keyboard tacits open the song, building up again to the driving rhythm that fill Takk. The vocals are quite clear and understandable, if you know Icelandic. This was not the case with their second album, Ágætis Byrujun. This song has great string swells, an overall major chord structure, which leaves the listener feeling as though they are participating in a joyous cinematic experience. This piece is orchestral and quite moving.

Með Blóðnasir- As the songs on this album trend, the first thirty seconds build from ambience to huge bass and drum rhythms, hooky melodies, and, finally, guitar and vocals. This piece continues in what would be a second movement to Hoppípolla, capturing the spirit of the last song and expanding on it in a brief two minute interlude.

Sé Lest- There is what sounds to be a xylophone here, a more resonating effect than the music box used on other songs. Truly these songs capture sonic images of landscapes draped in ice and snow. The vocals begin as the falsetto voice accompanied by itself in a choral harmony; the sound rather like a young boy’s choir, if they rocked. Sweeping of cymbals, like the crashing of waves, and then the highest voice seems to take on the sound of a gull in flight. The fade with swift-interval hits of the bass drum, and then the drums fade leaving us with a lullaby of the music box and keyboards and vocal cooing and brass horns, which eventually lead us to a polka. Quick on the heels are simply brilliant string workings before the song fades out entirely. I love this song, because it sounds like nothing else in mainstream music.

Sæglópur- Winding of clocks gives way to a highly playable keyboard riff, and the tinkling of the music box. As is typical of this album, the vocal tracking is simply stunning. Birgisson creates his own choir using his voice before hitting the distortion on his guitar and bringing heavy hitting drum work and bass. This song brings the rock—for anyone who thinks this band is wussy, the middle of this song should prove otherwise. Then, a return to ambience, feedback from the guitars filling a space so vast behind the voice and keyboards. Nearly operatic in scope and sonic vision, this song made me cry when I first listened to it.

Milanó- This track begins with near silence, then ambience, and high keys fade in before the bass fills out the low end. If this song could be said to begin like a ballad, Milanó, by the fourth minute, becomes a power ballad. The percussion, heavy on the cymbals, pushes us out of the storybook arrangements into a driving chorus. Then a return of the lush keyboard melody, the resonating vocals, and repeat.

Gong- Strings by the Amina String Quartet, open the song. Guitar soon joins in a melodic counterpoint, then drum and bass, as the song increases velocity. Ambience continues behind the rhythm, and the voice enters in a lush countertenor…very nice after so much falsetto. This piece has more of the traditional pop song construction, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. This will feel accessible to even the casual music listener, but it is far from boring and cliché.

Andvari- The transitions on this album make the songs seem nearly continuous. From Gong to Andvari is a prime example. Themes are continued, sounds replicated. Then the song grows into its own entity, unique. The juxtaposition of the tenor vocals and the falsetto gives one greater appreciation for the male voice. This song is a lush sonic landscape of strings, bass, guitar tacits, and light percussion, with occasional keyboard fills. Its dream-like quality at the end makes Sigur Rós’ talent for arrangements obvious—not too quiet, not too “classical,” but no fear of falling into the “new-agey” humdrum.

Svo Hljótt- An opening reminiscent of later Pink Floyd, ambient and full of the promise. Poignant, keeping with the quietude of the previous song, and resonance…the strings come in again behind the keys and the beautiful, emotional vocals, then the bass and drums. Sigur Rós is a band for builds—the crescendos pay off every time. More spot on use of guitar feedback as instrument…the bridge gallops along in its irregular rhythm that somehow fits the song so well.

Heysátan- And another brilliant transition from song to song. Strong bass begins this piece, with low guitar played in harmony. Somehow you feel this is the end, and the album’s last track becomes a lament to having to say good-bye to this glorious music for a time. The brass is hiding there in the sonic waves, making this a stoic piece to end the album. A pregnant pause and we are suspended, almost painfully for the last forty seconds of the song, and then the end. Until next time…

 


Gjallarhorn

Sjofn
NorthSide, 2000

Track Listing: Suvetar, Tova och konungen, Dejelill och Lagerman, Into/Minuet from Jeppo-Poslka, Kom Helge Ande, Näcken och Jungfrun, Su Ru Ruskadirej, Bergfäst, Oravais minuet, Lille dansa..., Hjaðningaríma, Sinivatsa
Highlights: Every song is excellent, but ones you can't miss are Suvetar, Minuet from Jeppo-Polska, and Hjaðningaríma; the playing--this is one well cast band; the string harmonies, interesting and brilliant percussion; didgeridoo!
Lowlights: Only if you're not a fan of fiddling, or find deep droning annoying.
Overall Rating: 97/100

Suvetar / Goddess of Spring- This song is halfway between a chant and a song. Jenny Wilhelms' voice is clear and her tone is amazing, but it is her multi-tracking of her voice that makes the piece. Deep shamanic drones of the didgeridoo give the song a further primal feel, until the fiddle and viola (yes, viola) kick in. Scandinavian music is all about the harmonies, and the two stringed instruments hold the melodic thread. Each melody for each instrument is so well performed, so brilliantly arranged, that it is like a sonic tapestry of shining threads. Completely rich and a great song to begin the album with. "You have shining silver/You have glistening gold/Rise up, O maiden/Black from the soil."

Tova och konungen / Tova and the King- Excellent fiddle playing by Wilhelms and Viola by Ohman. The didgeridoo is replaced by the "Jews" harp (also known as the mouth harp or "muns" harp). The music gives this tune a playful air, even though the song is about a King who "leaves" his Queen to be with his beloved--the song is mostly about the Queen plotting against her cheating husband. This is a fresh arrangement of a traditional Swedish folk tune. "Farewell, dear Queen, have no fear/Tonight I shall sleep beside the King."

Dejelill och Lagerman / Dejelill and Lagerman- This piece is acoustic folk metal! The didg creates such a great bass drone, and the viola sounds nearly like a tuned-down guitar--the playing is fast and intricate. This is a song that makes you wanna' throw up the "rock on" sign and bang your head (in a folky kind of way). "Lagerman sat on his red saddle/Riding harder than the bird flies/So my sorrow might go away."

Intro/Minuet from Jeppo-Polska- These two tracks connect on the CD, the Into is the sound of footsteps walking on a gravel path towards a barn where someone is practicing a fiddle tune, whose refrain you hear again in the next track. This is a thrilling instrumental, featuring the hardanger fiddle (a traditional Scandinavian instrument), the viola, dig, and brilliant, deep percussion. This is a toe-tapper, if not a tune for dancing. If there ever was a snapshot of why I love Nordic music, this is it.

Kom Helge Ande / Come, Holy Spirit- This is a chorale from Mora, Dalarna in Sweden. The lyrics are simple and dirge-like, but Jenny Wilhelms voice transcends their simplicity and their purity haunts you. Deep drumming and a low stringed instrument droning in the background. "Let life's light shine upon me/And lead me upon the true way/I will give myself wholly to thee."

Näcken och Jungfrun / The Water-Sprite and the Maiden- Most of the tunes I like the most in new Nordic folk are medieval folk lyrics transformed into modern folk music. The subject is usually dark or supernatural. This song is about the mutual attraction of nature-beings and humans, and some of the difficulties with their relationships. It is hard to make love to a river...The arrangement is very "sprite-like," tripping along like water over stones in a stream. "Well will I have thee, water-sprite/Well will I come to the land of thousand lakes/Yea, well will I have thee, water-sprite/Well will I come to the thousand rivers' banks."

Su Ru Ruskadirej- The acapella bit at the start of this song is amazing, and the vocal arrangements just get more intricate as the piece progresses. A single voice backed by a chorus of three harmonizing, then building to two melodies, six harmonies and so on, becoming a round, overlaid by whispers...and that's just the vocals. The instrumentation is as complicated, leaving you blanked by sounds. "Dear miller, have mercy on me/Grind my sackful and take no fee."

Bergfäst / Mountain haunted- The drum that begins this is so cool, but I don't know what it is...The fiddle and viola harmonies are tight. The second movement of the song begins with a dig drone and the high whispers of mountain spirits. Wilhelm’s vocals soar clearly over the didg and mounting strings. This is a fairly theatrical piece of music, and very well orchestrated; a movie starts forming in my head when I listen to it. The third movement is a beautiful instrumental. It begins slowly, like the bridal march for the young man and mountain maiden. Slowly, it becomes a dance, a slow celebration of their union. Well played (par for this album), and a nice way to slow things down a bit before more toe-tapping numbers. "Come, young man/Come to the mountain/We will treat you/We have chosen a bride for you this night/Yea, thou shalt have the wild and fair mountain-maiden."

Oravais minuet- This song builds up very nicely, I find it easy to keep the beat, which is not the German polka one thinks of. The Scandinavian polska beat is hard to get a handle on at first--you really have to make yourself tap it out. But for me this song makes it fairly. More of the good playing, and a nice transition into the next dance. There is an added wooden flute/whistle at the end that is a nice change in sound, a great touch.

Lillie dense... / Dance a little...- This is a pub song if I ever heard one...or at least one of those dances that liven up the party when it's started to slow down. Driving drums, the song keeps a good pace and steadily builds into something verging on frantic playing. Wild and wonderful. "Hug me a little, that would be possible/What are you doing, that is too much/Oh! Behave yourself, or I will scream!"

Hjaðningaríma- More excellent acapella arrangement in the opening of this song...then the vocals are fast and furious, sounding akin to Celtic mouth music. Some of the background vocals incorporate the traditional Swedish shepherd calls, high and soaring, and in other places, they are low and minor. The song is an adaptation of an Icelandic rune poem about trolls, giants and witches. There is some excellent mandolin and percussion playing, including hand-clapping. This song is a treat. "The forest giant uttered mighty bellows/Through the field of winds (air)/ Enormous floods of water/Cascaded from the castle of storms (sky)."

Sinivatsa / Dolphin calling- The opening few minutes of this song are Jenny Wilhelms' "dialogue" with dolphin in Australia. The sound of ocean waves in the background, and the wordless vocals are soothing and ethereal, sort of New-Agey. Then, the waves break and a marimba-like instrument start a groove. The drums pick it up and soon you are swept away by more amazing choral harmonies and Wilhelms' beautiful voice. The dolphins are heard throughout the song, and it is a surprisingly good addition. Oftentimes, whale song or dolphins or even the sea sounds are silly in songs, but here they are used artistically, sort of sampled and spliced, looped and worked into the broadcloth of the music. This is certainly the least folky of any of the songs on Sjofn, but a good way to end the disk. "From within seven open waters/From under the ninth wave/To sport with the lively whale/To ride the stream-swimmer."

 


Loreena McKennitt

The Book of Secrets
Quinlan Road, 1997

Track Listing: Prologue; The Mummer's Dance; Skellig; Marco Polo; The Highwayman; La Serenissima; Night Ride Across the Caucasus; Dante's Prayer
Highlights: Marco Polo; Night Ride Across the Caucasus; Dante's Prayer; Loreena's songwriting and arranging; Brian Hughes' playing; awesome percussion throughout; the CD booklet and liner notes, including entries from Loreena about the inspirations for each song, is brilliant.
Lowlights: Some lulls in mood are difficult to recover from (La Serenissima in particular).
Overall Rating: 95/100

Prologue- A gradual building of sound layers and ethnic flavors that make up the albums pallet. Ethereal vocals, just the right amount of percussion and the esraj. A great way to begin the journey of this album.

The Mummer's Dance- The poppy single that got mainstream radio play is loaded with excellent musicianship. From the opening hurdy-gurdy to the subtle use of Brian Hughes' electric guitar tacets, to the lovely string arrangements and deliciously precise percussion, there is not an off moment. And not one soloist takes the spotlight away from anyone else, creating an aura of pure professionalism and harmony. Loreena's vocals and lyrics are poetic and haunting. She uses a chorus from a traditional mumming song in this piece. "When in the springtime of the year/When the trees are crowned with leaves/When the ash and oak, and the birch and yew/Are dressed in ribbons fair//When owls call the breathless moon/In the blue veil of the night/The shadows of the trees appear/Amidst the lantern light."

Skellig- The way the whistle enters in the opening of this song harkens to the shores of Ireland and the Skellig Islands from which the title comes. The story of the work is performed in such a way that Loreena's voice leaves one feeling as alone and isolated as the monks that inhabited the lonely monasteries on the weather blasted rocks. Subtle playing of both the guitar and violin are ghosts inside the track itself. "I'd hear the ocean breathe/Exhaled upon the shore/I knew the tempest's blood/Its wrath I would endure"

Marco Polo- Intricate and moving hand percussion and a bass drum so deep that they rattle the soul and entice it to groove from beat one. The various string solos have a decidedly Middle Eastern feel to them, and the hurdy-gurdy is just another rhythmic instrument in the background. Loreena's wordless vocals seem a bit of a distraction that interrupts the truly divine session these musicians played for the track. Since Loreena records everything live (at least that's what I heard, better double check), the perfection of this track is even more punctuated.

The Highwayman- Adapted from a lyric poem by poet Alfred Noyes, Loreena has another success at literary to musical translation. This is the disks longest track by nearly two minutes (listing at 10:19!), but surprisingly, the repetition of the verse structure and music patterns are not at all boring. This is mostly due to Brian Hughes' intriguing guitar and bouzouki arrangements, solos, and fills. He is truly a master of his instrument. There are other hidden jewels in the track, to include more soaring violin soloing by Hugh Marsh, a snare drum accent, and dramatic string swells that follow the story and enhance it. "Still on a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,/When the moon is a ghostly galleon, tossed upon the cloudy seas,/When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,/A highway man comes riding,/Riding, riding,/A highway man comes riding, up to the old inn-door."

La Serenissima- A track worthy of its' name, as it is one of the most serene tracks on the disk. Loreena's harp-playing is wonderful, and the accent of strings and a rarely-heard Victorian guitar played by Robin Jeffery, this song is a lullaby, recalling the canals of Venice at the height of the Italian Renaissance. Luxurious.

Night Ride Across the Caucasus- Moving percussion sets again the listener's feet on the path of journey, leading one over the high, wind-swept steppes and ridges in a nomadic caravan. Again, Brian Hughes is stellar on the oud, acoustic guitar, and bouzouki. The vocals are sweeping as they carry the traveler's prayers and blessings, hopes and dreams. The lyrics of this track are a particular favorite of mine and some of Loreena's most poetic. "Find the answers, ask the questions/Find the roots of an ancient tree/ Take me dancing, take me singing/ I'll ride on till the moon meets the sea."

Dante's Prayer- This is one of my favorite songs, and one of Loreena's very best. The song opens with ethereal keyboard and the rich, deep toned strains of a Russian Orthodox choir. Letting the bass of the vocals flow over into the entrance of the solo piano and cello, the subtle beginnings of this song bring tears to the eyes. Fellow Canadian artist, Caroline Lavelle, does some of her best cello playing on this track, and Loreena's piano is simply haunting. There are allusions to scenes from the Divine Comedy and it is a treat for those who love the epic poem by Dante. The vocals are left clear and unmolested by echo or distortion, pure. Purity is the spirit of this track. "Though we share this humble path, alone/How fragile is the heart/Oh give these clay feet wings to fly/To touch the face of the stars//Breathe life into this feeble heart/Lift this mortal veil of fear/Take these crumbled hopes, etched with tears/We'll rise above these earthly cares//Cast your eyes on the ocean/Cast your soul to the sea/When the dark night seems endless/Please remember me/Please remember me."

 


 

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