|©1997 Quinlan Road
2. The Mummers' Dance
4. Marco Polo
5. The Highwayman
6. La Serenissima
7. Night Ride Across The Caucasus
8. Dante's Prayer
Music is well said to be the speech of angels; in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near to the infinite. - Thomas Carlyle
If Carlyle's sage words be true, then Loreena McKennitt is no less than a beautific seraph of the highest order, or perhaps an Elysian goddess in her own right. Or quite conceivably the greatest singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist of our time. For the edification of those unfortunate souls unfamiliar with her music, she writes modern Celtic, fused with Eastern melodies and perhaps folk. One of the most learned musicians I've come across, McKennitt has in the past set poems by Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Yeats to song. While her earlier releases treat British and Celtic traditions exquisitely, she has since come to embrace the Byzantine and Islamic, not coincidentally paralleling her own travels and quest for self-knowledge. The packaging reads like a diary of her life's journeys, documenting events that have shaped her life and inspired her to compose. Adorning the front, and backed by a golden mosque-like pattern, her serene, solemn visage looks almost mythical, angelic, an indelible image captured in a time and place long lost from memory.
The Book of Secrets begins with "Prologue", an ethereal vocal melody backed by a drone and subtle yet vivid instrumentation. What follows is the radio hit "The Mummers' Dance", a livelier, happier folk song dedicated to the springtime fertility dance of yore. Interwoven in "The Mummer's Dance" is the chorus to a traditional mumming song, which had been sung in Abingdon of Oxfordshire. The grave, melancholy "Skellig" comes next, reciting the somber tale of Irish monks settling in the Skellig islands in the Middle Ages, transcribing classical texts and saving the words of the ancients for generations to come. "Marco Polo" has a decidedly Eastern flavor, featuring an authentic Sufi melody that sounds as if we are shown an evocative scene from an Egyptian or Moroccan bazaar. But the radiant jewel of this album comes with "The Highwayman", a tragic account in strophes, set to Alfred Noyes' poem of the same name. The poetical imagery of 18th century England, and sophisticated text expression (snares evoking King George's soldiers, taps alluding to hoof beats) make this an ode for the ages. "La Serenissima" is as suggestive as its name, an instrumental to Venice, "the 'most serene' and most glittering city of the Adriatic." "Night Ride Across the Caucasus" includes one of the most beautiful vocal choruses from here to eternity, Loreena McKennitt at her most dynamic and ascendant. The hallowed "Dante's Prayer" closes with an upwardly scaling melody that fades away with the lines "please remember me…"
When it comes to the rich, subtle layering of instrumentation and tone color tapestry, Loreena is supreme. The instruments used in The Book of Secrets include vocals, piano, keyboards, harp, kanoun, accordion, cello, acoustic guitar, mandola, mandolin, assembled drone, vocal drone, snare drum, hurdy gurdy, bodhran, serangi, rebec, lira da braccio, oud, electric guitar, bouzouki, guitar synthesizer, classical guitar, victorian guitar, mandocello, drums, percussion, viola da gamba, violin, tabla, timba, acoustic bass, tin whistle, shawm, and a string quartet. Music does not get any sweeter with all these tools at your disposal! And of course, who can omit Loreena's voice, her most resplendent instrument? Hauntingly beautiful, sweetly timeless, words give ill justice to the sensation. Her lyrics too have no equals, but here I'll stop, and let her do the talking.
From "Night Ride Across the Caucasus":
There are visions, there are memories
In the velvet of the darkness
Cascading stars on the slumbering hills
Take me with you on this journey
Find the answers, ask the questions
Ride on - Through the night - Ride on
Review by Jeffrey Shyu
Review date: 01/2000