The Pagan Rock Page: Album Reviews


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Alchemy VII: The Magick Vol. 1

Released under their former name of Gina's Alchemy, this debut disc from Alchemy VII is a gift from the Gods for everyone who looks at '90s (and early millennial) rock with skepticism. Alchemy VII recalls everything that made rock great in the '70s and '80s: a sense of hope and optimism and plain old good times, buoyed by a great beat, solid musicianship, and soaring vocals. Fans of Rush, Kansas, and other "progressive" rock of that era will certainly be comfortable with the band's sprawling, mood-shifting song structures; those with a more "pop" leaning will get into the vocal and instrumental hooks. The band cooks, moving effortlessly from blazing stadium rock to funk-inflected riffs to scorching guitar solos. Lead vocalist Gina Citoli welds it all together with a voice that pours out quicksilver streams. And the songs! I've heard several complaints that too much pagan rock is in "spooky" minor keys, with lyrics reinforcing the worst stereotypes of our mundane critics. These people should check out Alchemy VII. Their tunes offer a call to build new worlds of knowledge and harmony ("The Alchemist"), and celebrate the pure vision of the young ("Eyes of A Child"). The multi-part "Earth Song" suite offers a nice mid-album tribal break from the pounding rock, and features some great harmonized vocals. The next big pagan thing?

Scott's picks: "The Alchemist", "Earth Song"

Annwn: Anarchy and Rapture

There are quite a few bands these days doing various takes on Celtic-inflected rock music (my own among them), but few can claim as much booty-shaking funk as San Francisco’s Annwn. The six-member band draws its instrumentation equally from folk music (fiddle, flute) and electric rock, producing a hybrid that suggests a jazzier and harder-hitting Jethro Tull. At first listen, I didn’t care much for Leigh Ann Hussey’s vocals, but with repeated listens, I’ve come to accept that she’s doing the best she can with what she’s got - listen to the killer funk-rock of “Follow Me Up to Carlow”, and then try to accuse her of slacking. Her fiddle playing integrates well with the slinky flute stylings of Billie Mandel and the group’s guitarists; at some point or another, everybody (including the bass player) gets a solo. The group’s vision occasionally leads them into some odd musical marriages, as in their version of “She Moved Through the Fair”, which starts with bizarre layers of vocal and synthesized percussion before moving into a hurried arrangement of the tune, which detracts from the eerieness of its tale. When they hit, though, they hit but good, exemplified best in “Follow Me Up to Carlow” and the lovely harmonies of “The Parting Glass”. The original vocal songs belie the pagan influences on the band. Leigh Ann’s “Black Eye, Yellow Eye”, a pagan anthem in the making, invokes the totems of raven and wolf as the initiate embarks on the shaman’s trail, while Billie’s “Awakening” is a more general song of mystical union. Recommended for those who are equally at home with Jethro Tull and, say, Van Halen.

Scott’s picks: “Black Eye, Yellow Eye”, “Follow Me Up to Carlow”

Avalon Rising: Avalon Rising

With their debut CD, Avalon Rising offers their own fusion of traditional Celtic and medieval instrumentation (harp, octave mandolin, recorder, and Middle Eastern percussion) with electric rock sounds and attitude. The result is an enchanting musical stew, alternating between delicately melodic and groove-laden. Much of the delicacy is due to the prominence of the harp on several tunes, most notably “God Walks Among Us”, where it provides a lovely counterpoint to the 12-string guitar. AR has its rocking moments, though, such as in “To the Sea”, where a slow synth and vocal intro leads into a briskly uptempo, ska-inflected tune. The musicianship throughout is solid, with well-crafted arrangements and lovely harmonies. I would prefer, however, to hear Kristoph Klover’s voice placed a little more prominently in the mix, as it tends to blend timbrally with his guitar. The songs range from traditional Celtic ballads (“The Great Selkie”) to a medieval Portuguese court song (“Contre Le Tens/Toda Cousa”) to originals by several band members and pagan singer/songwriter Cynthia McQuillan, and cluster around themes of longing, fantasy, and the sea. A good choice for fans of Celtic and acoustic rock.

Scott’s picks: “To the Sea”, “The Great Selkie”

Coven 13: Book of Shadows

I've gotten quite used to receiving albums from pagan music duos; it seems to be one of the more stable configurations at the moment. Coven 13's album, however, presented a different twist on the pagan rock duo: a male singer and a female accompanist - quite the reverse of the normal situation. Moreover, where most duos go for a folky or gothic/darkwave sound, neither of those fit Coven 13, which melds impassioned, almost prog-rock vocals (think a darker version of Marillion's Fish) with classically-influenced piano, synths, and sequenced drums. As far as pure singing ability goes, Teisen Russell is perhaps the best male vocalist I've heard this year - rich, beautiful tone. And though some of the tunes suffer from leaden percussion and less-than-convincing crunch guitar sounds, Amanda Adams plays beautiful piano, both delicate and powerful in turn, and delightfully complimentary to Teisen's lyrical themes, which tend toward Gothic expressions of longing, desire, and alienation. Don't think that this is only music for Goths, though - if you liked the musical Phantom of the Opera, I bet you'll love Coven 13.

Scott's picks: "Carnival Ride", "And Oh, How I've Wanted You"

Def FX: Majick

Looking for nice, safe, New Age music? Sorry, we’re fresh out. Def FX is unabashedly technological, relying on synths, sampling, and thrash guitar riffs to carry their infectious tunes. The whole reminds me of the more recent White Zombie, or some of the harder-edge techno that’s on the scene these days; the band definitely has what it takes to appeal to a larger, non-pagan audience. I could certainly imagine songs from this album being played in any Saturday night dance club. The riffs are huge, the drum programming (augmented by occasional guest drummers) is slamming, and the bass is just fat. My only gripe with the album is that, like many dance records, the lyrics are pushed just far enough down in the mix that you sometimes can’t tell exactly what Fiona’s saying (there’s no lyric sheet, either, although one is available on the band’s Web site). This is unfortunate, because Def FX is far and above the mediocre lyrical abilities of their peers in this genre. I mean, how often do you hear the word “hyperspatial” used in popular music? The songs on Majick range lyrically from explorations of the nature of time (“Linear time, it’s a wonderful lie” - “Deja Vu”) to exposes of society’s ills and their ultimate source (“God Rod”). “Hymn to Her” is a particular standout, opening with a solo didgeridoo, flowing into a hypnotic chant of Goddess names. Definitely a band to watch.

Scott’s picks: “I’ll Be Your Majick”, “Hymn to Her”

Francesca De Grandis: Pick the Apple From the Tree

With her debut album, Francesca explores sounds that, while not what I’d call “rock” as such, are intimately linked with the roots of rock and roll: jazz, blues, and Celtic music, which came into rock through its influence on American country and bluegrass. In the process, she’s produced an album that can perhaps best be described as “pagan soul music”. Songs like “Love is the Magic” and “My Father’s Eyes, My Daughter’s Hands”, in particular, resonate with the stirring qualities of deep blues and African-American spirituals, although Francesca’s voice has far more of a “clear mountain stream” than a “whiskey and cigarettes” quality. A good third of the album consists of a capella or minimally accompanied chants, all of them originals, which could be beautifully employed in a Wiccan circle. The remainder of the tracks are marked by the distinguishing presence of guitarist Bruce Smith, who lends a Steve Ray Vaughan/Jimi Hendrix blues vibe to the instrumentation. Francesca’s lyrical talents are diverse, handling with equal facility songs of injustice (“My Father’s Eyes...”), smoky love songs (“Darling, I Want You”), and tunes with a more esoteric theme, such as “Our Maypole Waits”, whose initiatory overtones actually slipped past me on first hearing. If you’re put off by more modern rock, or have eclectic tastes, this is a great choice for your collection.

Scott’s picks: “Our Maypole Waits”, “My Father’s Eyes, My Daughter’s Hands”

Direwolf: Direwolf

Did I once label this “Southern rock”? Just goes to show the dangers of judging bands by their Internet musical samples (at least until the technology hits CD quality). This 9-track CD showcases Direwolf’s energetic rock with a series of hard-hitting performances. Their instrumental skills are phenomenal; Randy Joe Duke, in particular, burns on his leads, mixing standard rock/metal guitar licks with a touch of country and psycho-hillbilly influence. The rhythm section (Tom Daley on bass and Kevin McBride on drums) provide a rock-solid foundation, and take the music beyond the first-glance hard rock stereotype with groovin’ slap bass and tribal percussion on the instrumental “Tao” and the percussion jam in the middle of “Live and Learn”. Lyrically, the pagan influences are subtle, poking through mostly in the imagery with which Randy Joe ornaments his songs bemoaning the state of the nation (“Cats and Dogs”, “Live and Learn”) and recounting the women who’ve loved and scarred him (“Embrace the Night”, “The Banishing”). “Raven” is the most Wiccan of the tunes here, saluting his priestess with a fivefold kiss, which makes this almost a pagan AC/DC tune(!). The vocals could use a little push forward in the mix, and Randy Joe’s voice could be a little stronger, but he makes an honest effort, coming across with particular sincerity in “The Banishing”. In a time of snotty, sneering slacker rock, Direwolf’s energy and precision is a refreshing change, and makes great music for post-ritual celebration, or post-work week release.

Scott’s picks: “Tao”, “Live and Learn”

Dreamchild: Gates to the Sea

The members of Dreamchild are greatly concerned with the sea, as might be inferred from the title of their debut album. Cheryl Wanner’s lyrics approach the sea both of itself and as a metaphor for the deeper unconscious, supported by her bass and delicate wire-strung harp. Guitarist Frank Gerace crafts a sonic palette which owes more to whalesong and horses (“Sea Horses”) than typical guitar-hero tonalities, although hints of the latter emerge at times. Together, the two create aural spaces which ebb and flow, pulse and breathe (aided and abetted by the overall lack of percussion).The lyrical content tends toward a Gothic darkness overall, culminating in their three-song ‘Titanic’ suite (“Steel Tomb”, “Murias II”, “Down From the Air”). The duo entwines strands of the Celtic myth tradition in several songs, particularly “Silver Brow”, in which Cerridwen prophecies the coming of Taliesin/Gwion Bach. Don’t expect dance music, but definitely check this out for engaging, emotionally responsive music.

Scott’s picks: “Sea Horses”, “Through the Gate”

Druidspear: Gotterfunken Volume 1 (All Your Little Beasties)

To fill the interval before the release of their next studio album, Druidspear offers this limited-edition live EP, recorded at three shows in 1997 with a varietyof personnel. Unlike the average live album, this release features mostly new material, with only one track from their debut ...Slow (“Homeland”) making an appearance. The most immediate thing I noticed on first listen is that the problems with mix levels that marred their previous album are mostly absent here; James Binning’s vocals cut through the orchestrated acoustic guitars and other instrumentation with a much-needed clarity. The acoustic setting produces a slightly folkier vibe than ...Slow, although the trademark ‘Spear eclecticism is very much in evidence, veering off into pop and jazz territory. The lush keyboards of the closing instrumental “Her Throne of Stars” even conjures a New Age-ish feel, but without the navel-gazing I’d typically associate with that genre. The occasional flubbed note and such are, on the whole, forgivable - one takes those chances when recording live sets. Hopefully, the quality of both the tunes and the recording is a forecast of things to come in the new album.

Scott’s picks: “Her Silence”, “Loving Net”

Druidspear: ....Slow

Druidspear starts with a proven formula: acoustic guitars strumming out folky rhythms, played against rock drums and bass, with a vocalist who sings rather than howls. Rather than settling for this sound, though, they’ve incorporated strands of other musical genres ranging from Pink Floyd-ish psychedelia, evident mostly in the lead guitar tones and motifs, to Gothic jazz (particularly in “This Fog”). The end result is a sparse, brainy album which goes from ambient washes of sound (“A Maiden’s Shame”) to briskly strummed folk-pop (“Lullaby”, “Awake the Bloom”). The musicianship throughout is excellent, with Ian-Paul Rushbury’s bass work weaving a solid support throughout; the vocals, however, present something of a problem. It’s not that James Binning is a bad singer, but his tonal range and the overall mix tend to bury his singing beneath the rhythm guitars, obscuring his well-crafted lyrics. Guitarist Jayne Powell’s foray into lead vocals (“In His Shoes”) is somewhat more intelligible, due probably to her higher range. Overall, this is a very enjoyable album, and well worth the effort to track down, even for those of us who live on this side of the Atlantic.

Scott’s picks: “Pagan Road”, “Awake the Bloom”

The Dryads: goltraighe

The Dryads bill themselves as a “Celtic darkwave” band; on their debut CD, however, there is much more darkwave than Celtic influence evident. goltraighe (a Gaelic word referring to ancient harpers’ ability to evoke tears through their playing) is resplendent with the dark synthesizers and drum programming characteristic of this subgenre of Gothic music, with the Celtic side of their personality coming through strongly only on the instrumental “River’s Edge”, which evokes images of smallpipe or hurdy-gurdy. This is not to say that the album is disappointing - the Dryads do darkwave very well, movving smoothly from the pulsing dance beats of “Shiver” to the whalesong-like dirge which underlies “Deep Six”. Christian Ryan’s vocals sit a bit back in the mix, which, combined with his pseudo-British vocal stylings, makes the words of the songs difficult to decipher, especially in the absence of a lyric sheet. (It should be noted that this is characteristic of most Goth music, and not a trait peculiar to this band.) The pagan influence in the Dryads’ songs is subtle, coming to the fore most prominently in “Walls”, which invokes Dionysus as the spiritual father of the “old order” which the song condemns. This album should go over well with the goth-pagan crossover crowd, and with those who enjoy the darker side of dance music.

Scott’s picks: “Shiver”, “River’s Edge”

Emerald Rose: Bending Tradition

For their second CD, Emerald Rose had the benefit of much more available studio time - several months' worth of weekends instead of thirteen hours. Bending Tradition reflects both that additional studio time and the two years of gigging and songwriting since their last release. The band has matured wonderfully, both as performers and songwriters. As with their debut, this disc mingles traditional tunes with original compositions; unlike their previous disc, the traditional tunes have a distinctive Emerald Rose feel, most apparent in their rocking, bluesy arrangement of "Red-Haired Mary". It's on the original tunes, though, that the band's growth is most evident. A few songs follow a traditional mold, including two sets of original dance tunes and two ballads, "Penny in the Well" and the sweetly hopeful "Hills of America". Other tunes are more contemporary - and, by curious coincidence, more pagan. "Freya Shakti" is a slinky, beat-driven chant destined to be a pagan bonfire classic, "Fire in the Head" is a shamanic poem in the vein of Taliesin and Amergin set to a pulsing acoustic rhythm, and "Pagan Girl" follows in the footsteps of their "Never Underestimate a Woman..." with its witty tale of the search for the perfect pagan mate. Perhaps the most beautiful tune on the album, though, is Emerald Rose's haunting arrangement of Jerome Geisinger's "Castle of Arianrhod", a gorgeous retelling of Bran's tale from the Mabinogion. At this rate, Emerald Rose will be sitting high atop the Celtic crowd before long.

Scott's picks: "Castle of Arianrhod", "Freya Shakti"

Emerald Rose: Emerald Rose

This Georgia four-piece displays a curious blend of acoustic Celtic and more modern music on their debut CD. On the one hand, they perform fairly faithful versions of traditional Irish and Scottish songs such as “Star of the County Down” and “Donald MacGillavry”. On the other, their original tunes show the influence of more contemporary rock and country music, although they are still firmly rooted in an acoustic folk style. It’s not as schizophrenic a mix as it might sound; the multi-layered male vocal harmonies and brisk acoustic guitars lend a sense of continuity that binds the disparate influences of the album. The band acquits itself fairly well, although their Gaelic influences are a little too open - it’s obvious that “Star of the County Down” and “Donald MacGillavry” were learned from Chieftains and Silly Wizard albums, respectively, and their rendition of the latter fails to equal the sheer aggressiveness of the original (although it has a cool percussion part). The originals are less imitative, and display some lovely songwriting and imagery, although their ode to the peanut-butter sandwich (“My PBJ”) would probably not have been missed if it didn’t make the album. In all, a credible debut - I see great potential for them in the future as they synthesize their influences more fully into a unique sound.

Scott’s picks: “Summerland”, “Dagger of the Moon”

Gaia Consort: Gaia Circles

The best way to sum up Gaia Consort's first album is to say that, a week after I acquired the CD, my fiancee had to threaten violence to my person to get me to relinquish it to her. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Christopher Bingham and his gifted partners and accomplices have crafted an album that is as meaningful as it is catchy, and as potentially appealing to mainstream audiences as to the "in the know" pagan community. Bingham has a rare gift for writing excellent pop songs, melding wonderfully percussive acoustic guitar riffs with beautiful imagery and insightful lyrics. More than any other band I've ever heard, Gaia Consort's songs capture the day-to-day pagan life, rather than celebrating the Sabbats or praising specific deities. "The Rede (An It Harm None)" states the core of pagan ethics beautifully in verse, while "Gathering" weaves a circle invocation into a powerful statement of community. The bluesy ballad "The Old Ones" decries the deforestation of our old-growth woodlands (featuring a killer guitar solo), and is balanced nicely by "Move to the Country", which gently pokes fun at the stereotypical hippie-pagan lifestyle. The instrumental framing for these songs is as striking as the lyrics; the members of the band surround Chris's words with funky percussion, emotive fretless bass lines, and singing, scorching fiddle (provided by Heather Alexander, herself a singer and songwriter of no small talent). This is an album which will refuse to leave your CD player for years on end.

Scott's picks: "Gathering", "Gaia Circles"

Inkubus Sukkubus: Away With the Faeries

Away With the Faeries, a limited-edition release from Inkubus Sukkubus, includes both new studio tracks and live material culled from their entire back catalogue. The new tracks feature only the songwriting core of IS - vocalist/lyricist Candia and guitarist/keyboardist Tony McCormack - with the remaining instruments being filled out by a variety of programmed tracks. Ironically, these tracks may be some of the most focused studio recordings the band has ever released. The use of a drum machine isn’t that far removed from the band’s normally metronomic percussion, and the layers of synth tracks allow Tony’s expertise at composition and arrangement to shine like never before, especially in the absence of full-bore guitar solos. The lyrics have a decidedly psychedelic bent, with multiple references to organic hallucinogens and passionate ecstasies of both flesh and spirit. The live tracks effectively convey the energy level (considerable!) present at a good IS gig, but the occasional vocal warble and Tony’s inhumanly-processed guitar tones make this half of the disk a little less rewarding for casual fans. All told, a new and welcome step in the evolution of Inkubus Sukkubus.

Scott’s picks: “Away With the Faeries”, “Turnera”

Inkubus Sukkubus: Heartbeat of the Earth

This is Inkubus Sukkubus’ third full-length album, and while they retain most of the elements that have made them a huge success (relatively speaking) in the UK and Europe, they’ve finally eliminated what I thought was one of the more annoying tendencies in their music: this album has fewer diatribes against the Church than any previous IS work, and the ones that remain (“Catherine”, Witch Hunt”) are more subtle in their approach. Lead vocalist Candia continues to make brilliant use of her smoky, rich voice, and guitarist Tony McCormack continues to overplay the five lead licks he knows. The guitar work is actually the most disappointing thing about this album; the songs, and Candia’s voice, deserve better than Tony’s simplistic power-chord rhythm approach. On a few tracks, though, a more melodic lead approach shines through (“Corn King”, for example). How about more of this in the future? The goth elements are still there (the synth strings, the vampyre songs, etc.), but this band is by no means your average doom-and-gloom goth group; they’re far Positive, let’s say. Lyrically, the songs are no great works of bardcraft (not that most pop/rock music is, of course), but they’re utterly infectious and cut pretty close to the heart of the British pagan experience. Overall, this is a good effort from the band - hopefully they’ll continue to improve with future releases.

Scott’s picks: “Corn King”, “Heartbeat of the Earth”

Fritz Jung: Celtic Feast of the Dead

When he’s not busy maintaining one of the most comprehensive pagan sites on the Web (the Witches’ Voice, in collaboration with his lovely partner Wren), Fritz Jung occasionally finds time to craft some really good pop music. Celtic Feast of the Dead collects his first (!) set of original tunes, along with some covers reflecting his influences (Crowded House to NRBQ). It’s obvious that Fritz is a child of the Sixties - his musical settings reflect much of the timeless music of that era. I could almost close my eyes and list “Beatles, Donovan, ...” Well, okay, my own knowledge of specific Sixties artists may fail me, but Fritz has captured the essence of the tunes my parents used to play on the radio, all the while interlacing them with his own unique vocal and lyrical style. The themes here range from alternative healing (“Be Well”) to spellcraft (“Candle Wick”) to the festival scene (“Starwood”), all rendered with an utterly infectious pop sensibility. Remember those songs that you couldn’t get out of your head for days? Make them pagan, and you might get Fritz Jung. A classic.

Scott’s picks: “Staring at the Trees”, “Color Me Pagan”

Legend: Second Sight

My first thought when I started playing this CD is that the band sounded like Rush, but that may only be because I’ve been listening to too much Rush lately, and the comparison becomes inevitable whenever you come across a band with both prominent keyboards and a good rock guitar sound. The comparison isn’t actually that bad - like Rush, Legend tends toward longer than radio-length songs (up to thirteen minutes), and complex arrangements, including intricate meter changes, all of which they manage with nary a sweat broken. They must be amazing to see live. Steve Paine’s keyboards flow smoothly between background chords and melodic lead lines, while Paul Thomson lays down well-placed riffs and singing solos over a tight rhythm section. The least rock-like thing about this band is their vocalist. Debbie Chapman has clearly had some sort of formal voice training - she sounds more like an opera singer than your average rock banshee. This works against her in a few places: some of the songs, such as “The Wild Hunt,” lyrically suggest a more aggressive approach than she’s willing or able to provide; her English accent occasionally twists some words beyond my ability to recognize them without the lyric sheet; and she throws in a few trilled ‘r’s which seem really inappropriate to my ear. On their version of Robb Johnson’s “I Close My Eyes,” though, her delivery is in such contrast to the lyrics that it really throws attention on the poignance of the story. It’s like pineapple pizza - it seems odd, but it tastes great once you’ve tried it. The songs themselves are well-crafted, following the age-old themes of renewal and healing (“New Horizons,” “The Healer”), and exploring the infamous Arthurian villain (“Mordred”) with a slant that suggests a Mists of Avalon influence. Final analysis: if you like rock with brains and finesse, a solid album.

Scott’s picks: “I Close My Eyes”, “Mordred”

Legend: Triple Aspect

The most immediate thing that you notice when you pop this disc in the player is that, although it’s over an hour in length, the index only lists five tracks. Legend’s predilection for epic songs reaches new heights with this album - the title track is a five-movement composition which is nearly half an hour in length. I can’t imagine how these musicians could come up with the stamina to play this song live in its entirety, never mind actually remembering all the parts. Triple Aspect’s songs, though, don’t feel padded, unlike one or two tracks on Second Sight. “Lyonesse,” for instance, starts off with two minutes of instrumental intro, followed by four minutes of Debbie’s etheric singing over a gentle keyboard figure before the rest of the band kicks in to lend drive to the second half of the song - but it works. If anything, the band’s arrangements have only gotten tighter, and Paul Thomson proves that he’s more than capable of handling bass duties in the wake of the band’s parting with Martyn Rouski. A new rhythmic sense also makes an appearance in a few songs: the infectious chorus to “Holly King,” or the downright funky adaptation of the Charge of the Goddess that segues from “Mother” to “Crone” in “Triple Aspect”. Debbie still sounds far too cultured to be a rock singer, and her occasional trilled ‘r’ still jostles my nerves, but the songs on this album are better suited to her delivery, and her final line in “Crone” is pure bliss. Overall, this is an excellent album, and well worth the price of admission for the title track alone.

Scott’s picks: “Holly King”, “Triple Aspect”.

Polly Moller: Summerland

If you couldn't handle Polly's debut album, you probably shouldn't bother with this one. Polly's soundscapes are as eerie, her playing as amazing (bordering on Hendrixian), and her poetic subjects as obscure. This time around, there are some slight nods at more "commercial" sounds, especially in her cover of Thomas Dolby's classic "One of Our Submarines", which Polly casts, after an unaccompanied vocal verse, in minimalist bass and drum backing with her flute handling the original synth lead lines. Summerland also dives deeper into the Celtic waters which were hinted at on her first album - not musically, but lyrically, with songs about the obscure Irish death god ("Don Dorcha's Revel") and the much-sought-after Deirdre ("Blood Sugar"), as well as a Gaelic tune by Diarmit MacDiarma ("Gaoth Barra ndTonn"). One of the most interesting tunes on the album is the opener "Aurora", which describes the return of the dawn goddess as a jet plane(!). Again, Polly does what only she can - or perhaps is willing to - do.

Scott's picks: "Don Dorcha's Revel", "Pelen Tan"

Polly Moller: Taste the Wall

Polly Moller's debut album is probably not something you want to use for party music, unless your gatherings frequently simulate the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. Listening to this album while actually on hallucinogens might in fact be actively dangerous. Polly is a beat poet, gifted flautist, and all-around musical eccentric. Her tunes are marked by monotone poetry, haunting flute lines, some programmed percussion, and assorted electronic squeals, washes, and other effects, which generally contributes to the feeling that you've been bodily transported to an alien world which is trying to make up its mind whether it wants to be benign or malignant. The lyrical themes deal with subjects and sensations as diverse as the feeling of smoking ("Smoke"), breaking down society's barriers to the free spirit ("Taste the Wall"), and a truly disturbing narration of reincarnation centering around a scene at a zoo ("Four Lives"). Definitely music for those who disdain the norm.

Scott's picks: "Skara Brae", "Smoke"

The Moors: The Moors

It’s not too unusual, in these post-modern days, for pagans to fuse various cultural motifs into their spiritual practices. The Moors, however, have taken the traditionalist route: the lyrical themes of their music are exclusively Celtic (or, more precisely, Gaelic), and many of the songs are sung or chanted in Scottish Gaelic. Moreover, Moors singer/lyricist/multi-instrumentalist Sharynne NicMhaca knows whereof she speaks, having studied the language and worked with the Celtic Department at Harvard. She’s woven together strands of ancestral memory, modern Celtic scholarship, and Otherworld journeying to produce the utterly intoxicating mix of songs found on the Moors’ debut disc. Assisting her is rhythm programmer, sonic sculptor, and guitarist extraordinare Scott Dakota, who weaves ambient loops, tribal drums, and Arabesque riffs around NicMhaca’s haunting vocals. The Moors tend towards long (8-10 minute) songs, characterized by trance-inducing repetition and wordless vocal lines. In fact, this album would be an excellent shamanic tool for those interested in the Celtic path. This is not to say, however, that the music has no purely entertainment value; “Dea Noctu” and the instrumental “The Snake That Coils Within, Without” feature guitar riffs akin to Led Zeppelin’s Moroccan-influenced tunes, while “The Hunter/Cernunnos” would go over well at any Goth dance club. Required listening for Celtic pagans; highly recommended to everyone.

Scott’s picks: “Dea Noctu”, “The Blessings and Descent of the Goddess Bridget”

Craig Olson: Beyond the Cedar Moon

After spending years playing all sorts of music (pop, jazz, rock, folk), Craig Olson has honed his own musical vision down to a blend of contemporary acoustic with tribal percussion - a full moon drumming circle jamming with Bruce Hornsby, if you will. Craig’s songs are full of rich acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment, lushly supporting his songs of honest love, celebration, and reverence for the Earth. A strong Native American influence shows in his writing, with invocations to Eagle, Coyote, Salmon, and Cedar (“Spirit of the Eagle”), as well as more usual themes from the Western pagan tradition, such as the elements (“Circle Song”) and the moon (“See Her Shining”). While the album never achieves a raging rock-out mode, that’s part of its beauty: Craig excels at crafting songs which drift by, allowing you to lose yourself in their textures. The closing tune, “Ave Stella Maris”, is beautifully supported by the background vocals of the Stella Maris Choir, leaving the album to resonate in your head for many minutes. As good as anything you’ll hear on adult contemporary radio - hey, it even gets my mom’s seal of approval!

Scott’s picks: “Beyond the Cedar Moon”, “Ave Stella Maris”

Pius: Pagan Alchemy Vols. 1 & 2

Salem, MA composer Dino Simonetti doesn’t like to limit himself - his projects, released under various monikers, range across the length and breadth of the electronic music spectrum. The Pagan Alchemy titles reside at the ambient end of that continuum, filled with a variety of synth pads and eerie melodies, with an undercurrent of percussion that keeps the music from stagnating beneath its own introspection. Some of the tunes herein would be very suitable for trance work, especially if you prefer a more shamanic, rhythm-oriented approach to trance induction. Others, such as “Far From Home”, are full of quirky, percolating melodic jabs that are better suited for the dance floor. These discs top out at over 70 minutes apiece, so there’s sure to be something in the mix for everyone.

Point of Ares: Enemy Glory

Enemy Glory is an ambitious project: a concept album based around a trilogy of fantasy novels constituting the deathbed confessions of an evil mage, written by vocalist/bassist Karen Michalson. As such, many of the song center lyrically around the theme of individual choice and its consequences, particularly “Slouching Toward Chaos” (“The world we planned to happen didn’t happen/Rolled our dice but the Fates just didn’t get it”). Without the novels (which are as yet unpublished), it’s difficult to relate the individual songs and characters to a storyline, although the individual lyrics stand well on their own. Karen has a bard’s gift for turning a phrase and painting an intriguing (albeit occasionally warped) picture in the listener’s mind; the marriage of lyric and melody, however, often leads a bit to be desired. The meter of some of the lines sounds forced, and Karen’s chanted-whispered delivery obscures a significant portion of the message. One really has to listen to the two spoken-word narratives (“Track” and “Trackless”) for a true appreciation of her poetry. The band’s promo pack describes them as “gothic-tinged progressive rock”. To me, they sound more like progressive-leaning goth rock - I associate progressive rock with much more complex musical structures, whereas Point of Ares hangs Karen’s lyrics on straight-ahead rock progressions with a Bauhaus-like moodiness. Bill and Karen Michalson provide solid guitar and bass work respectively, but the true muso of the group is drummer Kevin Dion, who provides the fire that propels most of the grooves. Expect to spend a lot of time with the lyric sheet during your first few listens, but if you crave moody, narrative rock, it’s well worth the effort.

Scott’s picks: “Threle”, Windlass”

Point of Ares: The Sorrows of Young Apollo

While most contemporary Pagans draw from Celtic, Norse, and Native American influences, Point of Ares’ second album celebrates the pagan history and mythology of Greco-Roman culture. Like Enemy Glory, Apollo is a concept album, “an extended Homeric rock meditation on the loss of heroes and the meaning of the ancient myths to an age of disbelief.” This lofty ideal translates to songs about the martyrdom of Hypatia, the last Pagan philosopher of Alexandria, the tension between divinity and humanity in the figure of Dionysus, and stories of tragic lovers from Leucothoe to Cyparissus, all wrapped in the dense narrative and elegant phrasing of POA vocalist/bassist Karen Michaelson. Be warned, though: if your idea of good female vocals ends with the current Lilith Fair participants, you’re not going to like this album. Karen’s vocals bear little or no resemblance to the pop/rock vocal idiom, emanating more from a storytelling context, like a gothic intersection between the beatnik poets and the bardic tradition. Around this, Karen and guitarist/drummer/programmer Bill Michaelson build musical structures that range from propulsive to delicate, albeit with a slant towards the deviant, such as “Cassandra”, where a swinging verse blends surrealistically into a calliope-esque, nearly atonal chorus and back again. A difficult listen, but a rewarding one.

Scott’s picks: “Hypatia”, “Apollo in Picardy”

Wendy Rule: Deity

On her second album, Wendy continues her explorations of the chamber-goth sound that has become her signature. As usual, her transcendent vocals are the focal point of the record, supported tastefully by keyboardist Craig Patterson and cellist Rachel Samuel (the nucleus of her live band), as well as assorted studio musicians. Wendy’s lyrical themes on this album center around the Underworld and the Goddess(es) thereof, with the singer cast as the seeker who embraces the dark within herself as a means to knowledge. Rather than wearing out the concept, though, Wendy manages to infuse each track with its own life through her considerable poetic gifts, illuminating the theme from different angles in each successive tune. And lest we think that she’s consumed by the dark, Wendy offers up “Shine”, an almost Elton John-esque tune of confidence and affirmation, and a strong contender for “Pagan Pop Single of the Year”. Deity is a very strong follow-up to Zero, and hopefully points the way to many more delightful albums yet to come.

Scott’s picks: “Deity”, “Shine”

Wendy Rule: Zero

Ostensibly, Wendy Rule’s debut CD isn’t exactly “rock”. Rather than driving guitars and flailing drums, her exquisitely clear voice is supported by layers of keyboards, some light percussion, and beautifully crafted cello lines. The energy inherent in these songs, however, puts this album head and shoulders above the monolithic “New Age” label that the instrumentation would seem to imply. Personally, I think of this album as “gothic ethereal”, if one demands a label from me. The majority of the music is in minor keys, and the lyric content revolves around deep introspection. There are songs of perserverance (“Prometheus”), eroticism (“Demigod”, “Beltane”), and the approach to death (“Frost at Midnight”), all rendered with an elegant poeticism that makes Wendy’s lyrics a joy to read even without the CD playing. My biggest complaint is that the album doesn’t end with the title track; “Zero” is such a majestic, beautiful song that it simply cannot be followed. It has the feel of an ending, which makes “Frost at Midnight”, the official final track, somewhat anticlimactic. Recommended for trance work and other times when screaming guitars are just not appropriate.

Scott’s picks: “Continental Isolation”, “Zero”.

Seraphim: Love Light Fire

If the debut album from Seraphim had to be summed up in one word, that word would be atmosphere. The group's songs are liberally splashed with textural elements, both electric (synthesizers, ambient guitars, loops) and acoustic (strings and light percussion), putting flesh on the skeleton of acoustic guitar rhythms that underpin most of the tunes. Seraphim's songs are not new age fodder, though - "River of Emotion" grooves along on an Eastern-sounding bass riff and a fuzz guitar, while "God Save the Queen" pins a tribal beat to a strummed 12-string guitar and a wigged-out psychedelic guitar solo. In contrast, "Merry My Heart" floats over an arpeggiated acoustic surrounded by swelling synths. As a non-mystic, I found Seraphim's lyrical themes to be somewhat obscure, but the vocals are well-rendered by Wade and the angelic-voiced Salina. Recommended for fans of dream-pop and Dead Can Dance-style world music.

Scott's picks: "River of Emotion", "Merry My Heart"

Serpentine: rock the goddess

Serpentine has captured some serious Crone energy on this recording - or so it seems to me, at least. Maybe it’s a gut reaction to her combination of minor keys and Middle Eastern-inflected melodies, which she sprinkles liberally over sampled percussion, synth pads, and some live guitar and bass. Or maybe it’s her keening voice, encompassing both whispered invocation (“invocation to the moon goddess (at the sea)”) and exultant chanting (“rock the goddess”, a funky adaptation of some ‘traditional’ chants). The resulting blend is akin to Dead Can Dance, but with a harsher edge - less croon, more crone? Her lyrics are stream-of-consciousness entities, weaving their way from a child’s refuge (“little witch house”) to a woman’s reclamation of power (“ride my broom”). About half of the album is lyricless, which doesn’t mean voiceless, as Serpentine applies chants and wails over the hypnotic grooves. “Hypnotic” is a key word here - if repetition turns you off, then you probably won’t like this album. If, however, you’re looking for music to guide a new moon meditation, or just to trance out to, then look no further.

Scott’s picks: “heru-ra-ha”, “little witch house”

Shaman: The Green Man

This band definitely has deep roots in the British Isles - both Deirdre and Brahm Stuart capture the Celtic sound faithfully in their vocals, and multi-instrumentalist Brahm juggles guitar, fiddle, mandolin, whistle, and percussion (!) with equal aplomb. Be wary of dismissing them as just another “pagan Celtic folk duo”, though. These two surround themselves and their musical arrangements with a fair number of talented musicians, and their writing encompasses styles as broad as pop (“Can I Know You”), Middle Eastern (“Ancient Laws, Tribal Ways”), and blues/zydeco hybrids (“Sinner”) with confidence and sincerity. Still, it’s on the traditional numbers that they shine the brightest, with “The High Reel Set” ripping through a scorching set of trad tunes that will please even the staunchest folk purist. Shaman compares quite well with the pub bands I saw and loved while I was in Scotland; they have the same energy and the loping rhythmic feel that characterizes really good Celtic music. Their strongest (and most pagan) original songs are likewise the Celtic ones, and on this album emphasize the image of the Forest God as the embodiment of the Earth’s energy (“The Green Man”, “Pan”). Highly recommended for those who love Celtic music but are tired of oversincere, undertalented imitators.

Scott’s picks: “Here’s A Health”, “Pan”

Sun God: Sun God

When Sun God tells you “This is not a normal album” in their liner notes, you’d better believe them. The songs, invocations of various Voudou deities, were channeled by Rodney Orpheus, and as such bear little resemblance to the verse-chorus structure of most popular music. Most of the tunes are built on a bed of repetitive live and sampled percussion grooves, embellished with various synths and sound effects, and coated with Orpheus’ ecstatic, frenzied vocals. The emphasis here is on “frenzied” - I could visualize Orpheus writhing and foaming on the floor of the studio, being ridden by the Loa he was invoking. Needless to say, this is not the sort of thing you’re likely to hear on your local rock station anytime soon. I could, however, envision it being played at a rave, or used as an aid for meditating on or invoking particular Loas in trance work. (The liner notes facilitate this by providing details about each deity, as well as suggesting further reading.) This album definitely pushes the boundaries of sonic art in a pagan/tribal context - one could hope that other bands will take a cue from Sun God and stretch their more accessible work to incorporate more ecstatic techniques and influences.

Scott’s picks: “Erzulie”, “The Ancestors”

Tales of Witchcraft Soundtrack

John Loughman’s new musical represents a milestone in the popular culture of paganism: a multimedia work which treats pagan themes with respect, rather than catering to the demonizing or ‘New Age Fluff’ stereotypes we normally see in movies or TV shows. Although I haven’t seen it performed or read the script, I can testify that the music is amazingly well done. Loughman is a gifted composer and lyricist, and his songs take on a life of their own even outside the context of the overall work. In addition, the performers on the soundtrack CD are all of the highest caliber, providing incredibly clear vocals and musical accompaniment which ranges from plaintive to flat-out rocking. It’s a little difficult to divine all the nuances of the plot from just the lyrics of the songs and the interstitial text in the CD booklet, but here’s my rough outline:
The story centers around two friends, Samantha and Rebecca. Samantha’s mother is a self-proclaimed witch, who dies early in the story, passing on her mantle of power to Samantha. Rebecca appears to have some trouble with her friend’s resumption of a more active role in practicing witchcraft. Samantha is pregnant out of wedlock; the father may or may not be the clergyman who also serves as a narrator of the tale. Samantha and Rebecca are arrested and charged with witchcraft and murder when the body of an infant is found in the woods near Salem. Despite her pleas for mercy, Samantha (along with her unborn child) is burned at the stake; Rebecca apparently is pardoned or escapes. Sam and her child are reunited in some form of otherworld, or are perhaps reincarnated together.
The word from James Shipstone, who works closely with Loughman, is that the Salem community is very excited about Tales, and may be performing it there. If it doesn’t go on the road, I suggest you start planning road trips - this is one not to miss.

Scott’s picks: “Company”, “The Trial”

Kari Tauring: Faith In Me

Kari Tauring's debut album covers most of the ground that you'd expect for a female singer-songwriter in the late '90s - or, for that matter, for any time in the last thirty years. There's plenty of acoustic guitar, lots of relationship songs, and some righteous-woman-in-a-male-world material. Where Kari deviates from from the norm is her willingness to use rock instrumentation such as bass, drums, and electric guitars without losing the folk singer-songwriter core of her songs. She never ventures as far into full-bore rock 'n roll as, say, the more recent Indigo Girls albums, but her tunes have an unmistakable rock groove to them that brings them out of the realm of pure folk. Her songs still show some of the roughness of a songwriter-in-training, but there are many places where the words breathe and soar with beauty and power. One of the best tunes of the album is the title track "Faith In Me", in which Kari explores the unwillingness of others to accept the choices of faith that we make. A new voice to watch.

Scott's picks: "Faith In Me", "Drink You Up"

Various Artists: Music is the Magick, Magick Weaves the Spell: Heartland ‘98

The 1998 Heartland Spirit Festival featured three nights of music, faithfully captured by Doc Mateo and Wildcat Productions and presented here as a fourteen-track live disc featuring six artists. The “Celtidelic” band Green Crown leads off with two Eastern-influenced acoustic tunes that suffer from nasal vocals and excessive length, but display a lovely balance of instruments and instrumentalism throughout. Austin-based Butterfly Tree scores big with the rock instrumental “Anthem”, but “Festival”, a tune about singer/guitarist Dana Davis’s 1997 tour with her old band Velvet Hammer, is too full of ‘in’ references to have much wide appeal. Uncle Dirtytoes presents one traditional (“Geordie”) and one original tune (“Mother England”), both of which display their signature electric-Celt sound to good effect. Elvendrums drops a funky beat, especially on the bellydance tune “Mirage”, and overlays some interesting vocal harmonies on “Mask”. Witches’ Voice wizard Fritz Jung performs three solo acoustic tunes that display more pure pop sensibility than nearly anything I’ve heard in the pagan realm; at times, I was reminded of Hootie and the Blowfish (hey, I like those guys!), Jimmy Buffett, and some of the better pop of the Sixties. Festival headliners Velvet Hammer wrap things up with three dynamic tunes, including a version of their popular “Blessed Be” with bassist Lynda Millard on acoustic guitar, and a new tune by keyboardist Ginger Doss (“Sun”). The sound on the disc is excellent throughout, but most tracks have several seconds of unnecessary silence at the beginning which could easily have been removed with better editing. This disc may represent a first in its distillation of the musical essence of a major festival, and even more so due to the quality of both performers and engineers. Hope this year’s festival sounds as good!

Scott’s picks: Fritz Jung, “Celtic Feast of the Dead”; Velvet Hammer, “Sun”

Velvet Hammer: Come Down

After two years and a fundamental lineup shift, Velvet Hammer is back with their new Come Down EP. Well, mostly new - two of the tracks are reworkings of VH faves “Window” and “Blessed Be” with the band’s new sound and personnel. Comparing these tracks to the versions on Storybook serves to highlight the radical shift in the band’s sound with the addition of drummers Tawnney and Nighthawk, and the departure of guitarist/vocalist Dana Davis to pursue her own muse. The three new tracks include concert favorite “Come Down” (known to Heartland attendees as the cauldron ritual song), which lopes along with the support of a drumming circle which includes Tawnney, Nighthawk, bassist/vocalist Lynda Millard, and guest drummer Pat Mastelotto (recently of the 90’s incarnation of King Crimson), who also provides rhythm for the tracks “Blind” and “Fine”. The CD also features the talents of Austin guitar player Mitch Watkins, who weaves subtle single-line notes around the full textures of Lynda’s bass and Ginger Doss’ keyboards. An excellent showcase for the new VH sound, and hopefully the forerunner of a full-length album in the near future.

Scott’s pick: “Come Down”

Velvet Hammer: Storybook

The ladies in Velvet Hammer are both talented and prolific, as this CD, which sketches the highlights of various musical projects from the past half-decade, shows. Storybook encompasses material from Velvet Hammer proper, the DosMillard project (bassist/vocalist Lynda Millard and keyboardist/vocalist Ginger Doss), and guitarist/vocalist Dana Davis’ 1992 Seattle recording sessions. The amazing thing is that this collection of material actually hangs together as a cohesive album, due mostly to the common vision of the three songwriters. Lynda claims the lion’s share of songwriting credits on Storybook and therefore handles most of the vocal duties, displaying her sultry, impassioned voice in addition to her solid bass work and ethereal flute solos. Keyboardist Ginger Doss provides the instrumental backbone of most of these tunes, adding a husky, almost bluesy overtone to her vocal performances. Dana’s vocals are reminiscent of Tori Amos, particularly on her rhythmically jarring “Rubber Room”, which bounces from a synthy mid-tempo verse to a loping, bass-heavy chorus. Drummer Joel Duhon lays down the backbeat on the newer material, while a host of other Austin musicians flesh out the earlier songs. The songwriting by all three women is stellar, laden with catchy melodies and vivid imagery. “Blessed Be”, Lynda’s “pagan anthem”, proclaims an independence from intolerance (“you judge me just as hard/when I love, and you don’t love me/but blessed be anyway”), while Ginger’s “Window” offers a ray of hope in the midst of self-imposed limitations. This one’ll be in my CD player quite a bit in the weeks to come.

Scott’s picks: “Blessed Be”, “Four Directions”

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