Loreena McKennitt is not a household name for many, though she has been creating a very unique brand of music for many years, her first album, Elemental was released in 1985. The cover of 1997’s release, Book of Secrets, does suggest something of what you are going to find inside. The artist herself stands framed in a sunburst of vivid reds, oranges and gold’s, which itself blends into a tapestry like appearance as it reaches the edge of the cover. And this in a way is a good metaphor for the contents, a vivid tapestry, interwoven ideas and a collection of stories and themes that cross both geography and time itself. Book of Secrets forms the last part of a musical travelogue that Loreena began with 1991s, The Visit and is consistent in its musical conclusion to those songs found there. There are many similarities to be drawn between Loreena’s mix of influences and those of Enya or Enigma, but whereas the former tends to have a classical and piano bias and the latter aim for a pop market, this artist creates gloriously soft and gentle mixes of Celtic, folk and diverse world styles and even a hint of rock from time to time. Recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios and featuring the loan of some of Gabriel’s band, Book of Secrets is a warm and inviting album, one that washes over you rather than requiring any effort to fully appreciate its worth. People may criticize its production work, it is a very polished album and for many lacks a living and spontaneous quality, but this is music that is a fusion of styles that don’t sit easily together and as such may be seen as more the product of the studio than anything else. That said anyone who can produce such moving and ethereal music as this will have me defending them against any such petty gripes, this is definitely a case where the end more than justifies the means. And its not as if the well honed production is there to cover any lack of ability as this album boasts a cast of a couple of dozen of the worlds finest musicians.
As the haunting drone of the Prologue rises with the sound of Middle Eastern strings, Loreena’s haunting voice takes centre stage, rising in resonance as the drums and rhythms of a Bedouin camp drift through. Immediately images are conjured in your mind, campfires glow, desert winds move the desert sands and dark eyed exotic strangers stand in the shadows. This music not only talks to your soul, it can carry you away to a place of the artists choosing. And as gently as it carried you away, it sets you down in another place and time. As the east is left behind, a more familiar place is upon us. The Mummers Dance conjures up the spring festivals of pagan times.
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
Again the voice is at the forefront, but violins and mandolins flutter in the background, like the ribbons of the maypole being imagined here. Though we are on the familiar soil of an older Europe, the exotic feel is not lost; the song still evokes fantasy and a magical escapist dreamlike quality. The violin leads in the next track with a more wistful approach and the full Celtic flavour is brought to bear with the flute and whistle that haunts the piece. Even Loreena’s vocal style changes to fit the surroundings as she manages to steal a piece of Clannads sacred domain. This is Skellig and it recounts the last words of a dying monk on the island community of a group of Dark Age men of God.
Beneath these jasmine flowers
Amidst these cypress trees
I give you now my books
And all their mysteries
Harken, John, my word
Let not these keys be lost
The secrets lie within
The writers of the past
Again we venture east with Marco Polo in an instrumental journey that bears his name, the eastern flavours abound in this arabesque arrangement and the rhythms that are created seem to match the gentle rocking of the traveller on the camels back. Tabla drums drive the song as wordless vocals accompany the precession east. Eventually the music fades as the caravan moves out of our senses and a more western flavour takes its place. A more familiar folk tradition is offered up next, the Highwayman being a narrative using the words of a poem by Alfred Noyes. This is by far the longest song on the album, but never seems to flag, even if you don’t concentrate on the words themselves, the voice as an instrument and some fine guitar accompaniment make for a smooth ride.
La Serenissima, another instrumental follows and its gentle harp and violin co-join into a renaissance sounding lilt, if you were sat in a Medici court chamber this would be the theme music to the encounter. The originality of this piece is provided by its minimalist approach, it is light and airy. Hot on the heels of this is Night Ride Across The Caucasus, drums imitate the clatter of hooves and a darker rhythm is the basis of this track
There are visions, there are memories
There are echoes of thundering hooves
There are fires, there is laughter
There’s the sound of a thousand voices
Loreena’s voice hits new heights on the middle eight sections of this piece and as always the music is layered and interwoven with care so that the whole range of instruments has its own place to be. An intense emotion is barely kept in check as the song drags you on its journey to places only dreamed of. The final song is inspired by a train journey through Russia and the words of Dante. Dante’s Prayer begins with a vocal ensemble before piano and violin lay down a sorrowful base and again that rich and clear voice cuts through to your heart. A minimal song, again creating its beauty out of a sparseness and emotive delivery, it is enough to have a voice of this ability but it is the literacy and well crafted words that are as much part of the overall affect in these songs.
Book of Secrets is a collection of moving and beautiful songs that hint at the glorious diversity of the world around us. It revels in a wide range of styles and dozens of instruments. I can recommend no better body of work for relaxing to, it will make you forget your own place and time and connect you with the oneness of our planet. Although the album, and Loreena’s work in general can take you to many far flung lands and times through its clever amalgamation of styles, the way she views the world is expressed in her diary entry at the time of writing the last track
“It is now Day 5 on this train journey across wintry Siberia. Travelling alone, it is strange not to be able to have a conversation with anyone, but one learns how much can be conveyed through actions, body language, a look in the eye… I saw some men on the platform today and one resembled my father. He had reddish hair and a long, very Celtic-looking face I would have expected to see in Ireland, not Russia… I am reminded again of the Celtic exhibition in Venice and the suggestion that the Celts may have originated in the Russian steppes. Perhaps the love of horses which began there is the very same that can be seen in County Kildare today”
The world is a very small place and this album will bring it to your door.