An Ancient Muse is "eclectic celtic" - singer/composer Loreena McKennitt's highly-anticipated first new studio recording in nine years. Taking up where her previous work left off, McKennitt fuses the melodic sensibility of Celtic Balladry with musical traditions from Greece, Turkey, Spain, and beyond. Once heard, never forgotten, Loreena MacKennitt leads the listener on a timeless journey from the Scottish borders to the caravanserais of the Silk Road to the wine-dark seas of Homer's Odyssey. McKennitt's worldwide multi-platinum sales culminated in her most recent album, 1997's The Book of Secrets, which reached #17 on the Billboard Top 200 Chart.
It's been nearly a decade since Loreena McKennitt's last studio album, The Book of Secrets
, but An Ancient Muse
picks up the caravan exactly where she left off on her mystical journey through the cultures of the Middle East and northern Sahara. The Canadian singer opens this album the same way as she did her last two recordings: with an incantation, calling out in a wordless voice across an echoing space, cleansing the air and the mind. What follows is a lot like those albums as well, a pan-global excursion centered on Middle Eastern themes and instruments cast into a dramatic exotica. Oud, dumbek, kanoun, hurdy-gurdy, duduk, nyckleharpe (a Swedish-keyed fiddle), and other ancient sounds from the region and beyond ornament her music, though "ornament" might no longer be accurate. With the exception of Hugh Marsh's gypsy violin solos and a handful of other players, it's the Western
instruments that serve as ornaments on An Ancient Muse
. McKennitt long ago evolved the Celtic sound that launched her career. She's virtually abandoned the harp, which hasn't appeared on her CDs since 1991's The Visit
. The lone uillean pipe on "Beneath a Phrygian Sky" sounds like an echo calling from the McKennitt's past. Nevertheless, the Celtic ballad form remains central to her music, and she still draws inspiration from ye olde writers of the British Isles. Lyrics from Sir Walter Scott adorn "The English Ladye and the Knight," recalling "The Lady of Shalott." But despite McKennitt's soaring alto, the tale drags under the dirge-like meter and ponderous arrangement. The epic track of this album is the aforementioned "Beneath a Phrygian Sky," with distorted electric guitar accents and an acoustic guitar melody carrying McKennitt on another journey into her romanticized version of the ancient world. --John Diliberto