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Saturnalia Quartet: Mercury Rising

The cover of this disc by a band that was totally unknown to me was the first thing that took my eye as I thought I was going to be in for a real mystical adventure, such is the appeal of the artwork. The music presented here includes the prodigious talents of Daniel Crommie whose output since 1978 includes over 2 dozen solo albums together with many other group collaborations with bands such as Group Du Jour, Jamie Haggerty in Echo System and 2 previous albums with Saturnalia Trio. The other members of the band include Leslie Gray, Paul Evans and Elizabeth Nicholson.

Although the opening track suggests a journey along the Jethro Tull / Ian Anderson path with its acoustic touches, further songs reveal more of a medieval approach with the clever use of many period instruments including mandolin, balalaika, assorted percussion, Celtic harp, recorders, tin whistle, psaltery and flute together with a more modern accompaniment of synthesizers, alto sax and electric dulcimer. All members contribute vocally. Leslie's viola and violin often adopt a rather mournful and discordant sound while in some sections, the vocals portray a similarly morose, almost tragic feel which although certainly not designed to uplift your spirits, is in keeping with the songs presented here. Many of the songs date from the 13th and 14th Centuries while a number are self penned by Daniel with only the final, title track recognizing the contributions of the other collaborators. As is often the case with medieval music from this vintage, some of the songs contain too much melancholy and much less melody. Given the wonderful inroads that so many contemporary Celtic Rock bands have made over the years, my own preference has always been for a sound that embraces both the best of the old with the technical prowess of the new. For me, the best track of the album, "Come Down From West Hills" fills this role admirably as it completes the total journey from the past and adorns the sound with some tasteful use of synthesizers to keep the song fresh and alive. If the similarity to some of Ian Anderson's more acoustic work is also considered, the song becomes a minor classic. Although there is much diversity on this album, the only standout tracks include; "Miracle Of Waters", "Blackberry Sunday", and "Come Down From West Hills."

With the plethora of instruments offered and the obvious talents of the contributors, I was expecting much more but try as I might and after no less than a dozen listens, I am still waiting for the music to weave its magic. Unfortunately, it just seems to grate after a while although I am sure they have released better music on other efforts. Although sounding like no other band specifically, I imagine some comparison could be made with either The Incredible String Band, Tir Na Nog, or early Steeleye Span. All of those bands made some essential music during their respective careers, although it was the latter who found a greater degree of success. I believe it was when they adopted a more upbeat and rock influenced approach to their songs that they found the acceptance and confidence of a fairly mature public who were hankering for something more accessible than a medley of ancient tunes. For me, melody is of extreme importance and if one wishes to embellish the overall sound with extreme doses of melancholy, I can find no better example of this than a New Zealand duo named Philip Riley & Jayne Elleson whose stellar release from 1988 called The Blessing Tree possess all of these great qualities and more. Another example would be a 1995 release by Secret Garden whose Songs From A Secret Garden is filled with lush and romantic melodies and more melancholy than the cruise band playing its final tune as the Titanic finally went down. Although these 2 bands use less instrumentation than Saturnalia Quartet, I believe it behoves the members to fully exploit the sounds of their instruments to their fullest potential. There are some songs on this album where this potential has been lost and has resulted in an otherwise decent effort descending into a larger area of middle ground where the music achieves neither extreme sadness nor emotional well being. Again, I do not wish to criticize the individual players as they all possess considerable talent but they have failed to really impress me with this outing. I would still love to hear more of their collaborative work as I believe they have done better elsewhere and more particularly, Daniel's solo work as I am led to believe his other efforts are worth discovering. A nice effort guys but perhaps you have kept a few too many aces up your sleeves.

Added: September 19th 2003
Reviewer: Greg Cummins
Related Link: New Weave Records
Hits: 2555
Language: english

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