(Noir, 2005)

Neo-medieval apocalyptic music, anyone? In Signum, music ensemble Estampie explores (and, perhaps inevitably, reinterprets) medieval man's psyche, caught between the vivid joys and woes of daily existence and loftier concerns with the forthcoming apocalypse. But don't dismiss Signum as a mere academic exercise: varying between lively dance pieces, solemn chorals and dirge-like melodies, it lacks neither in listening pleasure, variety, nor artistry. Its 16 tracks are richly textured, thematically cohesive and enjoyably old-world in feel.

Signum opens with "Al Jorn -- Alonso," a beautiful, grave choral piece evocative of darkened cathedral naves and candles. Its lyrics caution -- or promise -- that "On Judgment Day, all who served God justly will be richly rewarded." Many of the subsequent tracks are livelier, featuring a wide range of instrumentation (flute, guitar, oud, nyckelharpa, harp, etc.) and percussion, but even the dances (e.g. "Trotto") are distinctly edgy, intense and dark. "Sine Nomine," an instrumental with a slightly modern-sounding beat and an escalating tempo, is one of my favorites. Interestingly, "Non e Gran Cousa" seems to share its melody with Loreena McKennitt's "Santiago" on The Mask & the Mirror. The uptempo tracks are the most memorable ones on Signum, but the slower vocals are also enjoyable, and the resulting diversity on the disc is a welcome one. Sparse modern touches subtly update the sound for a contemporary audience.

There are just a couple of lemons: "Alle Psallite" is frenetic and rather harsh, and "Non Devemos" switches jarringly between two very different melodies. Overall, however, Signum is an excellent example of neo-medieval music -- well researched, skillfully arranged and deftly executed.

No extensive experience in medieval music is necessary to appreciate Estampie's sound. However, knowledge of Latin, archaic Spanish and German would help with the exhaustively transcribed yet stingily translated liner notes. All texts are included in their original languages, but they are partially translated, or worse, condensed into miniscule summaries. And although translations and summaries are provided in both German and English, other essential information -- sources and instrumentation -- is solely in German. Cognates will only get you so far; "fidel" and "harfe" are reasonably clear, but what's a "drehleier"? Most of the information a listener could want is contained within that aggravating little booklet -- just not in English.

Liner note grievances aside, Signum is an ambitious and largely successful recording that would fit comfortably on the shelf next to Dead Can Dance's Aion and the Mediaeval Baebes' lighter interpretations of medieval music.

by Jennifer Mo
7 October 2006

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