Loreena McKennitt,
Parallel Dreams
(Quinlan Road, 1989)

The debate over Loreena McKennitt's faith was likely launched with the release of Parallel Dreams.

Sure, most fans will tell you it's the music, not the musician's personal life, that matters. That's a philosophy shared by Loreena herself, when asked the inevitable question: "Are you a pagan?" But while the pagan community in the 1980s may have been searching for mainstream singer who spoke their language, Loreena wasn't looking to be the poster child for any religion, mainstream or otherwise.

And so the question continues to be debated wherever fans of Loreena's music meet. (Old-Ways, an Internet e-list devoted to McKennitt fandom, has even had to crack down to the extent that all discussion of religious matters is forbidden there.) Still, those who continue to argue the matter often point to Parallel Dreams as evidence in their favor.

Unlike her first album, Elemental, Parallel Dreams is made up largely of songs written by Loreena. She sets tongues a'wagging right from the beginning with an original piece called "Samain Night." Track 3 is an original instrumental blending Celtic and Native American sounds in the "Huron 'Beltane' Fire Dance." Then there's "Standing Stones," which combines traditional lyrics with Loreena's original words.

OK, so there does seem to be a pagan leaning in the music. But it's not an issue I care to debate, nor do I even wonder much what the singer believes in her heart to be true; that's a personal matter, not a subject for public debate. So, instead, I just listen to the music.

The music, in case you're wondering, is absolutely gorgeous.

The promise shown by Loreena in Elemental has blossomed in Parallel Dreams into a strong, delightful recording. Loreena has hit her stride by this time, taking a few more chances with arrangements, varying more from the traditional styles which form the basis of her music. The result is nothing short of breath-taking.

Besides "Samain Night" and "Standing Stones," songs on this album are "Moon Cradle" (music by Loreena, lyrics by Padraic Colum), the traditional "Annachie Gordon," an incredible original piece called "Dickens' Dublin (The Palace)" and another original, "Breaking the Silence." Instrumentals are "Huron 'Beltane' Fire Dance" and "Ancient Pines."

Unlike Elemental, which consisted primarily of Loreena playing most of the instruments along with her own singing and vocal harmonies, Parallel Dreams relies on some excellent musicians to round out the sound. Besides Loreena's vocals, harp, keyboards, whistle, bodhran, ukalin and synthetic textures, the album features Brian Hughes on guitar, Oliver Schroer on violin and George Koller on cello, bass and tamboura. Additional appearances include Rick Lazar on udu drums and congas, David Woodhead on mandolin and accordion, Patrick Hutchinson on uilleann pipes, Ratesh Dasj on tablas, Al Cross on percussion and Shelly Berger on bass and pzud. It's a fine ensemble with some brilliant performers, and they carry off Loreena's unique arrangements with exceptional polish.

The album shows signs of the musical genius which Loreena would further develop along the way, in albums like the landmark The Visit, The Mask and Mirror and The Book of Secrets.

Particularly clever is "Huron 'Beltane' Fire Dance." The tune begins with simple nonverbal singing by Loreena, accompanied by a percussion beat and sparse instrumentation to give the sense of a Native American chant. Gradually, the drum beat quickens, and the tune rolls into a lively Celtic reel. It's a combination that works, and works well.

Besides that upbeat tune, the album is mostly soft and slow. Loreena focuses her attention here on tragic love ("Annachie Gordon," "Standing Stones") and evocative imagery in sumptuous settings ("Samain Night," "Moon Cradle"). Her voice easily projects an air of mystery, romance and mysticism, and it's easy to close your eyes and be swept away by her words.

"Breaking the Silence," a tribute to Amnesty International, is perhaps the best display on this album of Loreena's vocal passions. And her words can't help but move her audience: "A gunfire shatters silence / Where birds once sweetly sang / A mother cradles a child now dead / Now death where life begins." The tune "Ancient Pines," written by Loreena for the film Goddess Remembered, is a sweet combination of nonverbal singing with a lyrical cello.

The original piece "Dickens' Dublin (The Palace)" deserves special notice. An uncredited child recites a child's version of the first Christmas Eve, describing the arrival of Joseph and Mary at the stable, the travels of the three wise kings and their encounter with King Herod, and the party in the sky over the shepherds' heads. The child's Irish accent, the occasional "um" and hesitation, the slang ("Where ye goin with yer best stitches on ye.") combine for a delightful telling. But woven into the story is Loreena's song, sung from the perspective of a homeless Dublin beggar looking for shelter on Christmas Eve. Singing with wonderful emotion, Loreena reminds us that for some, even a rude stable would be a palace beyond imaging.

Parallel Dreams is a bold step beyond the high standards set with Elemental. And it's only an upward journey from here.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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