The Morrigan,
Hidden Agenda
(English Garden, 2002)

If you don't have a fondness for riddles or time to spend on second glances, don't risk eavesdropping on the Morrigan's Hidden Agenda. Disguised as merely complex modern twists on old stories and tunes, the shape of the album soon hints at something much deeper.

It's not obvious with the first few tracks. "Swallow's Tail" is a fine but unnecessary revamp of a traditional piece, and "In The End" is a strangely heavy, almost plodding song compared to wild soaring of the rest of the album. The keystone song of the album, the original "A Night To Remember," recasts the legend of Titanic in harsh red lines. Cathy Alexandar's high, cold voice traces the bulk of the ship in ghostly glow that is stripped away by the crash of an iceberg and replaced by furious male vocals and a new, harsh rhythm of panic. This treatment of the near mythical crash strips away much of its romance and shows the panic and pain that necessarily would have gone along with the heroism of the tale. It's a disturbing song that makes the disaster seem far too raw and immediate for easy listening.

Alexandar's voice does double duty for "The Other," playing both a disturbed madwoman and her perhaps saner inner voice. With so many darkly captivating songs, the traditional cheer of "South Australia," with the exuberance of "Roaring Forties" joined on for good measure, clears the palate like ginger for other traditional tunes.

The large number of traditional pieces sown through the album may be the best showcase for the band's haunting rock airs. The contrast between familiar tunes and the Morrigan's decidedly new arrangements highlights the energy and wildness brought by Dave Lodder's and Colin Masson's bass and guitars, the siren whistle of Alexandar's recorders. Matt Carter's mandolin seems like a strange new instrument, instead of the usual tool for such works. It's not that "Slieve Russell/March Hare"are unrecognizable, but it is a shock when they are recognized. Tunes as familiar as "Joe Cooley's Reel" seem strange, like friends after a radical makeover or neighbors under a fairy glamour.

Glamour may be the right word. These songs, even if you don't like them, have a certain mind-catching shine. There's a feeling of other layers, stories and voices just outside the realm of what can be heard on Hidden Agenda. Every new twist of the line or sparkle of notes reveals just a little more while hinting at new mysteries in the song. Hidden Agenda is a puzzle for the ears and a snare for the mind, and a joy in its mystery.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 6 September 2003

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