Philip Xander – Prelude (2019) review

Can you put the feel of an early spring morning on a CD? If you are a talented musician like Philip Xander you can. With Prelude he has written and recorded the perfect soundtrack for a lovely sun-filled April morning drama movie. Prelude is filled with twelve instrumental songs that combine the magic of folk- and world music with touches of gypsy cheerfulness, prog-rock twists, and contemporary music quality. Philip felt no boundaries while writing the material for Prelude. No, on the contrary, he clearly used only one criterion: ‘if it sounds right, use it.’ and that makes Prelude a lovely album, that I highly recommend to any contemporary music lover.
Philip Xander is a Dutch multi-instrumentalist who started his folk career as the guitarist of Omnia, and is now dividing his time between the gypsy-, chanson-, klezmer- and Balkan folk band Saffron Sun, in which he plays eastern/Arabic percussion and the Irish folk band Withershins in which he plays guitar and mandolin. Besides that, he often accompanies musicians like Gwendolyn Snowdon during their live shows
And now I hold his first solo album Prelude in front of me. A CD he recorded with the help of his friends: Anne Bakker (violin); Emelie Waldken (nyckelharpa); Anouk Platenkamp (harp); Judith Renkema (double bass); Otto de Jong (drums, tabla, and percussion); Erwin Tuijl (piano, keys, Rhodes, synths, harmonium, therevox) and of course Philip himself on guitar, mandolin, darbuka, and frame drum. Philip also composed and produced all the songs and Erwin Tuijl was responsible for the recording, mixing and producing of Prelude.

Philip playing New Heart, New World from his first solo album Prelude

The new album Prelude

Philip Xander isn’t the person to claim the spotlight, so Prelude is not an acoustic guitar solo extravaganza. No, it really is a collection of lovely songs with a real band feel to them, starting with the lovely song Drifting; a beautiful tender guitar melody that I could listen to for hours. Although it is only Philip on guitar playing this song, I would not call it a solo. It is a melody, a thought, a feeling put down to music. Seamlessly it flows over into Children of Chance. A fun, slightly jazzy cross between a gypsy folk song and a contemporary pop song with a piano melody that could have been written by Jyoti Verhoeff. This really IS spring in music form: lovely and funny with so many interesting melodies. The show is stolen, not by Philip, but by the beautiful violin of Anne Bakker. Gypsy style violin, distorted psychedelic sounds, gracious classical melodies, she does it all. What a lovely start to this CD.

After the slightly odd intermezzo of First Rites, Prelude continues with another beautiful instrumental ballad: Generations. ‘Tender’ is the word for this song. A tender piano melody to start it, tender guitar playing by Philip to continue it, and a tender transition of tempo halfway through the song representing the different generations -question mark- who knows. You make up your own mind. In the meantime just enjoy the musical experience.
And that experience continues with a huge smile on my part when I hear the cheerful mandolin melody that starts the fifth song: Dawn. Philip and his friends have really managed to capture the feeling I get when I go out in the wild before sunrise. The feeling I have sitting somewhere along the water’s edge, waiting for the world to wake up.
As I said the power of Prelude is that it doesn’t sound like a solo escapade. Philip didn’t write twelve guitar solos. No, he wrote twelve real songs, sometimes dreamy, sometimes folky, sometimes just acoustic guitar songs, and sometimes all of those at once. As you can hear in Nadir – Zenith. The song starts off really dreamy, then picks up speed to become a nice acoustic guitar song only to speed up again and have the talented Emelie Waldken join in with her Nyckelharpa, making it a lovely contemporary dreamy folk song.

In the first section and most of the second section of Prelude– the record is divided into 3 sections of each four songs- the album is a lovely sweet instrumental CD, drifting between dreamy acoustic guitar melodies and enjoyable folk tunes. With Gallery of Faces Philip introduces a new tone. a wee bit harsher, a wee bit more psychedelic. As if the innocence of youth is gradually lost. As if something went wrong in this lovely musical dream world.

This tone is continued on the third and last section of Prelude. The song The Puzzlebox is played on a baritone guitar, making it sound lower, more ‘adult’ to me. On Enthaos we really start to hear Philips psychedelic side. Still subtle, still tender, but clearly shifting towards the style of Jyoti Verhoeff. It contains an odd, somewhat jazzy melody that seems to be played on a xylophone; and piano chords that -for a brief second- reminds me of a famous Billy Joel song and I’m loving it all. I am loving The Puzzlebox’s ‘weirdness’, its uniqueness. Philip’s subtle play with emotions within the music.
The psychedelic tones of Enthaos flow effortlessly into Children of Suffering. Again a song that breaches the gap between dream folk and Jyoti Verhoeff’s contemporary avant-garde style. Children of Suffering has a fuller, more poppy arrangement than the other songs on prelude. Partly because of the full hammond organ and other keyboard sounds, and partly because of the full string sound under it. Not to mention the grand prog-rock finale, full drums, keys, and strings, all coming together in a sudden stop. Philip did mention his solo album would be [quote]: “An instrumental art-folk concept album, blending various kinds of folk- and world music with contemporary influences and psychedelic undertones.” Well in Children of Suffering he brings all of this together

Coloured Smoke is the perfect, balanced ending to a wonderful debut CD. Highly recommended to those who love contemporary music in the style of Hans Elzinga or the Dutch band Flairck. There is a clear story flowing through the CD, but it is done so subtle that you can either choose to take the music as is, as lovely melodies to enjoy, or dive into the music and create your own story while listening. Either way Philip and his friends have created a beautiful album, that will make many, many more rounds in my CD player. I have absolutely no doubts about that.

– Cliff

Editor: Gwendolyn Snowdon
Sleeve art: Pernilla Kannapinn
Photo: Cliff de Booy

Jyoti Verhoeff – Touches (2018) review

I can still remember putting my first Mike Oldfield elpee on the record player as a teenager. It wasn’t the obvious choice Tubular Bells -that came later- it was Incantations and I bought it on a second-hand market, together with a lot of other classic rock albums. Up till then my idea of pop music was based on songs I heard on the radio. 4 to 5 minute long things with an intro, a couplet, a chorus, often a solo on 2/3rds of the song and a nice ending or intro where the DJ always would talk over to announce the next song. The idea that a song could last a whole side of an album, the full TWENTY minutes, and that music could contain just as many classical elements as pop was something I could not believe. So listening to Incantations was something of an eye-opener. And I fell in love with that record straight away.
Something similar happened to me while listening to Jyoti Verhoeff’s Touches, I Speak With My Mouth Shut for the first time. No, she didn’t record a 20-minute epos. Nor did she use as much time or as many instruments as Mike Oldfield did recording Incantations or his classic album Tubular Bells. But Jyoti and her musical partner in art, Fieke van den Hurk, again questioned my perception of pop music. The boundaries of it, the very nature of it all. And as happened so many years ago, I also fell in love with her record head over heels.
Jyoti Verhoeff is a Dutch singer-songwriter who already has 3 albums on her resume. Playing the grand piano since her 8th year, this is her main composing tool and live instrument. On her second album Riven she explored the borders between pop and classical music, ending up with an intriguing combining of Kate Bush, Tori Amos and classical -chamber- music, but in her own tantalising, mesmerising style. All who know her last EP Bare -an album she made together with cello player Maya Fridman– will know she isn’t afraid of pushing the boundaries of modern pop music, ending up with songs that wouldn’t sound out of place in a performance of a modern ballet company like Het Nederlands Dans Theater.

On Touches Jyoti decided to make the boldest statement a singer-songwriter can make. She does not sing! Jyoti herself explains why in the booklet added to the CD: ‘The album Touches – I Speak With My Mouth Shut- questions the way humans relate to the world around them, to each other, and to themselves. Instead of using all the senses, more and more of our interactions consist solely of words -spoken or written or on glowing screens- the world more or less completely disposable. People never stop talking. While putting so much significance on words, a lot of our communication is left out, hollowed out, made shallow.’
With that concept in mind, Jyoti decided to make an album purely with piano music she had written in the previous months.

Enter sound engineer Fieke van den Hurk. Now I never made it a secret that I love the talent that Fieke has for music. Both playing it and recording it. Fieke normally hushes Alex Sealgaire or me down when we compliment her on her efforts. Always saying we exaggerate (no, we don’t Fieke 😉 ) – and in a way I understand why. For Fieke creating music is not about her. It’s about the sound of the instrument, the beauty of the songs and to record that in the best way possible, so that the instruments can shine, the artists playing them. And she does that in such a pure, beautiful way.
The funny thing is when you hear Fieke talk about Jyoti and vice versa you will notice that both friends actually praise each other’s talents while hushing their own achievements down. Well, I can tell you those two lovely talented ladies create magic together. And there is no hushing me on this occasion.

Touches opens with the song Humans And Machines, it starts -as most of the songs on Touches- with Jyoti on the grand piano. The beginning is gentle, classical, a beautiful melody, interrupted by a heavy bass effect. Then comes a shift in tempo with glockenspiel and some guitar chords, short, subdued, almost percussion-like. Let me be clear about this straight away. This is not folk music. This is a style totally on its own. Is it classical? Pop or art? Dreamy? All I know is that it is beautiful.
At some points, it has a close resemblance to the dream folk of the dutch duo Rosemary & Garlic. At other moments the synth effects and another metallophone kind of sounds remind me of Mike Oldfield’s way of building up a song. A break during Humans And Machines brings us to a small moment of piano pop music before we continue with more Mike Oldfield synthesizer and glockenspiel effects.

There is only one small problem. There is no guitar, no glockenspiel, no percussion instrument, not even a synthesizer. All sounds were made using only acoustic keyed instruments that were available in the studio they were recording in at the time. So you just hear grand piano, celesta, spinet, pianet, a harmonium, accordion and ok one hidden vibraphone. So where do the guitar-, metallophone-, glockenspiel- and all the other sounds that you hear come from? Well, they are what you get when you climb in a grand piano, mute it with kitchen paper, tape it and play it with a screwdriver, a mallet, fingers or even a toilet brush. To enhance the concept behind Touches even more, Fieke worked with vintage analog distortion, delay and reverb effects, ‘playing’ them as if they were instruments as well. You can find all about the recording of this album in the CD booklet. In which both Jyoti explains all about the concept of Touches and Fieke tells you all about the recording process

In the end this review is just filled with words, going against the concept of TOUCHES

Now I could go on about lovely songs like Sharing Dreams – with it’s beautiful ‘music box’ sound; personal favourites Rides or the song Shards– in which Fieke really plays with the effects as if it was just another instrument; the beautiful song Isles Of Hope; or The Reason Of A Rose and Hours Within Hours or Virtual Sea– both last songs making me think about the hectic speed and pressure of modern life, the shallowness of it all. But that would be filling this page with words, and totally goes against the concept of Touches, I Speak With My Mouth Shut. So instead I’m gonna fill this page with music.

the beautiful song Sharing dreams that we added to our CeltCast playlists

Isles Of Hope, One of my personal favourites, where you can hear how Fieke beautifully plays with the effects as if it were other instruments added to the song

Virtual Sea, another one of my favourites, making me think about the hectic speed and pressure of modern life

An ocean to still me, the official video to go with the release of Touches

Together Jyoti and Fieke made a wonderful album, full of soundscapes, intimate moments, strong dramatic chords but most importantly with beautiful songs. Jyoti kept the soul of the singer-songwriter in her compositions. It are all small intimate songs with a story. The effects and sounds are just intriguing tools to tell the story within the music.

If you love neo-classical music meeting experimental pop; surrealist music where everything is not what it seems, yet right where it should be at the same time, then this is a must-have album. One of the best albums I had the pleasure of listening to in 2018. Come to think of it, probably one of the best albums I heard in years!

– Cliff

editor: Diane Deroubaix
Sleeve design: Fieke van den Hurk
Sleeve photo: Sander van den Berg
Photo credits in sequence of publishing:
-Sander van den Berg
Willem Schalekamp
-Fieke van den Hurk
-Sander van den Berg

Nemuer – Urðarbrunnr (2019) review

cover Urdarbrunnr

March 11th, 2017. On the stage of the Gothic & Fantasy Fair in Rijswijk -now known as the Fantasy Fest– we find a duo from the Czech Republic. Their name? Nemuer! Their music? Atmospheric dark pagan folk. During the concert, Michael Zann and Katarína Pomorská intrigued me with their slow, mystical, slightly eerie folk sound. Especially Michael’s acoustic guitar playing and the voice of Katarina impressed me enough for me to buy their second CD Labyrinth Of Druids, an album I would describe as a long dreamy atmospheric yet eerie pagan folk soundtrack. Very intriguing, with its mix of delicate acoustic guitar, female vocals, and carpets of slow symphonic keyboards underneath. This CD would work perfectly as a score for any slightly darker fantasy movie.
Fast forward two years and I found myself in 2019. After publishing the review for Sowulo’s latest album, Mann, I got an email from Michael asking if I would be willing to review their latest record, Urðarbrunnr. Remembering how intriguing I found Labyrinth of Druids I didn’t hesitate to say yes. And Urðarbrunnr didn’t disappoint. The band still makes slow, atmospheric, dark, pagan folk that really captivates the listener, in its own unique way.

As I said, Nemuer was formed in 2014 when multi-instrumentalist/ singer Michael Zann and collegae multi-instrumentalist/singer Katarína Pomorská started putting a captivating mix of dark fantasy, eerie dreams, and mystical atmosphere to music.
From the beginning they have aimed to bring ancient myths and stories back to life, using authentic dead languages and ancient instruments to do so.
Their first album Irenthot’s Dream (2014) was set in the ancient Mayan Empire. Their second album Labyrinth Of Druids (2015) is described by Nemuer themselves as a Lovecraftian music album. In 2018 they released their third album Gardens Of Babylon during a concert together with the kindred spirits of The Moon And The Nightspirit. As the title suggests, Gardens Of Babylon is set in the ancient city of Babylon and talks about the heaviness and beauty of death. The album itself sounds a lot more open and ‘positive’ than the theme suggests. The focus is less on the symphonic keyboard carpet giving Labyrinth Of Druids its special soundscape feel, but more organic, more acoustic. It is actually the folkiest album Nemuer has made to date. And there is indeed a similarity to the music of The Moon And The Nightspirit that fans of that group may find interesting.

And now there is Urðarbrunnr. The band -In 2019 Nemuer grew to a full band with Alex Pantea on Duval and vocals and Martin Kopl doing the programming and live samples- takes us to another period in ancient history with this album. An entirely different part of the ancient world altogether, I may add. Readers interested in Nordic mythology will recognize the album title as the well of Urd, the well as described in the famous Edda, to be found beneath the world tree Yggdrasil. And indeed, true to form, all the lyrics are composed of extracts of the Edda, the old Norse sagas. I just have to mention track titles like: Ymir’s Death; The Binding Of Fenrir; Yggdrasil trembles and Thor’s Final Battle, and the true fans of Nordic folk and folklore will know enough.

The first track, Ymir’s Death straight away sets the tone for what you can expect from Urðarbrunnr. Deep low keyboard samples setting a grim atmosphere and the acoustic sound of the bass tagelharpa- an ancient Nordic lyre type instrument- giving it an authentic touch. You could call it a mix between the atmospheric semi-acoustic sound of Trobar de Morte and the slightly sharp, grim, big sound of the early 80’s gothic rock bands. Especially Michael’s style of whispered throat singing that Michale uses throughout the whole record takes me way back to the Fields Of The Nephilim. An underestimated Gothic rock band from that 80’s period that I just love, but way, way slower. Bands like The Sisters of Mercy, the Mission and Fields of the Nephilim used to have a quite danceable, relatively fast beat under it. But Nemuer plays their music much slower. Their drumbeat is more similar to that of Trobar de Morte or even Wardruna. Compared to the previous Nemuer albums I find Urðarbrunnr darker, less open in production. Quite fitting for the Nordic themes Michael “whispers’ about. Also, the female vocals from Katarína seem almost non-existant on Urðarbrunnr. Again a choice that I well understand considering the current theme of the songs

The second song Snýsk Jörmungandr is again a very good example of Nemuer’s present sound. The drums are slow and deep. With the repeated bass tagelharpa, the female vocals – yes here Katariína makes a vocal appearance- weaving in and out, Micheal’s combined slightly distorted deep throat singing combined with whispered Nordic vocals, and the carpet of keyboards under it the song becomes almost trance-like. But not boring. Just at the right moments a whispered voice, a sudden female vocal or even a tempo change comes in to keep the song interesting, intriguing, 07:34 minutes long.

Not all tracks are that long, but Nemuer do take their time building up a song, as you might expect from a dark, atmospheric, gothic, pagan folk band.

Hel is one of those shorter yet equally powerful songs. A single shaman drum being hit, each new hit several seconds after the other, eerie whispered vocals drawing you in, a single horn-like sample, some keyboards setting the tone. It is all the song needs. Listening to Hel I suddenly realized how well the music fits with the painting on the CD cover. Grey, grim, but not utterly black. Just many shades of beautiful grey (Pun not intended).
The Binding Of Fenrir is another one of those beautiful repetitive grey songs. Again that slow, deep shaman drum sound captivates me. The start I find almost minimalistic by nature, and slowly, ever so slowly building up to an epic track with strong choir-like vocals, an electric guitar, picking up the melody in such a way, that for a moment I’m sure that I’m listening to the violin on a track from Turn Loose The Swan, that legendary album of My Dying Bride. But not long. The horn section coming in takes me right back to Nemuer’s own specific style. Michael’s throat singing vocals are the finishing touch on this wonderful epic, dark song.

I’m quite aware that Urðarbrunnr will not be everybody’s cup of tea. But I personally love songs like: Odin’s Quest For Wisdom; Heimdallr Blows Gjallarhorn; The Allfather Dies -with a nice bit of overtone singing from Michael- or Thor’s Final Battle. They all are beautifully dark, slowly-played, gothic songs, drawing me deep into the Nordic mythology. Michael and Nemuer play very cleverly with the contrast between the mystical electronic samples and the clarity of the acoustic instruments and the sudden shifts in tempo like on Odin’s quest For Wisdom -I love the tribal ending of that song – regularly add interest, preventing the music to become boring. And there are more of those clever arrangements to be found on Urðarbrunnr. In songs like the -almost- cheerful Freyr’s Lovesickness, or my favourite song Yggdrasil trembles, with that lovely low tagalharpa sound that makes me think Faber Horbach (Sowulo) joined in.

If you like your clothing dark, and if you share my love for:Nordic folk; atmospheric folk bands like Trobar de Morte; slow, almost doomy songs that keep drawing you in a trancelike state; and gothic acoustic rock, then check this Czech band out. Nemuer made a very strong -and within the limitations of the genre- even varied album. For the true connoisseur of dark music.

– Cliff

-Editor: Sara Weeda.
cover art: Kuba Vaniš
picture credits:
-Cliff de booy,

M’anam – M’anam (2019) review

When I think of Ireland I think of the obvious postcard pictures: The rugged coastlines, the misty moors, the ancient ruins, the monks that travelled to all the corners of the medieval world. I think of foggy greens, rainy blues, and cloudy greys. I think of mystery and adventure. And I think of the ambient sounds of Clannad and Enya, the first introduction to Celtic music I heard on the radio as a young lad, many years ago. Well, now I also think of M’ANAM, for the music they make, the music Michael McGlynn (the artistic leader of ANÚNA) wrote for this collaboration with members of the Dutch a capella singing group The Olga Vocal Ensemble and the male voices of ANÚNA, takes my heart to ancient Eire. The times when the Tuatha Dé Danann could still be seen as shadows in the mist. The days when the footsteps of the great hero Cúchulainn still shook the earth. The times when the Morrigan was still flying over the dark battlefields and the dark nights when the druids were still leading their ceremonies within the ancient standing stone circles, waiting for the solstice sun to arise. But also to medieval times, when the Irish monks spread over the known world and shared the knowledge of the antique world that was almost gone. With their deep full voices, M’ANAM takes me with them to those long-gone days, in a more than stunning way.
You would think there is no way I could do a review about M’ANAM without mentioning Micheal McGlynn, the founder, composer and artistic leader of ANÚNA since 1987. Michael is named as the artistic leader of M’ANAM, he co-produced the album, he contributed to almost every song, so it would be easy to think M’ANAM is just another Michael McGlynn project. But it is NOT!!! To use Michael’s own words: “M’ANAM is very different. It’s a band of brothers! It’s a true band – like any other – and they act like a band. My role in M’ANAM is that I am a composer and someone who inspires others to create for themselves. Nothing more.”
Talking to Michael McGlynn about M’ANAM it became very clear to me he doesn’t want to be the leader of them. He wants them to shine and wants to help them with ideas and their talents in any way he can. M’ANAM is a true band and Michael just happens to be one of the members.

The idea for M’ANAM started when Michael discovered a Dutch a capella group on Youtube that sang one of his pieces. He was really taken by the quality of their version. That a capella group was the Olga Vocal Ensemble and Michael got a chance to meet them when ANÚNA gave a performance in The ir hometown, Utrecht. Philip Barkhudarov, a member of the Olga Vocal Ensemble describes them all coming together as follows: ” In a way, the development of M’ANAM and the connection of ANÚNa and Olga Vocal Ensemble were inevitable. Our shared love of the ancient and the commonality of the rugged Icelandic landscapes and culture put us on a collision course long before we knew anything about it. It was this shared interest that first drew us -the guys from Olga- to perform some of Michael McGlynn’s ANÚNA songs, which eventually led to us meeting up. And things just took off from there.

Not taking anything away from any member of the Olga Vocal Ensemble, who are all very talented singers, Michael was fascinated by the voice of Bjarni Guðmundsson who has, as Michael explained: “a strange and ethereal tenor sound that I really wanted to write for” In March of 2017 Bjarni joined ANÚNA and together Michael and Bjarni selected a song that would showcase that unique voice of the latter. That song became Gunnarshólmi. A song that would, in the end, prove very influential for the direction in which M’ANAM’s sound would develop.

The lovely ballad Gunnarshólmi, solo vocals by Bjarni Guðmundsson.

Touring with a vocal group like ANÚNA and working so extensively together unavoidabley means that colleagues become friends. And having so many artistic talents together in a group of friends almost organically leads to them make music together. And that is what happened with M’ANAM. A band formed from friendship and the wish to make music together. The final touch was when Philip Barkhudarov from the Olga Vocal Ensemble joined the M’ANAM idea with his deep rich Russian bass sound. Bitter Wind and Deyr Fé were born, and with it the distinctive M’ANAM sound.
Philip’s thoughts on it:” It was a huge collaborative effort – the inspiration and stories behind the songs come from all of us, and each singer’s unique sound and vocal/instrumental skills can add to the sound in surprising ways. Some of the songs didn’t take on any kind of recognizable form until we’d spent a good while experimenting in the studio and finding out what the song actually was. When I went into the studio to work on Bitter Wind for the first time, I had no idea what it would end up being. But with some experimental input from the singers, and with a few epic layers of percussion from Noel Eccles, it became something greater than any of us had anticipated.”

With ANÚNA being an Irish choir (with their own unique twist to the genre. Hopefully I can come back to that in an ANÚNA review) and The Olga Vocal Ensemble being an a capella singing group with a Nordic influenced record under their belt: their second album Vikings!– it would be obvious to think that M’ANAM would be a mix of the two, and in THIS case, it IS actually true.
M’ANAM -the album- is a lovely mix of the choir influences from ANÚNA and the acapella sound of the Olga Vocal Ensemble, making it an album that sounds classical, yet free-spirited and very Celtic at the same time. Which in a way is a funny comment because the first song, Celeuma actually is a poem describing the rhythm of the Roman oarsmen beautifully put to music. The strength of the low voices makes it almost mystical and the different melody lines weave together effortlessly, even if you’re not used to listening to choir-like vocal music.
As I said, most of the music on M’ANAM has a Celtic background, mostly putting old Irish, Scottish or English texts to music or rearranging old traditionals and the M’ANAM singers were clearly involved in it. The Hound’s Cry, for instance, is co-written by Cian O’Donnell, and the English traditional The Sheep Stealer is rearranged by Fergus Cahillane and Michael McGlynn together.

Fergus Cahillane also had the lead voice in Ardi Cuain, a song full of longing and melancholy, and I love his voice. So pure, so warm, it really struck a chord within me. The choir behind him even enhances that melancholy and do I hear a bit of overtone singing there too?
It wasn’t until I read the blogs on Michael McGlynn’s personal webpage that I understood what makes Ardi Cuain -actually the whole album- so special. Fergus doesn’t sing the solo as a classically trained tenor, which I would expect from a classic choir album. No, he uses his normal voice, well-trained of course, but still, his voice stays as it naturally is. And I suddenly realize that with the added amount of technique you put in a voice, you lose some pure, raw emotion. Not so in Ardi Cuain. It’s pouring over with emotion. A lovely blend between the old Clannad, a Gregorian choir and a touch of pagan folk with the overtone voice. You can just feel the mist drift over the Irish shore while you listen to this. Easily one of my favourite songs on the album.

On the fourth song, Bitter Wind, M’ANAM manages to keep this ancient mystic atmosphere, this pure rawness of strong emotions. The intro sound is already creepy, indeed a bitter wind comes out of my speakers. As I already told in the intro, this time Philip Barkudarov has his moment to shine. His voice has that deep rich Russian sound and he makes the most of it. Especially the way he actually holds back to make it sound even deeper, even stronger, sounds so impressive. But I shouldn’t focus on him alone here. The group as a whole makes the most of their deep male voices. Agreed all the layers of a male voice are there, high and low, as you would expect from a choir or acapella singing group. But the focus is on that low, rich, deep sound, with another bit of overtone singing just as icing on the cake. Another stunning song.

Tenebrae comes a bit closer towards what I would expect from a male choir. But in this case, it is Gavin Brennan’s subtle saxophone which adds that touch of difference. that extra touch of beauty that pulls you in. It’s those touches that make the music accessible for people who have never listened to classical choral music before. If you are interested in discovering this type of music, M’ANAM is an ideal album to start with.
With Deyr Fé we go into those dark deep voices again. Bjarni Guðmundsson is the lead vocalist on this song, and his high tenor cuts right through the wall of low chords the choir is laying down. That moment where acapella singing, meets new-age choir singing, meets the intense power of the Icelandic landscape in this 10th-century Viking text put to music by Michael McGlynn.

The lovely Icelandic ballad Gunnarshólmi; the English traditional The Sheep Stealer -with its strong Celtic folk feel the most acapella style song on M’ANAM- ; and the title song M’ANAM are all also beautiful slow choir songs that are like balm to the soul. If ever there was an album you could totally unwind on, this would be it.

Bandó Ribineann (video above) is one of the very few upbeat songs on M’ANAM, the tone goes up in the direction of the tenors and it feels like spring just sparkled through your window. Another one of my favourite songs.
Keen eyes will now have noticed that I missed out three songs, The Hounds Cry, Ag Iascaireacht and La Chanson De Mardi Grass. There are not bad songs, not at all. Ag Iascaireacht is a cheerful Irish melody made even more cheerful by the upbeat bodhrán under it. La Chanson De Mardi Grass sounds to me like Gregorian chant (I know it isn’t actually Gregorian at all, it just sounds that way), meets French African country singing. And The Hounds Cry is a seriously catchy Celtic pop song gone choral, especially with the electric guitar melody in it. But, the thing is that they, for me, feel out of place.
The overall feel of ancient mystique, those strong impressive vocal songs, they catch me emotionally and take me back to times long gone by. That overall feeling clashes with these three songs. It’s like watching a thrilling episode of Twin Peaks and suddenly having three scenes from Who framed Roger Rabbit cut right through it.
Again, I do like the songs themselves, but for me, they would only work if they were put in a different place on the album. I would suggest after Bandó Ribineann so that there is a more natural flow of music for me. But that’s only a small glitch on an otherwise impressive album. Something that wouldn’t bother people who are less emotionally involved while listening

All in all, M’ANAM is a powerful, impressive album. One of the M’ANAM members mentioned that although most songs are slow songs, ballads, there aren’t any love songs on the album. At that point, I don’t agree. Granted, there are no traditional love themes to be found on M’ANAM. But the whole album is filled with love. A love for music. A love and respect for each other as friends and singers. And a love for the land and its history, not only of their (adopted) homeland Eire but also for Island, two naturally rich and rugged countries with stunning landscapes, one wild and ancient, one young and turbulent. Two sister countries that in their history are so intertwined.
M’ANAM managed to capture that in their songs, in their performance, I could clearly feel it. People who love the music of ANÚNA, the early Clannad, or the wave of new age albums from the late 80’s – think Gregorian chant or Adiemus– will love this album. People who are new to choral music, this truly is a lovely CD to discover its power in all its beauty.


Editor: Sara Weeda

Nadia Birkenstock – Whispering Woods (2019)

A harp is a beautiful instrument. It can be imposing like the sea, it can sparkle like a waterfall, it can dance like a butterfly or it can be sad as the rain on a grey morning.
On A La Source, the first song of Whispering Woods, it is caressing my ears, flowing and sparkling through them like a young stream over small rocks on an early spring morning, the sky full of pastel colours, relaxing yet energising every single ounce of my being.
It’s only one harp I hear, nothing more, she is delicate and soothing, yet she has the power to take me away to those happy moments I’ve spent hiding in the morning mist with my camera, the sun starting to turn the water into diamonds, a wren defiantly hopping around me, closer and closer, as I was waiting for a kingfisher to flash by. This, dear readers, is the beauty of a harp.
I’m listening to Whispering Woods, the ninth album of harpist and singer Nadia Birkenstock. Whispering Woods is a title well chosen for this solo harp CD, as the delicate tones of this lovely album indeed take me away to the woods my girlfriend spent hours in during her youth. The place I’ve also learned to love. A place not far from the birthplace of Nadia actually. A small stream flowing through the forests surrounding the Scharpenacker in the hills above Wuppertal and magically called the Murmelbach.
Nadia Birkenstock herself was born in Solingen, Germany a town quite nearby. She started playing the piano at 5 and she started singing with various choirs and vocal ensembles during her teenage years. She first discovered the harp during a concert of the legendary Scottish harp duo Sileas formed by Patsy Seddon and Mary McMaster. At the age of 16, she started to play the harp herself, first teaching herself, later taking lessons with classically trained teachers including masterclasses with Kim Robertson in the USA and Scottish harp player Bill Taylor.
Nadia earned herself a one-year scholarship in the USA and got her first vocal training during her stay at the Westover College in Connecticut. She continued her vocal training at the music conservatory in Düsseldorf, Germany.

During her vocal studies, Nadia created her first solo performance for Celtic harp and voice and she never looked back, touring the world, playing festivals like the Southeastern harp weekend (North Carolina, USA), the Sentmenat harp festival in Barcelona, the Rencontres Internationales de la Harpe Celtique in Dinan, France and the Celtica festival in Italy among many, many others.
In 2001 Nadia released her first solo album: Emerald Isles. She herself describes this CD as a mix of Irish harp music, Celtic songs, dance tunes, and original compositions. A CD that got her positive reactions from Folk World and Celtic world radio in Australia.
Wondering Between The worlds was released in 2003, followed by Winter Tales in 2006, a lovely Celtic folk Christmas album that indeed mixes the magic of Christmas with the beauty of Celtic harp music. You can find it on Spotify here.
In 2007 Nadia released another themed CD, one I haven’t listened to yet but which sounds really interesting. A mix of lullabies from around the world called Les Berceuses De Coline. The next album, Strange New Land, came out in 2008 and Nadia sees that as her songwriter debut. In 2011 she did another very interesting project that came out in two languages; The Enchanted Lake (English) and Der Verzauberte See (German). According to Folk World it’s a mix of exquisite harp music and outstanding storytelling by Dublin actor Mick Fitzgerald and I’ll happily take their word for it. This combination of Celtic harp music and fairytales earned Nadia Birkenstock the global music award 2011.
In 2010 another interesting collaboration started, this time with Welsh percussionist and gong maker Steve Hubback. The two played the opening concert at the international harp festival at Sentmenat, Barcelona in 2010 and kept making music and playing concerts together culminating in the 2013 album The Glow Within, an album that combines Celtic folk music with more freer, experimental pieces.
Finally, to conclude Nadia’s more than impressive biography she also plays concerts together with the German string quartet Northern Lights. In these concerts the five ladies focus both on Nadia’s own compositions and on traditional Celtic songs and dance music.

And now there is a new album, the first one from Nadia’s hand that made it to CeltCast HQ, but it certainly won’t be the last one! Whispering Woods came out in October 2019. Although it still has one or two pure Celtic songs on it -including my personal favourite; The Musical Priest, with a lovely sparkling harp arrangement may I add- most of the songs have a timeless beauty to it. Purely featuring the beauty of the harp and the skills of Nadia as a harp player and songwriter. There are no vocals on Whispering Woods and it’s almost completely done solo. Only occasionally, percussionist and guitarist Thomas Vogt– who also recorded and mixed Whispering Woods– joins in to assist Nadia. You might think that there is not too much to say about a pure harp album, but how wrong you would be then. Whispering Woods presents gem after gem. I already mentioned the sparkling opening track A La Source and the Celtic folk classic The Magical Priest, but there are many more.

The second track on Whispering Woods, The Lady Of Gollerus is a bit calmer than A La Source, it has a more gentle melody. But just as in A La Source, Nadia plays really cleverly with stereo effects and different layers in her arrangements, she together with producer Thomas Vogt also added small musical touches all over the CD to enrich the music. Here it is mainly the waves of harp chords sprinkled like fairy dust over the main melody. It may sound like a small touch, but it is so important to keep the music interesting and is therefore really smartly done.

Spesbourg starts with some strong harp chords, going into a fragile almost classical harp intro. If I close my eyes, I can easily see a single ballerina floating over a dark stage. And then suddenly there is Thomas Vogt on percussion and the song turns into a cross between Celtic folk and the kind of instrumental singer-songwriter music Jyoti Verhoeff played so expertly well on her latest CD Touches. I love the catchy melody. I also love the layers of percussion, harp chords and the harp lead voice laid over each other. I deliberately say harp voice, of course I know it is a lead melody, but Nadia has the ability to make her harp sing. I never knew pure harp music could be so catchy.

Nadia keeps that Celtic pop-folk feel with Toccatta. I can hear hints of the sound of Omnia’s Pagan Folklore sound in the intro -people who love Jenny’s Naked Harp album should really check this CD out, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise- but soon Toccatta flows into another lovely combination of Celtic harp, pop-folk and flashes of classical harp solo. Nadia Birkenstock officially called her CD Whispering Woods – Celtic Harp solos, but that title doesn’t fully do justice to the music. These tracks are far more than just harp solo pieces. They are true songs. With intent and purpose. Just like Jyoti Verhoeff, Nadia is a singer-songwriter by heart, who decided to let her instrument do the singing. And what an amazing voice her harp has. I can’t begin to imagine what would happen if she and Jyoti happened to meet up and start a project together. It would – most likely- be stunning.

Enough of this daydreaming, back to Whispering Woods. As I said this album keeps giving and giving. The Glow Within is another tender ballad ‘sung’ by the beautiful harp voice. It’s amazing how this album works in both ways. You can listen to it as I do now, through headphones, with full attention and you’ll find it’s intriguing, captivating music. But played as background music, it will flow through you. Calming. Relaxing.
This album will show you what happens when a gifted artist becomes one with her instrument and with the music she is playing. It becomes true beauty.

We are not even halfway through the CD, and there are many more gems to come. Be it fragile tender harp solos, beautiful ballads, lovely midtempo instrumental singer-songwriter tunes or up-tempo Celtic folk classics, but I’ve said all I need to say about Whispering Woods. Every extra syllable added would just take away from the music. any extra word more would only be reviewer blah blah blah.
With this album, Nadia has inspired me for pure harp music. She has shown me the versatility of this impressive instrument. And I thank her deeply for that.

– Cliff

Editor: Diane Deroubaix
pictures: Thomas Zydatiß


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