3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
This collection of squires, knaves, and wenches never ceases to amaze me. On paper, a guitarist who's eschewed a profitable and high profile career -- first as Deep Purple's axe man, then as the leader of his own self-titled band -- for the privilege of wearing tights and playing Medieval mandolin seems intent on flushing ye olde career down the royal commode. Yet Squire Ritchie Blackmore has embraced a combination of Renaissance music, traditional English folk, mainstream rock, fantasy fretwork and made Medieval magic. Much of the credit is due to the oh so saucy, photogenic, Candice Night, whose silken voice makes her sound as if she lived a previous life as a fairytale princess. For "Secret Voyage," the band's seventh studio album, Candice and Ritchie are assisted by Bard David of Larchmont (keyboards, vocals), Earl Grey of Chimay (bass, guitar, vocals), Squire Malcolm of Lumley (Joan Lumley? Fabulous! No, Malcolm's the percussionist, and no relation), and Gypsy Rose (not the stripper; she's the group's violinist and back up singer).
Your secret voyage begins with the instrumental "God Save the Keg." Frat boys and sorority girls will immediately be attracted the title. It starts out with a refined harpsichord run and a forest of woodwind instruments combining with the regal strength of a full orchestra abetted by a chorus of operatic singers, making "God Save the Keg" sound like the arrival of King Arthur to his court rather than Bluto Blutarsky protecting his cherished tin of suds. It ends with a dramatic Keith Emerson styled cathedral organ solo and a chorus of flagellating monks as threatening as Torquemada overseeing the Spanish Inquisition. The irreverent title is very misleading (and wrong) for such serious stuff, and you can barely hear Blackmore's guitar though the mist of orchestration, but "God Save the Keg" mixes a lot of styles -- classical, medieval, rock, folk and Gregorian chants, and does so in an impressive and mesmerizing fashion.
"Gilded Cage" is much more exotic, thanks to the tranquil, swirling strings and gypsy percussion. Night has a rich, unshakable voice that feeds the song's fantasy setting. Blackmore hangs back, breaking through with an adroit acoustic solo. Okay, there's a gypsy violin solo by new member Gypsy Rose that will make you feel like ordering wine for dinner, but "Guilded Cage" is a gentle Mediterranean inspired breeze that will ensnare your senses.
"Toast To Tomorrow" resembles a bar mitzvah, very bouncy, very Halva Nagila and very bad. "We'll drink a toast to tomorrow, and one to day's long ago." Gotta admit it; having played my share of Greek and Jewish weddings, this doesn't inspire a lot of pleasant memories. Lots of visions of smashed glasses (and guests), spilled wine, and broken promises. You might find "Toast To Tomorrow" celebratory, but I'd rather party like it's 1999 than 1599.
Ritchie takes out his acoustic, blending Flemish, Renaissance and olde English folk influences, and comes up with "Prince Waldeck's Galliard." If you liked Yes' "Mood For A Day," (basically a solo showcase for guitarist Steve Howe), then you'll appreciate this. The title will undoubtedly send listeners scrambling to their computers to find out what in the name of Sir Galahad a galliard is. (No, it's not a school for galley slaves. It's one of those fruity French dances with lots of leaping.)
Prepare yourself kids, the band's reworking of "Rainbow Eyes" is a career highlight, and offers a high end treat - Ritchie Blackmore on electric guitar! The original "Rainbow Eyes" was birthed during Blackmore's sentence with his group called.... Rainbow! (Blackmore has never been known for his subtlety.) Screeched out by razor-throated mini-me metal singer Ronnie James Dio, the original version was instantly forgettable. In the much more understanding hands and larynx of Candice Night, it's the best song on the album and unforgettable. Bending notes like the irritable Ritchie we know and love, Blackmore rides in on sliding strings, melodic and crisp as the colors of a rainbow after a summer rain. The mystical ambiance is garnished with confident conga and tabla that accentuates Blackmore's wailing solos, which are guaranteed to please Purpleites. Ritchie's learned a trick or two, incorporating a dash of Carlos Santana's thick, serpentine soloing. Listen to Blackmore ride the scales for the last minute of the song. He's a veritable guitar Toscanini; high praise from a guy who can't stand hearing any axe man solo for more than a minute. He's not loud or overbearing (as you might expect), stitching together soft liquid notes. Crystal Night is breathy and enticing in all the right places: "No sighs or mysteries, she lay golden in the sun. No broken harmonies, but I've lost my way, he had rainbow eyes... Love should be a single blend, a whispering on the shore. No clever words you can't defend, they lead to nevermore." The lyrics are perhaps a bit obtuse and indebted to Poe, but beautifully sung. It's a beautiful rainbow.
Electric Ritchie is followed by ...Brave Sir Robin music! "The Circle" is the tale of a sorceresses' world tour. (Apparently she prefers heavily wooded bogs and drafty castles to bed and breakfast spots.) "The Circle" is Scottish accented rock with Candace belting out a vocal that spins your senses like a whirlpool. Flutes abound, sounding like high pitched bag pipes -- without the usual annoying squeal and with added uncharacteristic warmth. There's a nice touch from Blackmore -- a zippy "Kashmir" middle eight on his Fender, although something other than "ooooh, aaaaah," from the rogue's gallery of back up singers would have helped. "Danced in castles made of stone, Walked the desert sands alone, In that hour, you feel the power and the circle starts again."
"The Circle" is followed by the albums two weakest cuts, "Sister Gypsy" and "Can't Help Falling In Love With You." Feel free to head to ye old scullery for a heavy dose of ale when these two fairytale failures uglify your speakers. "Sister Gypsy" is the tale of a carefree gypsy (is there any other kind?), who's one with the earth and sky. "She was wild and free, she was calling to me. Sister gypsy, we're one in the same." Gypsy Rose's Ninotchka violin gives the proceedings a Russian peasant gloss, but it's cursed with every Stevie Nicks cliché you'd expect from a song about a witchy free spirit. "Can't Help Falling In Love" is one of those disastrous "What the hell where they thinking?" moments. As swiftly paced and as out of control as an overloaded ox cart, this version smacks of an "American Idol" audition. Elvis has not only left the building, he's smashing Squire Blackmore over the head with a leg of mutton. You can't help but wonder if Candice and Ritchie passed out some bad toadstools before they went into the studio to wax this one.
The gentle approach is revived with Blackmore musing on acoustic guitar for the introduction of "Peasant's Promise." But wait! The band begins to gather round the campfire and bangs out a belly-dancing beat. "Peasant's Promise" is a lively blending of hot Hellenistic influences and Renaissance romance. It's My Greek Medieval Wedding! Thanks to the mood setting hand drum, tambourine and Candice's airy vocal, this peasant fulfills his promise.
The ballad "Far Far Away" adapts a more staid, Elizabethan approach, and is fashioned as a romantic waltz, with very proper diction from Night that harkens back to her Annie Haslam singing style. The addition of overdubbed Candice's in the background gives "Far Far Away" and Enya-like exit that perks things up a bit.
"Secret Voyage" is a little ostentatious in spots, but if you gird your loins for a little extravagance you'll enjoy the trip. So, sister gypsy, you'll say "God save the keg" and "let's toast to tomorrow" after listening to "Secret Voyager." It's an album you can't help falling in love with.