Barra - Eternal Magus

Year of Release: 2002
Catalog Number:
Format: CD
Total Time: 61:38:00

It's funny, in a way; I was looking at the album cover while first listening to this and thought, based on the way the quartet were dressed, that they seemed "so 80s," especially the new wave hair cut of the fellow on the right - no guide as who's who, though one member is obvious. Though the image above is too small to see, trust me on it ? a big swoop of bangs over one brow. Barra were Tracey-Anne Sparkes on vocals, Clive Parker-Sharp on drums and programming, Colin Cumming on bass and Alan Wishart on guitars and keyboards.

Well, placing them and picture in the 80s was spot on, as I came to learn that this 2002 release, Eternal Magus release is actually what would have been the first Barra album recorded in late 80s (the first 10 tracks) but never released; the rest music from their previous incarnation as Kingfishers Catch Fire. It's all been remixed and remastered by Parker-Sharp. How they went from KCF, to Holy Trinity, and then Barra is detailed in the booklet with artwork by The Morrigan's Colin Masson, but basically the transition from HT to Barra was due to having a separate outlet for their "ethereal [?] pagan influenced music?" Because the same players were involved in both bands, there is a consistency in sound, but the styles vary.

Although as Barra, their Celtic sound wasn't quite ethereal, it has some ethereal elements (along the lines of Clannad); as KCF, the sound is rockier, and very much 80s sounding. You could imagine hearing them alongside, oh, Big Country (especially in "Silverman," vocals aside) ? which isn't too surprising as there's a bit of a kinship between the two bands in BC's early days. In as much as Barra are Celtic rock, there are many elements, mainly the guitar tones, that draw upon a UK-centered progressive rock palette. While I didn't mean Mr. Rothery when I wrote that sentence, the shimmering liquid lines of "Never Never" do have a Rothery-esque feel to them, even while at the same time there is something Celtic about them. We can also mention Gilmour, though not soloing. Imagine guitar parts influenced by "Run" and parts of "Another Brick In The Wall"? and if you aren't a Marillion/Floyd fan, just imagine shimmery, wavery, watery, silvery guitar sounds playing gently across your ears. There's no really soloing here, but each instrument is distinct, heard in its own space, combining to create a rich whole. You'll hear the chiming churn of guitars on "Gifts For Violet" and "Gnosis." One can almost hear a flute in the mix towards the end "Gnosis," but it is not very distinct (and is likely keyboards anyway), but it?s the kind of track that you expect a flute to be trilling. The drums have a warmer sound during most of the Barra material, taking on a more "digital" sound for the KCF material. There are keyboards, but with a few exceptions ("Silverman" for instance) they aren't at the forefront. Everything is really in support of the vocals.

Sparkes has a wonderfully rich voice, and for the Barra tracks, sings in a lilting manner. One can easily mention Maire Brennan, Enya, and, while not strictly Celtic, Mary Black. But, actually, she sounds like a more lilting Christie Hynde. As like much modern Celtic music, a halo or haze surrounds the vocals ? soft-focus really, put in visual terms. The instrumentation is just as rich, though most of the emphasis is given to vocals. From a production point of view, the sound is very crystalline, and with the "doubling" of Sparks voice, gives the music depth.

It is tracks like "Green Man" and "Universe" that really stand out, the former for the deeper vocal tones and chanted chorus, the latter for its expansive arrangement ? the chorus has to lines that sung with in a languid and open manner. as you might expect with a track called "Universe." The arrangement of "Green Man" suggests circular movement, a dance of a sort, more ritualistic than celebratory. "Universe" add a synthesized percussion element that puts right into the 80s, it add a dry element to what is otherwise a wet track? a bit of black and white in a colour image. Percussion and voice are at the forefront, with guitar used a secondary element. "Battlescars" has a bit more bite, Sparke's tone deepening a bit, becoming almost sultry and yet the delivery isn't. It stands out, but seems typical 80s pop-rock fair (Sousxie And The Banshees come to mind), the hint of Celtic tones suggests Big Country a bit ? it's catchy, likely a hit, but seemingly without a lot of lyrical depth (it's one of those for which the lyrics weren't included in the booklet). This is especially shone by the fact that it followed by the very dramatic, and sad and often fragile, "Badda." Here Sparkes rich vocal tones are played against a delicate lattice of shimmery guitar and hazy atmospherics.

"Journey" is a ballad that made think of "Unchained Melody" a bit on certain vocal lines. Instrumentally, I thought a bit of Pink Floyd ("Run") in the percolating guitar of Wishart (brother to Runrig's Peter Wishart). "Palestine" maintains the mellower sound of the other tracks, but isn't Celtic in sound. The arrangement is sparse, but still maintains the instrumental richness of earlier tracks; percussion is a little more prominent in the mix even while it is not dominant.

"Blushing Red" is the track that you think the band is really going to rock out on, as the opening notes lead you believe you are going to get something explosive, but they pull back. Ah, but that's just so the chorus can explode. Sparke's delivery here is harsh about the edges, as some lines she even lets a bit of a growl creep into a voice. And carries it off wonderfully. This is the one time where you can almost say Wishart solos, as you can hear his guitar wail for a bit during the instrumental break. Maybe it's the "red" part, I thought a bit of The Motels with this track ? another 80s band. And "Power Of Three" is their dance track, given the beat. With Celtic rock you might think reel, but this is the band in their KCF incarnation, so the dance is modern, well modern for 1987. Wishart's guitar phrases here lose shimmer and become scratchy and harsh, the percussion seem by rote ? this their most "traditional" song here, though the new wave crowd might have found the distorted guitars a bit too "metal" for their "disco-like" tastes. Duran Duran in their Arcadia days ? yes, that's the thought that came to me. Can't define or explain it? but there it is.

"Seafever (Version 1)" is an acoustic piece featuring guitar and vocals only; "Seafever (Version 2)" adds percussion and electric guitar to the vocals? it makes the song of a piece with the rest of the bands' material, but the acoustic version stands out more. Both are good.

Aside from the synthetic percussion sound on the KCF tracks, this album not only sounds great, it sounds great. The compositions are beautiful, and Sparkes has a terrific voice. No word on what the members of the band are doing now aside from Parker-Sharp, who is now in the band Marshall Star and still runs Furry Records. But, given the interest in Celtic rock nowadays, the popularity of Clannad, Enya, and the groups they spawned, and the freshness to the Barra material (which does not sound dated at all), they could easily pick up where they left off.

[This title not currently available - ed. Sep. 5, 2006]

Eternal Magus (3:14) / Gifts For Violet (3:05) / Gnosis (4:56) / Green Man (3:34) / Journey (4:23) / Palestine (4:24) / Seafever (Version 1) (3:59) / Universe (4:35) / Battlescars (4:02) / Badda (4:28) / Never Never* (4:43) / Silverman* (3:33) / Blushing Red* (4:10) / Power Of Three* (4:05) / Seafever (Version 2) (4:27)

Tracey-Anne Sparkes ? vocals
Clive Parker-Sharp ? drums, programming, production
Colin Cumming ? bass
Alan Wishart - guitars, keyboards

Eternal Magus (rec. 1987/rel. 2002) (oop)

Genre: Progressive Folk

Origin UK

Added: May 2nd 2004
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Hits: 1136
Language: english


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