Morrigan, The - Hidden Agenda

Year of Release: 2002
Label: English Garden/Hi-Note
Catalog Number: ENG 1024
Format: CD
Total Time: 51:09:00

The Morrigan's Hidden Agenda is a mix of various styles, though most are Celtic in their underlying nature. The style is heard especially the instrumental pieces, of which there are five? on an album with a total of nine tracks. The Morrigan have been making music since 1984, releasing their first album Spirit Of The Soup in 1986. In the first line up of the band were current members Cathy Alexander (vocals, recorders, keyboards, and 12 string guitar) and Colin Masson (guitars, bass, keyboards and vocals), the latter of whom you might also know from his solo release em>Isle Of Eight. The name derives, as the band explain on their website, from the "rather scary villainess in [Alan] Garner's first two books, as well as being the most singular of Celtic deities (The goddess of death, destruction, war, pestilence, who manifests herself as the Maiden, the Woman, and the Hag!)." Drummer Arch joined in 1988, Dave Lodder (guitars, bass, keyboards) joined in 1995, as did Mervyn Baggs, or Mervyn B, as he is known (vocals, flute, bass, and percussion), replacing original members who had departed, including founding bassist Cliff Eastabrook; Lodder and Baggs themselves have since left, after the release of Hidden Agenda. Rounding out the line up heard here is guest Matt Carter on mandolin and banjo - now a full member of the band. The band's complete history is detailed (truly detailed, with pics) at their website.

Three things stand out strongly with this release. Firstly, Mervyn often sounds like Fish even as he doesn't sing like Fish. It's a tone thing, you see, and recalls Fish immediately post Marillion. And this occurs on the second track in "In The End," which wouldn't seem out of place on any UK prog band (by which I mean those called "neo," of course, though it is more recent Galahad that come to mind, and, in a way, Pallas). Under the vocals and keyboard washes, the most prominent instrument is a rumbling bass. The Celtic/folk influence comes during the throaty recorder/flute passage. It's a gentle track, given the breathy vocals that come after that first (Fishy) verse.

Secondly, the track "South Australia" stands out because you are struck by the odd combination of a strongly Celtic arrangement backing a song about Australia. It's a danceable reel with a memorable, and singable, chorus -- shame the lyrics weren't included for this one, but a little Internet surfing turned them up, though, so I'll tell you it's a "capstan shanty used by the wool traders who worked the clipper ships between Australian ports and London," as stated on McGuinn's Folkden site. For me, with this piece, Tempest came to mind, though The Morrigan aren't quite as heavy in sound. All one needs to complete the setting of this track is a pub and pint? and crowd of cheerful patrons? not to delve into stereotypes, mind you, but drinking songs do have the cadence and rhythm found here, so?

The third thing concerns the track "The Other." Musically (i.e., aside from the vocals), this piece will transport you back to the folk rock of the 70s (and The Morrigan are indeed a folk rock band, just one that explores it from various angles). But not just back to folk, but to the days when singer-songwriters were everywhere (though many of them were or dabbled in folk). It is when Alexander, who wrote this piece, begins to sing that the 70s vibe is even stronger. And I don't say this in a bad way - never mind the fact that I'm a fan of 70s music (yes, even some disco). On this piece, though not on the others, Alexander sounds very, very much like Carly Simon -- during the subdued verses, I kept thinking of the subdued verses of "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be". The exuberant and energetic "choruses" (not really choruses, but changes in tempo) spin about dizzyingly (and I'll whisper that a guitar solo here sounds Rothery-y).Thematically, it's a song that can be interpreted somewhat literally - that the protagonist has several personalities - or metaphorically - the duality of our nature when in different situations - or even something even more sinister - possession. That is to say, either we have girl in The Exorcist or we have Sibyl or? well, the lyrics seem to lean closer to one of these two scenarios (though not to these films at all). Another neat element is, during those high-spirited spirited passages, we get some deep-toned tinkling piano accents.

Another track that stands out (so, that should be four) is the epic "A Night To Remember" - about the sinking of the Titanic. Here is a song that mixes (relatively) calmer passages (i.e., pre-iceberg) with more frantic passages (i.e., post-iceberg) with the odd juxtaposition of an even more delicate passage in between versus of the latter - to underscore the image of the band playing on while the boat is sinking, as was said to have happened. That you know you're in for an epic is evident from the big opening? with symphonic elements (the keys). A dark toned, distorted guitar intro follows, accompanied by heavy bass and solid drumming. In the mix too, some chiming, gently chugging guitar phrases (I'll whisper quietly classic Steve Rothery and Karl Groom). With the preponderance of pixie-voiced vocalists out there, I must say I prefer those who sing with full and rich voice - as Alexander does here. The perilous and ultimately tragic situation we find ourselves in with this track is very much illustrated by the frenetic drumming and keyboards, enhanced by the keening guitars. Listening again, Point Of Know Return-era Kansas come to mind, and the throaty sound the guitars had there.

The album opens with the bouncy rocker "Swallow's Tail," which is not at all folky with grinding guitars and prominent keyboards. The lead voice here though is Mervyn's flute, which quite lyrical. Many phrases are doubled by Alexander on recorder (perhaps all, but it is a few measures into the solo that I hear both instruments). They do give the lead over to guitar for a bit, however.

The other instrumental is "Volta/Basse Danse/Volta," another lyrical flute and recorder piece, with sparse drumming - sounds like hands rather than sticks - and a very lyrical feel. At you can guess by the inclusion of a "danse," the rhythm invites foot movement and suggests the image of dancers moving in a circle around a central fire. Again, it is a little less heavy than how Tempest interprets traditionals, but certainly broaches the same rhythmic territory. The composers here are Praetorius and Suato, the Praetorius "Voltas" bookending the "Basse Danse" (as the title order suggests).

Fitting in with the "folk" style is "Slieve Russell/The March Hare," which while dark in overall tone, does leaven the intense drama of "A Night To Remember" that comes before it. "Joe Cooley's Reel" serves the same role after the dramatic "The Other." A plucked, fat bass leaps out of the otherwise flute dominated mix on this piece. Mandolin features on this piece as well, giving a nice tone to this piece (I suddenly thought of dark mahogany wood for some reason). More (Rothery-like) guitar soloing on this piece, too. Each instrument comes to the fore for several measures -- I imagine live, the band use this as their "showcase each performer" spot in the set.

Well, I didn't intend to comment on all the tracks, but here I've only one more left, the last, and feel it needs to be mentioned, too. It is a lilting piece, giving Alexander a chance to show her range - Mary Black, Enya, Maire Brennan, etc. will come to mind in terms of style, but Alexander's voice is her own here (no hints of Simon at all). It's a very gentle and relaxing piece to end the album on. Called "The Parting Glass," one imagines a very serene British Isle, mist-shrouded, like something out of Arthurian or Celtic legend? everything given a soft-focus. Of course, the song itself is about the last drink of the night and leaving the bar (and no doubt somewhat metaphorical, depending on setting).

The Morrigan are quite good at what they do - and with nearly 20 years of doing it, you wouldn't expect any less. There's a lot on offer here for the listener, as each subsequent listen reveals more layers of sound - a keyboard passage you didn't notice before, flute or recorder accents, percussion, etc. Though "Swallow's Tail" puts a bit of poppish spin on things, the remaining tracks should appeal to the progressive folk rock minded fans out there (and sure to make a few who weren't initially).

Note: The English Garden/Hi-Note label has gone out of business. But, the album is available from the band directly.

Swallow's Tail (3:56) / In The End (6:02) / Volia-Basse Dancse-Volia (5:37) / South Australia-Roaring Forties (4:12) / A Night To Remember (9:50) / Slieve Russell-March Hare (5:22) / The Other (6:53) / Joe Cooley's Reel (6:30) / The Parting Glass (4:07)

Cathy Alexander - vocals, recorders, keyboards, 12-string guitar
Mervyn B - vocals, flute, bass, percussion
Colin Masson - guitars, bass, occasional keyboards, vocals
Dave Lodder - guitars, bass, occasional keyboards
Arch - drums, percussion, vocals
Matt Carter - mandolin and banjo

War In Paradise (ep) (1993/2006)
Spirit Of The Soup (1985/1999)
The Morrigan Rides Out (1990/1997)
Wreckers (1996)
Masque (1998)
Hidden Agenda (2002)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin UK

Added: September 5th 2004
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website:
Hits: 796
Language: english


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