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Current concise reviews of the albums by adult alternative, contemporary, and crossover artists. Images of album artwork and links to both internet-based resources are always included. Click on the title to view the article.

Charlotte Church
Sarah Slean
Joanne Hogg
Wendy Stark
Falling You
Kathleen Michaels
Secret Garden

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Charlotte Church CD Cover-Click to visit her website
Image © 1999 Sony Music Entertainment  

The follow-up to the record-breaking debut album-Voice Of An Angel (Sony SK60957, 1998)-by young operatic superstar Charlotte Curch is destined to certain success. A widely-aired live video entitled Voice Of AnAngel In Concert (Sony SHV61770, 1999) also received significant international attention and was certified gold by the RIAA. The new album titled simply Charlotte Church (Sony SK64356, 1999) includes a staggering collection of 17 tracks opening with the stunning original contemporary-opera crossover track "Just Say Hello" produced by Trevor Horn. A two-minute edit of the 3:50 track is being used in the Ford Global Millennium television advert. Certain to achievecritical acclaim beyond typical classical circles, further contemporary crossover work would be appreciatedby even broader audiences. Order the album today fromamazon.com.

Charlotte Church provides all lead vocals and is accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra throughout the recording-their chorus also contributes to the album as does the London Welsh Male Choir. The singer's vast ranging vocal excursions span the recording and include technically superb renditions of classical pieces such as the recent Sarah Brightman "O mio babbino caro" as well as "Lascia ch'io pianga," "The Jewel Song," "If Thou Art Near," "Voi che sapete" and a Brahm's "Lullaby." Her vocal work in Rossini's "la Pastorella" waltz from Soirées Musicales is especially memorable as is "Barcorelle" from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann and the traditional pieces "She Moves Through The Fair" and "Men of Harlech" (with male choir). The stunning ballad "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess and the highly emotive treatment of the secular hymn "Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Redeemer," also with male choir, round out the album.

Destined for great success, this self-titled second albumis technically superb. Accompanied by a lovely booklet withlyrics and translations where required, production quality ofthe recording is top notch as well. This second collectionof Charlotte Church recordings includes a wide selection of musicand fully illustrates the talent of this rapidly emerging vocal talent. Worth a cross-country journey-a must listen!

Aria 2: New Horizon CD Cover
Image © 1999 Astor Place Recordings, LLC  

The followup album to Paul Schwartz' Aria (Astor Place TCD 4009, 1997),entitled Aria 2 New Horizon (Astor Place TCD 4017) is more focused and highly polished when compared to the debut. Foremost a vocal work, yet again a contemporary-classical opera crossover, Schwartz began with well-known pieces from various composers, coupled them with his own and created highly unique and modern arrangements featuring the stunning and hypnotic vocals of Tony Award nominee Rebecca Luker. You can order the album fromamazon.com today. Aria's debut album can also be ordered fromamazon.com.

Professionally and richly orchestrated in every way, the album contains equal installments of modern instrumentation-gorgeous guitars, electronics and percussion contribute to the contemporary and progressive effervescence of the album. The album includes unique arrangements of Monteverdi’s "Lament of Arianna," Verdi’s "Addio," Offenbach's "Barcarolle" as well asa version of Fauré's "Pavane." Four of the tracks are instrumentals while the balance of the album is vocally oriented.

Featured on both the debut and this followup album, Rebecca Luker's highlyemotive vocals are crystal clear, instrumental in their quality, and undescribably lush at the same time. A certain highlight of the album isSchwartz' contemporary arrangement and Luker's vocal rendition of "Ave Maria."Contrasting lead vocals are provided by Clair Marlo on the Croation and English versions of "Sviraj (Lullabye)." The one male vocal number, "Leiermann" arranged by Schwartz from Schubert's "Die Wintereise," is sung (in German) by Steve Barton.

While some crossovers are quirky with styles vastly oscillating track to track, this album has a strong direction and is highly thematic, rich in texture, wonderfully produced and consistently strong across the twelve individual tracks. A gatefold with lovely artwork and a removable booklet adorns the compact disc. As with the debut album, lyrics, their translationand contributing artists are included. Certain to win international acclaimand broad appeal, Aria 2 New Horizon is worth a cross country journey-amust listen!

Blue Parade CD Cover
Image © 1999 Sarah Slean  

Sarah Slean's first full length album, Blue Parade (Sarah Slean SSCD-002, 1999), follows her highly successful independently released EP, entitled Universe (Sarah Slean SSCD-1998, 1998), available since the latter half of 1998 on CD and on cassette for a year longer. The new album, also independently released, is self-written and sung with piano, wurlitzer, toy piano and rhodes also played by Sarah herself. It contains eleven tracks including heartfelt alternative rock tracks intermingled with sensitive ballads accompanied by light instrumentation. Compared by some to Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell and Sarah McLachlan, Slean's voice is sweeter and more emotional and her songs are musically more complex.Further light instrumentation is provided by Mark Mariash (drums, percussion andhorn arrangements), Drew Birston (bass), Maury Lafoy (bass), Kurt Swinghammer (guitars), Kevin Fox (cello), Todd Lumley (Hammond B3) and Erin Donovon (vibraphone). Strings are also arranged and conducted by by Sarah and as with thehorns are played by various session artists.

Reviews of Sarah Slean's live performances suggest tremendous stage presenceand she is continuing to venture outside of her native Canada to larger venues in the United States, including New York for example. Her chatty on-stage style has warmed many audiences and live performances, mailand internet sales have resulted in significant demand for her independently released CDs.

Styles on the new album vary from upbeat songs ("Playing Cards with Judas" and "High")through instrumentally exploratory songs ("My Invitation," "Narcolepsy Weed," "Eliot" and "Habit") to the tremendous ballads ("Blue Parade" and "Twin Moon"). The lovelymulti-tracked a capella "Awake Soon" is a true testament to Sarah's vocal talent. With excellent songwriting and inventive classically derived instrumentation, the album is a significant development over and (positive) departure from her earlier EP.

Sarah Slean is certainly a very promising up-and-coming independent female singer-songwriter. Clearly outside traditional pop culture, she is destinedto become widely appreciated in AOR circles. This debut full length album is worth further exploration and with complexity better understood with repeated listenings is a wonderful listen!

Magical Eclipse CD Cover
Image © 1999 New World Music Ltd.  

Recently reviewed in this digest, Pia's debut album Benediction Moon was voted by New World customers Best New Album 1998.Her latest recording, Magical Eclipse (New World Music (UK) NWCD 474, 1999), is a stunning followup that builds upon the debut album with eight wonderful tracks of heartfelt expressive vocal excursions with a variety of supporting instrumentation. Writingabout the album, New World Music said it best:"Backed by superb musicians such as Pete Booker and John Richardson, her voice ismagical, and the melodies echo out of enthralling arrangements where guitar, keyboards,flute and percussion all interweave." This is an absolutely tremendous album -- a must listen for anyone that enjoyed her first album and a fabulous introduction for those that have yet to hear Pia's debut recording.

Predominantly written by Pia herself but sharing credits on several trackswith Pete Booker, the songs vary in style from highly expressive dramatic ballads to highly developed numbers based on traditional pieces ("Govindam"). Lyrics are mainly in English but also include Pia's native tongue. Tracks have beensequenced to permit the album to develop to a natural crescendo and productionquality -- depth, dynamic range and imaging -- is absolutely superb throughout.

Three of the album's tracks extend over the seven minute mark and withsuch length provide a unique insight to Pia's writing and vocal talents. "The Way I Found Her" has a whispy lead vocal track augmented by acoustic guitar, awesome backing vocals and sensitive percussion. The vocal work spans popular, progressive and world textures and contributesto the overall success of the piece which, due to it's tremendous quality, doesn't seem to run for its almost eight minutes. More thoroughly developed orchestration and intense percussion enables "Eclipse" to build the style further, with Pia contrasting a very powerful lead vocal with multi-tracked backing vocals. "Chasing The Sun" (7:10) closes the album with pop, new age and tribal sounding world music fusing together.Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from amazon.comhere.

Pia's Magical Eclipse with it's broad variety and tremendous production is certainly one of the best new female vocal albums releasedthis year and, worth a journey, is a must listen.

Ascension CD Cover
Image © 1999 Earthtone Records  

Initially drawn to this release by Miriam Stockley's vocaltrack "There," Earthtone Records' latest new age compilation Ascension (ETD-7913, 1999) is "a transformationalexperience, [and] a heavenly carriage to greater self-awarenessand attunement." A&R Director Jeff Payne is responsible forthe album's concept, sequencing and selections from various Earthtone and other recording artists. Best listened to either with headphones or directly seated between the the speakers to enjoy the intricately producted imaging and stereo phasing, this warm album of primarily synthesizer melodies includes vocal work in several of the tracks. However, unlike many of the albums reviewed on this website, Ascension is first and foremost an instrumental recording and the relatively narrow variety of overall soundworks well to deliver a relaxing experience despite the lack of extensive female vocals.

Although the attractively styled liner notes accompanying the album indicate that Miriam's track "There" is from a forthcomingrelease by Alkaemy (see our review of 1998 Earthtone albumThe Merlin Mystery), we have been unable to confirm any details about the release.

The album opens with a track by Richard Burmer from 1988 andcontinues with a 1989 recording by Constance Demby taken from her album Set Free. "First Kiss" by Chris Spheerisand Paul Voudouris from their 1991 album Enchantmentfollows. Christopher Franke's "Flower Hill Trail" from his1999 album Epic also released on Earthtone Recordsand Anael's "One Brief Dream" from their 1997 Light of Refinement album continue to develop the album's relaxing texture.

The 1998 track "Seduced by an Angel" by Ayman and EarthtoneRecording artist Mars Laser's "Amy's Lullaby IV" from theiralbum 11:02 precede Cheryl Gunn's "Elysian Fields"from her 1999 Earthtone Album Vanity of Venus. Thebuild up to Miriam's track begins with "The Hiddin Smile ofNaiad" by Back To Earth from their album Rivers Of Life,"Reunion" by Richard Burmer and "The Only Answer" by ColletteBaron-Reid. These tracks and those that follow Miriam'sbracket "There" quite nicely and serve to showcase themost stunning vocal performance of the album.

The album concludes with "Improvisation One" by MichaelRubini from his 1994 album Secret Dream, "Desires ofthe Heart" by Chris Spheeris from his 1994 album Desiresand "In The Cathedral" by Gary Lamb from his 1995 album Angel.

This is a soothing and rich album with a good selectionof primarily instrumental tracks by new age artists. The narrowmixture of textures works well to highlight the vocals within thealbum and the sequencing of the tracks builds effectively to Miriam Stockley's ballad. A good collection, it delivers thegoods promised within the title. It is indeed a relaxing listen!

Looking Into Light CD Cover
Image © 1999 Alliance Music Ltd.  

Anyone familiar with the Christian Celtic progressive rock band Iona is surelyequally familiar with the stunning vocal talent of their lead vocalist JoanneHogg. She is well known in progressive rock circles and has been a top ratedaward winning female vocalist by the Classic Rock Society along with Tracy Hitchings (Landmarq) and Annie Haslam (Renaissance) several times. Joanne'sdebut solo album on Alliance Music is entitled Looking Into The Light(Alliance Music 1901182, 1999). The album contains twelve tracks of traditionaland self- or collaborative- penned themes with very light instrumentation provided by Joanne and other Iona musicians. The album is first and foremost a collection of folky vocal numbers that fully illustrate Joanne'semotive style, sheer power ("I Ask No Dream") and extensive range. Accompanied by a well designed CD booklet with lovely photographs, it is indeed a wonderful debut album.

Production is by Iona's David Bainbridge (also guitars, keyboard, bouzouki) and additional arrangements are by Troy Donockley (also Uilleann pipes and low whistles). Other Iona players involved in the project includePhil Barker (bass), Nick Beggs (fretless bass and chapman stick), Tim Harries (fuzz bass), Frank Van Essen (percussion, drums and violin) and David Fitzgerald (flute, tin whistles).

Unlike her albums with Iona, Joanne's debut is a collection of secular hymns and therefore the extensive instrumental progressions are primarily absent. Although not needed to add to the strength of the vocal work some multi-tracking adds to the texture and ambiance in several of the tracks ("Oh The Deep, Deep Love"). Joanne's shorter interpretation of "When I Survey" -- also recorded by Iona on Journey Into The Morn and live on Heaven's Bright Sun -- has more instrumental energy than many of the songs on the album, yet it is vocally very strong.

Joanne Hogg's Looking Into Light is a very strong debut albumand one that Iona fans will likely enjoy. The album is indeed a very nice listen, certainly worth a journey.

Child Of Transferrence CD Cover
Image © 1999 New World Music Ltd.  

Recommended initially by Graham Lubin, webmaster of Celestial Voices, the debut album by Wendy Stark isanother stunning example of contemporary vocal work mixedwith modern electronic instrumentation. Entitled Child Of Transferrence, (New World Music NWCD 467, 1999)the album, although far less multi-tracked and tribal, builds on a concept most associated with Adiemus in that the text for the vocals was written in a phonetic manner with the words viewed as an instrumental sound. It has again worked quite well.

Child of Transferrence is balanced and both vocally and instrumentally ("Prelude") strong, even soundtrack-like at times. Emotions, feelings and moods are conveyed and evoked in the listener as the melodies in the songs develop. Significantly more heavily produced and electronic -- as a result of theguitar and strong rhythmic elements -- than Enya, Adiemus or Pia, the album's ten songs each paint their own soundscape yet have been woven together in the album in a stunning way that grows on the audience with repeated listening. I found myself singingalong with the non-lyrical vocals after the third pass throughthe album. The track "Avé Maria" is a stunning combinationof vocals, traditional and electronic instrumentation.

From the liner notes, "Born in South Wales, Wendy Starkhas been writing songs since childhood. Drawing from emotionaland spiritual experience, her music is both reflective andinspiring. Her beautiful melodies, entwined with enhancingvocals create an intimate musical journey." Wendy's mid-register voice is pure and well-trained and compliments the light acoustic instrumentation and electronic progressions quite well.

Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from amazon.comhere. Highly recommended for its variety and overall somberness, the album is a good listen and worthy of exploration. Check it out soon.

Benediction You CD Cover
Image © 1998 New World Music Ltd.  
  First heard almost seven months ago, the debut album from New World Music recordingartist, Pia [Gaurãngi Devi Dasi], is clearly a work of timeless quality laced with dreamy female vocals and balanced with light traditional acoustic and electronic instrumentation. Entitled Benediction Moon, (New World Music NWCD 445, 1998) the album has been released in both the UK and the USA.

From the liner notes, "Following a period performing the rock opera Bhagavad Gita, she studied with the renowned Bengali musician and vocalist Haridas Ganguli, and has toured extensively performing Bhajans (traditional Indian spiritual songs). Pia has performed with artists such as Boy George, John Richardson, and Dream Academy."

Pia's songs are range from the evocative moody style of Enya -- illustrated in "Radhe" and especially in the stunning "Feel Free" -- to soaring ballads similar those sung by Sarah Brightman; John Richardson's "Angelus Cantus" for example.

English ("Angelus Cantus," "Prayer" and "Feel Free") and foreign lyrics ("Siren Song") are accompanied by vocalise in spots on the album's six tracks that range in length from 4:43 to 11:19. Pia's work is filled with a rich yet heavenly voice produced to be a true testament to the sheer power, extensive range ("Benediction Moon") and superb delivery of this extremely talented vocal artist.

Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from amazon.comhere.This album is a work of stunning proportions and is quite clearly a must listen!

Falling You CD Cover
Image © 1998 Adastra Records  
  The first recording from Ohio-based Falling You entitled Mercy (Adastra Records (USA) 9802, 1998) contains twelveof self-penned tracks of synth-oriented spacey and moody gothic music laced with superb lead and backing vocals by Jennifer McPeak. From the album's sleeve notes,Jennifer is the "life" element of the group. Instrumentals are by John Michael Zorko - the "blood" behind it all - and includesynthesizers, samplers, rattlers and drum programming. Guitar work on one of the instrumental tracks is provided by Scott Bivens.

Seven of the album's lush tracks are 'pure' instrumentals with only occasional light backing vocals adding texture to John Zorko's clever keyboard work. Typical music in this genre, the band's instrumentals are quite dark but extremely relaxing in their own way. The five lyrically richer numbers have Jennifer taking over and driving the music forward, however, with the exceptionof "Glacier," the songs fall short of leaving the listener with memorable melodies. The album's title track "Mercy" stands out as one of the band's rockier numbers crossing both blues and dance lines at the same time and is a testament to Jennifer's range, power and evocative style. Whether singing lyrics or providingbacking vocal scan, she has a truly stunning voice.

Best compared to Love Spirals Downwards, Love Is Colder Than Death, Edera and even some of the very early Chandeen, all of whom operate in the Heavenly Vocals genre, Falling You's music has somewhat of a unique freshness attributed to Jennifer McPeak's stunning vocal work and John's intellectually broader use of keyboard effects. Soundbites are available at the artists'mp3.com website. Fans of Hyperium Records' Heavenly Vocals compilations should certainly seek this album out. Overall, a very relaxing album.

Katheleen Michaels CD Cover
Image © 1998 KMWM Productions  
  The debut album by internet award winning Bay Area independent singer-songwriter Katheleen Michaels, Faces, Traces & Timelines (KMWM Productions, 1998), contains eleven heartfelt vocally rich folk-rock tunes backed principally by guitarist and co-writer Bill Mazur. With keyboards by Ken Ruppel, furtherinstrumental contributions include Nathan DeMello on bass and Patrick Ward and Dennis Briggs playing drums.

The album is dominated by Katheleen's vocal work. She also plays 12-string acoustic guitar. The album is easy to listen to with catchy bluesyor bright folk-like melodies balanced amongst the supporting guitar and keyboard instrumentation. Other songs have a bluesy feel. Although the style of her music is different, Katheleen's mid-range vocals could be best compared to those of Frances Black or even Chrissie Hynde at times.

The typically bluesy "My Old Friend" is quite popular amongst internet audiences sharing a similar feel to "Where Did He Go" and "How Long" which follow.Katheleen demonstrates that she is equally adept at ballads in "Outside My Window" and "Father Joe".Several of the album's songs are more bright and airy with "Forever" and "If I Could" being the most stunning examples. "Save Me" is an epic-like track combining Katheleen's differentstyles into one song with powerful instrumentals and is therefore a high spot of the album.

The work of independent artists is becomingmore prevalent and well known with the internet's growth. Katheleen Michaels' debut album, largelydistributed through internet audiences, is certainlyone example of what is being done today. It contains good cross section of music demonstrating the range of her vocal and songwriting ability. A nice listen.

Mythos - Click To Visit Their New Website
Image © 1998 Spark Records  
  Mythos' self-titled album (Higher Octave Music (USA) HOMCD 46572, 1998) is their first international release.We agree completely with the notes provided on the album's back cover: "Hauntingly powerful vocals accentuate the warm acoustic centrepiece of Paul Schmidt's guitar and Bob D'Eith's piano. The album's rich classicalmelodies blend with African tribal rhythms and traditionalOriental and Middle Eastern tones to create a sound thatis unique, otherworldly, and elegant. With over an hourof music, this self-titled recording includes the bestof the previously released Introspection plusseven new tracks." Mythos hails from Vancouver, BC in Canada and have been popular there for severalyears; this release will certainly broaden their audience and widen the appeal of this masterwork.

Well written with tremendous time and care, Mythos' music is classically centered, and is bright and airy with catchy complex melodies of extraordinarydepth. The artists indeed combine extremely accurate guitar playing with wonderful keyboards and lush non-lyrical heavenly sensual female vocals provided either by Jennifer Scott, Christine Duncan or Annette Ducharme. The vocal work, in a word, is stunning.Production quality of the album is first rate throughout the recording with obvious effort appliedto create outstanding imaging. Overall the albumhas much of a soundtrack quality although each of thealbum's brilliant tracks work well on their own.

Clearly set in what some might call the New Age / World genre, their music will certainly appeal to fans of Adiemus, Beautiful World, Enya and Era. The label reckons the album fits into the Delerium, Enigma, Deep Forest genre as well. A must listen.

Dawn Of A New Century
Image © 1999 Mercury Records

A Night With Secret Garden DVD Image © Universal Music 2000

Secret Garden's latest album, Dawn Of A New Century (Mercury Records 538 838 2, 1999), like their twoearlier albums, combines contemporary classical music with Celtic themes. With perfect production, the album's thirteen tracks are instrumentally rich, featuring Fionnuala Sherry's stunning violin parts and the tremendous keyboard work of Rolf Løvland. Once again Løvland has composed all the music, and has also arranged and produced the album with Fionnuala Sherry as co-producer. Additional vocals have been contributed by Karen Matheson (Capercaillie),Anne Karin Kaasa, Nikki Matheson and the Irish choir,Anuna, conducted by Michael McGlynn. Fionnuala makes her vocal debut in the everso sweet ballad "Sona."

The artists have significantly improved the stature of their vocal arrangements especially in the title track.Violin passages are a trademark of any Secret Garden release and they have reached new heights this time.The tremendous fiddle performances in the elaborately arranged traditional dance tunes "Elan," "Children Of The River" and "Lore Of The Loom" would all be equally at home within either the Riverdance or the Lord Of The Dance soundtracks. "In Our Tears" and "Aquarell" are typical of Secret Garden, both combining the accuracy and warmth of Rolf's keys with Fionnula's sensitive violin work.

Karen Matheson's vocals in "Prayer" bring Capercaillieto mind; the sound is later developed further with another vocalist in "Dreamcatcher" with more of a classical feel. "Evensong" has obvious Anuna vocal influences while Secret Garden's instrumental arrangements breathe a unique warmth into them. A dynamically stunning contemporary classical piece featuring violin, keys and lush orchestral parts called "Divertimento" is a clear testament to the artists' songwriting and performing capabilities and analbum highlight.

The title track is truly epic in its proportions - a memorable melody arises from a powerful fusion of traditional Celtic and classical progressions; it is presented with narration, choir and orchestra andbuilds to a fantastic climax as the album concludes. You can find soundbites, further reviews and order the album at amazon.comhere. A tremendous 170 minute DVD is also available and can beordered from amazon.comhere. Clearly, this stunning album is a must listen. CD and DVD:

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