The Merlin Mystery CD Cover
Image © 1998 Earthtone Records
Click on the image to view album details at the label's website.

Album Review

© Russell W Elliot 1998

Last Updated: 15 November 1998

Composed by Julia Taylor-Stanley, Ian Lynn and Miriam Stockley to accompany a book by the same name, The Merlin Mystery, released on Earthtone Records earlier this year, is a stunning album of new age and ethnic world music primarily in the celtic style. Here heavenly female vocals are joined with orchestral passages in a modern celtic theme similar to the music of Clannad and Enya.

The music was composed in Tintagel which is reputed to be the birthplace of the medieval King Arthur. As the book The Merlin Mystery is a puzzle, the music has been written and arranged to "transport the puzzler into an enhanced state as if they are viewing a film," Earthtone Records writes in the handsomely illustrated and comprehensive booklet accompanying the CD. They continue, "Taylor-Stanley referred to the text and the illustrations as she composed. Receiving cues from the writer Jonathan Gunson, Taylor-Stanley created a soundtrack to immerse the puzzler in the story, taking the listener through the journey and to the next level of the treasure hunt." Indeed, The Merlin Mystery (the book) is a very real treasure hunt with a huge reward for the ultimate winner.

Typical of the celtic soundtrack style, the album has significant mood swings and deep instrumental transitions that connect the themes amongst the primarily short tracks. The musical foundation is provided by The Merlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Alison Taylor on viola and violin. The emotionally stunning lead vocals and much of the backing vocal work are by sisters Shelagh and Sheryle Gwynfar. Vocal arrangements and backing vocals on two of the album's early and best tracks by Miriam Stockley. Narration by author Jonathan Gunson connects musical passages at times.

The album opening track "Wizardry" begins with narration, sounds of blowing wind, and then transitions into a lovely introduction with rich ethnic orchestration and multi-tracked vocals very much in the Clannad or Enya style. This song does a wonderful job both introducing and summarising the rest of what lies ahead while working well on its own. Two outstanding vocal tracks co-written by Julia Taylor-Stanley and Miriam Stockley follow. Arrangements and backing vocals on these two ballads were also provided by Miriam. "Le Morte D'Arthur" is a typical ballad with rich vocal layers balanced with orchestral contributions. "Nimve's Lament (Vocal Version)" on the other hand is more vocally rich and is almost sung as a solo with backing instrumentals and multi-layerd vocals not coming to life until the song is well developed. While the album must be listened to in its entirety to obtain the full effect, these first three tracks work extremely well on their own and when joined by the penultimate song, "The Mystery," the set constitute the best of the extensive fourteen track selection.

"Stonehenge (Eighteen)" and "Faery Entertainers" follow as the album continues to develop its theme by combining extremely powerful soundtrack orchestration and sounds of whistles, pipes authentic percussion and other traditional instrumentation. Vocals return in "Winter" which follows. Here both heavenly female backing and solo performances are combined with male choral passages. The song is another illustration of how a combination of keyboard and vocal work makes this album so special.

With a significant musical transition, the everso serious theme "Uther" follows with strong percussion elements underscoring a vast array of strings. A simply tremendous celtic-themed flute passage is featured in the song "Legend Of The Stone" which follows next. Here, a choral background underscores the wonderful work of the woodwind section.

"The Wand Of Alkchemy" is a dreamy lullaby-like multi-tracked vocally powerful song with rich strings including harp to enhance the overall mood. Modern percussion, flute and well-arranged orchestration carry the typically new age sounding tune "Enchantment" building on the themes introduced thus far. Stunning, yet light, backing vocals enrich the total sound.

The album then enters "The Cave" with a marked return to the instrumental soundtrack style. The song contains a vast array of different moods and heightens the mystery theme. The stunning theme developed earlier returns in the track "Nimve's Lament (Instrumental Version)." The orchestra carries the tune with woodwinds replacing the lead vocals in the earlier version. Light multi-tracked backing vocals perfectly compliment the crescendo that builds as the song concludes.

The vocal theme introduced earlier in "The Wand Of Alchemy" is further developed in the wonderful song "The Mystery." Heartfelt solo vocal verses are interlaced with multi-vocal choruses in this almost-pop song. The song features an array of modern, traditional and orchestral instrumentation ranging from violins to electric guitar and both traditional and modern percussion. Narration is again featured in final track, "Dream Sweet King," which contains sounds of blowing wind and snow over a light instrumentation as the album apparently closes only a minute or so into the track.

However, as the final track clocks to 6:09, narration -- centred on Alchemy -- resumes providing further clues to the puzzle. Light instrumentation underscores the narration as the album comes to an end.

The Merlin Mystery is a wonderful album featuring fine vocal and instrumental work of some very talented artists. The vocal tracks are simply stunning and the instrumentals bind them together into a cohesive whole. Through the listening experience, we've become interested in reading the book and studying the puzzle and perhaps even trying to solve the mystery.

Clearly, the artists featured in Alkaemy have a bright future and we look forward to future work by the ensemble. Perhaps, with some of the recently released vocal work of Miriam Stockley being co-written by Julia Taylor-Stanley, we won't have to wait very long at all.

Interested readers should note that audio samples are currently available at the SonicImages website. The CD is available at here.

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