Album Reviews

© Russell W Elliot and White Cloud 1999

Last Updated 18 April 1999

Celtic Visions and Voices
© White Cloud 1994

The Blessing Tree
© White Cloud 1998

Fans of female vocal-laced, Celtic-inspired artists like Capercaillie, Clannad, Enya, Iona and Shannon and the multi-layered vocal work of contemporary classical artists including Adiemus, Aria, Lorenza Ponce, Secret Garden, Sissel and Emma Shapplin will quickly discover that Philip Riley and Jayne Elleson have created two stunning albums that must be heard throughout to be fully appreciated. While vocally rich, the albums are instrumentally very powerful and deeply rooted with Celtic influence. They have more of a new age than a folk feel to them with a unique warmth arising from the vocal and instrumental production.

Vocalist Jayne Elleson first joined forces with Philip Riley in 1993. Her multi-dimensional vocal talents perfectly accompany his Celtic-rooted melodies and inspired their first album together entitled Celtic Visions and Voices. Perhaps less well known than their followup album, The Blessing Tree, their initial album is an unsung hero amongst progressive Celtic works in the vein of Clannad, Enya and Shannon (Ronan Hardiman). Our reviews of both albums follows a brief biography of the artists.

According to their label, White Cloud, "Philip Riley was born in Gateshead, County Durham in Britain, and in his early years he experimented with playing several instruments, before he became a drummer for contemporary Northern English bands. By the time he moved to New Zealand with his family in 1977, he had discovered the freedom and diversity that keyboards could offer him. His love of Celtic music and orchestral textures has resulted in his original conceptual writing.

Using his skills as a successful songwriter, he became involved in instrumental arranging and it is this style that has allowed him to create the magical blend of voice and orchestration for the highly acclaimed Celtic Visions and Voices, the debut album for White Cloud with its spellbinding combination of Jayne Elleson's evocative vocals and Philip Riley's spirited themes.

Philip Riley
© White Cloud 1999


Jayne Elleson
© White Cloud 1999

Jayne Elleson was born in New Zealand and clearly showed a musical orientation from an early age, studying classical piano and singing for latin masses before she was ten. She later studied opera with a Trinity College teacher and sang with chamber music groups and several choirs. This led to work in the commercial music industry, making national and international television commercials and winning a gold Cleo advertising award in the USA in 1989.

Riley and Elleson have developed a powerful music partnership that produces musical scores for New Zealand films and documentaries, but it is their work together for their album releases that has refined their distinctive style."

Celtic Visions and Voices

Philip Riley's first album, entitled Celtic Visions and Voices (White Cloud 11012-2, 1994), is a stunning 50-minute collection of eleven tracks of varying Celtic-rooted themes. The album's individual tracks work together like a soundtrack and, with careful listening, will create a vision for listeners. Written, performed and produced by Philip Riley with all of the vocal layers provided by Jayne Elleson, additional musicians include:
  • Kieren Newel (Irish whistles)
  • Bernard Wells (woodwinds)
  • Mick McKenna (bodhran)
  • Sue Alexander (cello)
  • Matthew Lark (Latin text and voice)

Perhaps Philip Riley sums up the overall theme best. From the liner notes, "When I began developing the musical concepts for Visions and Voices, an almost intangible quality began to evolve, with Jayne Elleson's voice becoming an evocative feminite presence. The honesty of emotion that she so willingly imparted is a reflection of her generosity of spirit." It should be noted that the vocal work is largely lyric-less yet the album is a wonderful introduction into the artists' music.

The overall sound of the album can best be characterised as a cross between Ronan Hardiman's work as Shannon (Celtic Classics I and II) and Enya. Whistles and guitar add texture to the keyboards to round out the instrumental treatement. The vocals are very Enya-like in some of the passages but Jayne's voice is more dynamic and wider ranging than Enya's and more in line with Hardiman's [un-credited] vocalist. Many of the vocal parts are lyric-less with Elleson's voice being used instrumentally to add texture and brilliance to the overall richness of the soundscape delivered by the album.

An almost-soundtrack quality opens the album and builds through "The Romany Child" and "Prayer To A Fledgling Moon" into "Awakening" which develops further into "The Last Blossom On The Tree" with building vocal and instrumental parts. The journey continues with increasing percussion -- including an extremely effective use of finger cymbals -- in "The Quickening" with more expressive whistle and multi-layered vocal passages. Vocals provided by Sissel and Miriam Stockley within the soundtrack to the movie Titanic came to mind several times during the intial playings of the album.

With almost a religious calling, light vocals welcome the listener to "The Blackthorne Madonna." Here instrumentals, not unlike the quietest moments of Iona's Book Of Kells, join with multi-tracked vocals to paint a soothing soundscape before percussion and instrumental elements developed in the earlier tracks join to evolve into a more complex theme.

"Hearts Of The Rowan" opens with a stunning vocal passage that most clearly illustrates Jayne Elleson's virtuousity. Keys and light acoustic guitar join to underscore the song's theme before the melody is carried by the whistle. Jayne's vocals return to capture the listener as the song comes to a close. Natural recordings of rain and thunder embrace a keyboard exploration within the song "Terre Verte, The Colour Of Rain."

The lively and percussive "Scatterborne Runes" returns the listener to an Enya-esque style with much warmer and richer vocal and instrumental passages and melodies that almost have a Celtic-pop music hook. It is a favourite.

Building on the style of the song before it, and moving away, "The Belle Garde Chevalier" features a broader percussive element and joins it with light yet plucky acoustic guitars and sensitively whispy soundtrack-like vocal treatments.

The title track, "Visions and Voices," concludes the album. Opening with spoken Latin, the traditionally rhythmic and instrumentally rich song concludes the recording.

Celtic Visions and Voices is certainly an excellent introduction to Philip Riley and Jayne Elleson's music. It perhaps is best served as an appetiser to their stunning follow-up recording - The Blessing Tree.


The Blessing Tree

The artists' second album, The Blessing Tree (White Cloud 11036-2, 1998), builds on their earlier work and delivers 52-minute collection of twelve tracks building substantially on the style established in their debut album. All music is composed by Philip Riley except, "Sanctus," "Spin The Circle," "Breton Drum" and "Come Silver Moon" which are jointly composed by Riley and Elleson and "Coventry Lullaby," a traditional tune which is arranged by Philip Riley. Lead vocals are again by Jayne Elleson. Additional musicians on the album include
  • Michael Atkinson (violin arrangements)
  • Jon Mark (acoustic guitar)
  • Bob Bickerton (Irish pipes)
  • Kieran Newell (Irish whistle)
  • Gavin Duncan (fiddle)
  • Mick McKenna (bodrhan)
  • Peter Fellin (violin solos)
  • Robert Kirk (backing vocals on "Spin the Circle")

A certain evolution and positive shift away from their debut album, Riley and Elleson's The Blessing Tree continues to develop their progressive Celtic style, this time combining scat with lyrics in the vocal arrangements. The artists' further develop their overall sound along contemporary classical lines departing from the soundtrack quality of their debut album. The result is a timeless work of unimagineable proporation.

Additional instrumentation delivers improved brilliance combines Celtic-rooted with contemporary classical music. Multi-layered vocal harmonies perfectly illustrate sensitive lyrics, beginning with the opening track "Come Silver Moon." The welcome shift of Elleson's vocals away from pure scat to lyrics is dramatic.

"The Breton Drum" is a highly memorable piece with certain traditional origins, progressively delivered with a wonderful vocal theme, similar to what one would expect from Capercaillie or Iona, and rich percussive elements coupled with thoroughly warm instrumentation.

With the sensitive underpinning of Irish whistle and pipes coupled with the Jayne's lush multi-tracked vocals singing a simple and evocative lyric, "Pictish Girl" is a sensitive tune and a certain favourite for Enya fans.

"Between The Shadows" is another lovely track, written and performed very much in an Enya style with piercing keys, and light yet sharp acoustic guitar underscoring the sensitive lyric sung multi-tracked with a unique and marvelous vocal sustain. The Irish whistle carries the melody during an instrumental bridge before the vocals and keys return to conclude the track. The style continues to develop in "When I Dream." Instrumental melodies support the lush multi-tracked vocal passages.

"Spin The Circle" is one of two tracks that include a Jayne Elleson vocal solo. The ballad is sung sensitively over light instrumentation; multi-tracking in the centre portion of the song further demonstrates her Jayne's virtuosity. "Slow Runs My Heart" is performed in a similar style and serves to further illustrate the singer's talent with a thoroughly captivating performance.

The Latin lyric "Sanctus" is another stunning example of the artists' ability to spin highly memorable, new age, Enya-like timeless classic Celtic melodies. This tune features a stunning violin solo where the instrumentals carry the melody in a wonderful bridge.

"The Chalice," with its piano, Irish pipe and lush keys joining lyric-less vocal harmonies is one of two tracks performed in a refinement of their Celtic soundtrack style introduced in the debut album, the other track being "Benediction" which is yet a further refinement.

The traditional "Coventry Lullaby" with Riley's arrangements is one of the most stunning tracks on the album, reaching orchestral (like Adiemus) proportions with rich multi-layered vocals and to deliver a wonderfully rich and warm overall sound. It will most likely bring tears to sensitive listeners' eyes. "And Soon The Day Will Fade Away" is a short, sweet and sensitive closing track with elements of the tracks that precede it echoed as the album draws to a close.

In addition to the two albums reviewed above, Philip Riley has recorded A Pattern Of Lands (White Cloud 11018-2) which also features vocal performances by Jayne Elleson. It is reported to be "a brilliantly colourful journey to many lands both real and imagined, interweaving evocative melodies and vocal textures, ethnic rhythms, gypsy guitars and lush synthesisers." We're told it is "brimming with melody, catch tunes, lovely vocal cameos by Jayne Elleson and newcomer Huda Melso, whose throaty wail on the track "Secret Egypt" is spine tingling." A review will be posted here once we've heard the album.

Philip Riley and Jayne Elleson have created two stunning albums with a timeless quality derived from moulding Celtic themes with lush contemporary classical arrangements and absolutely stunning female vocals. Fans of progressive Celtic music, including lovers of Clannad and Enya for example, will be delighted with the music contained in these two masterpieces. The albums must be heard to be fully appreciated and the word spread to ensure they are appreciated by the widest range of potential audiences worldwide.

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