“Finding Heaven” - Seventh Heaven - The new orchestral album by Anthony Phillips and Andrew Skeet reviewed by Alan Hewitt.
It isn’t often an album by Anthony takes me by surprise, probably because I have usually had at least some part in putting it together and so I am delighted to be able to say that this one has given me some genuinely pleasant surprises. In fact, I would go so far as to say that here, at last we have a worthy successor to Slow Dance which ever since it’s release back in 1990 has been my favourite album by Anthony.
As usual, Anthony has not stinted his fans and what you have here is a two CD set of some outstanding music which he and his collaborator, Andrew Skeet have assembled. I believe I have said before about Ant’s music that “here is God’s plenty” well, that is certainly the case here with thirty five tracks and one, Credo In Cantus which is given both a vocal and instrumental version, there is certainly a LOT to listen to!
The first disc opens with the glorious Credo In Cantus which features the marvellous vocals of operatic singer, Lucy Crowe. My only criticism of this is that it isn’t long enough but what there is of it is a wonderful opening. A Richer Earth has a cinematic quality to it, opening vast vistas in a magnificent miniature tone poem.
Under The Infinite Sky has echoes of several previous tracks by Ant, especially some of the material from Private Parts & Pieces II, maybe that is the guitar sound but here it is augmented by a delightful string section - sunshine through raindrops, another delicate and brittle piece which leads to a dramatic resolution. Grand Central as it’s title suggests, is a bustling piano driven piece which to my ears wouldn’t sound out of place in a TV series such as Poirrot. Kissing Gate is an unabashedly romantic piece, as it was on 1999’s Field Day album, warm and mellow with some fantastic performances by both Ant and the strings - another one which could become a song, methinks!
Pasquinade once again, has the air of a piece for TV about it. A delicate, almost balletic performance in which the strings are accompanied by some exquisite woodwind. Rain On Sag Harbour may be familiar to fans who have the Field Day album but even if you do, the treatment the track has received here takes it to another level. Dramatic and evocative, this is sound painting at its very best. Ice Maiden features Ant on piano and once again, serves to demonstrate his mastery of this stringed instrument as well as the guitar. Haunting, brittle and beautiful, like the lady it portrays.
River Of Life too has taken on a whole new lease of life since it first appeared on Field Day. The addition of strings has given this one an entirely different atmosphere and mood and it is a delight to hear. From the tranquillity of the last piece we move to the more severe and austere Desert Passage which manages to bring the desolate beauty of its subject vividly to life augmented by some wonderfully atmospheric percussion by Paul Clarvis and clarinet by Martin Robertson both of whom are no strangers to fans of Ant’s work. Seven Ancient Wonders once again would not sound out of place in a TV documentary or film and the vocal performance by Belinda Sykes will send shivers up and down your spine. Desert Passage gets a reprise continuing the Middle Eastern theme for a while.
Circle Of Light features Ant on his trusty six string. Another warm and delicate offering guaranteed to warm the cockles on a winter’s night. Forgotten Angels has the sound of a child’s musical box (it is actually a celeste I think?) and choral accompaniment. Another brittle and shimmering piece of work. Courtesan takes us back into the warmth this time that of a piece with an almost Edwardian feel to it although once again, the TV series Poirrot pops into my head whenever I hear this one.
Ghosts Of New York has that slightly brash, jazzy feel to it especially with Andrew Skeet’s piano and the superbly jazzy clarinet this one definitely deserves a place in a film soundtrack as it is a superb performance all round. From the warmth of the nightclubs of New York we are taken to the depths of the sea for the magnificently dramatic Shipwreck Of St Paul which once again wouldn’t sound out of place on a cinema screen. The first disc concludes with the elegiac Cortege, quite fitting after its predecessor. Stately and serene, this one which for me has shades of the Holberg Suite by Grieg about it and that is nothing to be sneezed at I can tell you!
The second disc gets under way with the instrumental version of Credo In Cantus, equally as beautiful in this setting as it had been with vocals, still too short though! Sojourn from Field Day has been reinvigorated by the addition of strings and is destined to become a favourite with fans. Speak Of Remarkable Things once again features Ant on piano, an almost sepulchral atmosphere is generated here. Nocturne will be instantly recognisable to fans but here once again, the strings definitely give it that missing link that lift it from simple elegance to sublime beauty. I love it in its original form but I adore it here!
Long Road Home, is another delightfully and unashamedly romantic piece full of wistful longing and a superbly broad vista evoked by a marvellous combination of piano, strings and woodwind. There is definitely a feeling of America to this one and in particular the marvellous woods and hills of the Vermont region of New England but maybe that’s just my imagination - see where this one takes you! Ironically enough then that the next track is The Golden Leaves Of Fall, another magnificent evocation of a time and place and one which, like so many of the other pieces on this album, would not sound out of place in a film or TV programme.
Credo (not to be confused with Credo In Cantus) takes the six string track from Field Day. Once again the six string balances its warmth against the slightly colder sounds of the strings and piano giving the track a whole new resonance and character. The guitar ensemble version of Under The Infinite Sky opens with sampled thunder but the music shimmers and glistens all the same, while The Stuff Of Dreams definitely belongs in a TV period drama - Poirrot perhaps?
Next we have the truly magnificent (but once again, far too short) Old Sarum Suite * This is Anthony Phillips meets The Lord Of The Rings/Game Of Thrones territory and I love it! A violin opens with a plaintive melody, taken up by flute and harp as in a minstrel’s hall (Meduseld perhaps?). The melody broadens out to evoke a wild and rugged landscape. A recorder picks out a different melody in which there are echoes of the Lifeboat Suite but the percussion soon takes us back to the camp fires and mead halls of some long ago land. A jaunty jig next as the path to war is taken and fates are decided in a magnificently muscular performance which is truly spine tingling before we return to the original melody brining a quiet resolution to the proceedings. Definitely a piece which should be expanded into a much larger scale composition at some point.
For Eloise returns us to the world of Ant’s guitar with another slightly austere and yet beautiful performance executed as only Ant can on acoustic guitar. The beautiful vocals of Michela Srumova can be heard next on Winter Song where the violin and cello set up a wonderfully elegiac almost tango styled performance replete with almost gypsy camp fire playing. The piano version of Ghosts Of New York, is if anything, even more evocative of a late night jazz club superbly played by Andrew Skeet.
Daniel’s Theme is another wonderfully elegiac moment. A tribute to someone and a truly moving piece of music whatever its inspiration. Study In Scarlet meanwhile, once again must have its inspiration in TV. A wonderfully jaunty performance all round. The mood changes again with The Lives Of Others which is restrained, almost stately in places a haunting evocation of love and loss.
The second disc is brought to a close with Forever Always which continues the somewhat elegiac feel with another beautiful piano performance augmented by the strings bringing the album to a suitably quiet and restrained resolution.
So there you have it, an album that has been a long time in the making but the wait has most definitely been worth it! In Andrew Skeet, Ant has found a collaborator who can bring out the very best in his music as well as composing some damn fine music himself. This album represents a phenomenal amount of hard work by all involved and will, I am sure bring delight to Ant’s existing fans whilst also appealing to a wider circle of people who appreciate good music.
* Editor’s Note: Old Sarum was a “New Town” established by the Normans after their conquest of England in 1066. It was to have been the site of a cathedral and royal mint but construction funds ran out and all that can be seen today are the foundations of the cathedral and the motte on which the castle would have stood. See, even in those days governments wasted taxpayer’s money!