Celtarabia, Ancient Forces (Osmosys Records, 1997)

Celtarabia are an English duo from the nineties (they've recently begun playing together again), consisting of Quentin Budworth (hurry-gurdy, cittern) and Amanda Lowe (dulcimer, vocals). As their name somewhat implies, they mixed traditional Celtic music with Medieval tunes from the European and Arab worlds. Accompanied by dideridoo, sax, fiddle, and an assortment of drums and percussion instruments from around the world, the duo specialized in extended, rhythm-heavy, trancelike jams. While they used all-acoustic instruments, their influence on techno-world music fusion bands like The Afro-Celt Sound System is obvious, as is their influence on more esteemed Celtic/world bands like Kíla. Their 1997 sophomore CD Ancient Forces combines instrumentals with songs, crossing centuries and continents. The instrumentals hold up very nicely nearly fifteen years later; unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the songs.

Ancient Forces
is very much a tale of two albums. On one hand, the instrumental arrangements are generally of excellent quality. The didgeridoo may seem out of place at first, but the combination of its drone with some rudimentary percussion gives many of the tunes on the album a surge of primal energy. The mellower instrumentals wouldn't sound out of place on a Loreena McKennitt CD, but if you pick up a copy of Ancient Forces it will be for the extended jams. Several of the tunes run over five minutes in length, and the best tune, "Eight Step Trance," exceeds eleven minutes. At their best, the heavy percussion, the bellowing didgeridoo, and the melodies played with steadily increasing urgency on the hurdy-gurdy and dulcimer mix together like ingredients in a potent spell.

Regrettably, the songs are as bad as the instrumentals are good. I respect Amanda Lowe for her dulcimer playing and her contribution to Celtarabia's musical vision, but as a singer she just doesn't cut it. Her range is limited, and her delivery is forced at best. The original lyrics are trite statements of the band's purpose ("come alive with the ancient forces," or "succumb to the trance"). The traditional songs just expose Lowe's limitations as a singer; I've heard many other versions of "She Moved Through the Fair," for example, and they're all better than the one recorded here.

While Ancient Forces has several worthy tracks and was important and influential on some levels, it's also maddeningly uneven. Celtarabia give equal time to their strengths and weaknesses, and the album suffers significantly as a result.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

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