The Morrigan, The Spirit of the Soup (English Garden, 1999) 

 

The Morrigan continue to be one of the undiscovered treasures of English folk rock. Showcasing some of their earliest recordings, this CD is a reissue of ten tracks that they recorded way back in 1985.

Then consisting of Cathy Alexander on vocals, 12-string guitar, keyboards et al.; Cliff Eastabrook on bass guitar; and Colin Masson on various guitars and keyboards, the Morrigan generated a sound that combined the melancholy tones of English traditional music and some of the contemporary stylings of mid-'80s Clannad and Relativity with an often severe need to rock out. Although this is clearly not their strongest outing as a band, there is enough here to satisfy anyone with a taste for English folk rock.

Even back then, The Morrigan knew the right mixture of rock and reel. And it's clear that they really liked to rock. The first track, a very contemporary arrangement of the traditional "Cold Haily Windy Night," is grounded on a very appealing electric guitar riff.

"Executioners Song," another Morrigan original, begins with a plaintive synthesizer melody which sounds like the incidental music of some of the later Tom Baker era Doctor Who episodes. The intro quickly bursts into a full-speed-ahead rock anthem, with Alexander belting out the lyrics as if she were in a punk band. Later, The Morrigan jam with a couple of deliciously over-driven electric guitars to "Agincourt," one of the roughest and rawest reels I've heard in a while.

Even when they try to be traditional, they give a very pleasing contemporary edge to the music. "Fingal's Cave/Spirit of the Soup" is a set of traditional-sounding reels played rather ethereally on flute and synthesizer, strongly reminiscent of Relativity. A later set of jigs, "Dribble of Brandy/Johnny Get Brose," is backed up with a very contemporary electric bass.

Unfortunately, things can get a bit ponderous here. "Turtle Dove" is a rather lengthy dirge-like song with little variation over its 6-minute length. The same can also be said for "Cold Blow the Wind (The Unquiet Grave)."

The album gets a bit more upbeat with "Silent Seasons," penned by Alexander. Fast paced and optimistic yet introspective, this sprightly rock anthem is one of the greatest delights of this CD. The disc ends with "The Great Sun."

The multi-layered voices and ambient synthesizer on this track give it the feel of Clannad's mid-'80s work. Alexander practically chants a long list of riddle-like statements.

The Spirit of the Soup is a fairly strong outing for a band that was young when it was recorded. The arrangements are reasonably solid, and the musicianship quite good. It's unfortunate that Cathy Alexander's voice wasn't a little stronger back then. For a few of these songs, it sounds like she is trying to sing a couple of half-steps above her natural range. When she's in her range, though, such as on "Silent Seasons" - which she wrote, her voice is absolutely beautiful.

Despite a slight weakness to the music, there is plenty here to be enjoyed by the typical fan of folk rock. Anyone who enjoys the sounds of Steeleye Span, Cats Laughing, or even Boiled in Lead will find a shining moment here and there on this CD.

[Brendan Foreman]