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Class ?

Main Category: Mood Music
Also applicable: Celtic/Medieval
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of an Enya fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Enya fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1987
Overall rating =

Had all the Celts been acting like the music on here actually suggests, Julius Caesar wouldn't even have to conquer the suckers.


Track listing: 1) The Celts; 2) Aldebaran; 3) I Want Tomorrow; 4) March Of The Celts; 5) Deireadh An Tuath; 6) The Sun In The Stream; 7) To Go Beyond (I); 8) Fairytale; 9) Epona; 10) Triad (St Patrick, Cu Chulainn, Oisin); 11) Portrait (Out Of The Blue); 12) Boadicea; 13) Bard Dance; 14) Dan Y Dwr; 15) To Go Beyond (II).

Uh, well, don't tell anybody but this is a bloody debut. The original title was simply Enya, and that wasn't really right, because you don't usually come out with a self-titled album unless you want it to mean something - for instance, your arrival as a brand new artist, ready for stardom and/or acclaim. Since then it's been wisely retitled The Celts, which was the proper thing to do. Essentially the album is little more than a soundtrack to a BBC TV series dedicated to celebrating 2700 years of glorious Celtic history (don't even ask me why 2700 and not 2800 or maybe 2956; the Celts definitely arrived in Europe earlier than 713 B.C., but then again, I never saw the series in the first place).

Now I'm quite positively minded towards those things that Enya does best, and if you share that positivism, The Celts will probably be right up your alley. However, the bitter truth remains that this is a soundtrack, and most soundtracks, unless they happen to be written independently of the movie itself, suffer from being slight, incoherent, and self-insufficient, not coming across too well without the visual accompaniment. Therefore, over the course of these forty minutes you'll be getting ideas, moods, and ethereal-beauty-pageants-a-plenty, but you won't be getting anything that would give more than the briefest of hints at a major artist.

The good news is that this is definitely far removed from Eighties' Clannad, and Enya apparently did not lie when she explained her reasons for leaving the band - namely, that they were moving "away from their roots" in a more commercialized direction. (Ironically, Enya's further career proved to be far more commercially successful than Clannad's, but then there's really plenty of financial opportunity buried inside your "roots" - you just have to look for it real real good). This does not mean that Enya is relying on, for instance, traditional instrumentation any more than her former colleagues do - on the contrary, her use of electronic devices is, if possible, even more frantic than Clannad's. But Enya's mood pieces are really targeted at hitting the core of what she perceives as the old Celtic spirit, and the synthesizers are only used as a means of achieving that goal; whereas Clannad, with albums like Macalla, were starting to use them as a means of getting hip with the times.

Out of the fifteen tracks, only a handful are what I'd call "fully realised entities". The fullest of the fully realised is the ballad 'I Want Tomorrow' - the only English-language track on here, actually, the only track with a satisfactory set of lyrics. It certainly fits well into the general pattern of the album, but, unlike the rest of the compositions, it can be perceived as both pleasant background music and a solidly structured ballad with a memorable melody. I've witnessed complaints about how the electric guitar solo in the middle "disrupts" the strings-and-vocal harmony flow of the song, and happen to disagree: the way I see it, it adds extra meaty substance to the song and makes you pay some attention. Heck, if not for that solo, I'd probably never have wished to return to the song and notice the subtle hooks in the chorus either. And yes, they're so subtle, it's like the whole song is an elegant exercise in "musical politesse" - no jagged endings and outstanding phrases, everything smooth and polished like a storm trooper's helmet, but somehow with Enya it actually works. No idea how that all fit in the actual documentary, but then again I'm not renowned for my imagination.

Most of the rest, predictably, is watery-sounding, relaxative, sedative mood pieces - ambient in purpose, as there's rarely any dynamic development to the pieces, but not truly ambient in technical nature, as there's usually a somewhat more-than-minimalist melody. Most of the instruments here are played by Enya herself, with a few guests showing up here and there, and, of course, synthesizer is the most prominent instrument: normally it's the combination of a background synth "veil", a foreground synth melody, and multi-tracked vocal harmonies that forms the bulk of the tune. Again, I have to praise the ways the synths are used - generic Eighties production this may be, but she gets a whole range of tones and "voices" out of her electronic toys.

Take, for example, 'Aldebaran' - there is a "wall-of-hum" synth tone all over the place here, but you never concentrate on it: you concentrate on the harp-like loops, the odd flute-like "echoes" and the gurgling flow of the vocals all around. It's New Age music done with grace and taste, and much more invention than you actually think can be found in this kind of music; at least, I don't get the feeling I'm listening to generic elevator crap when this stuff is playing. Then on 'Fairytale', the first minute and a half is just a couple keyboards playing out happy chimey Christmas-like music before the vocals gently roll in and start singing something pretty and lullabyish - no doubt, that is how your average Celtic woman would rock her pretty Celtic baby to sleep while the mighty Celtic man was out on the prowl counting the heads of slain Roman warriors. Don't let all the fruity Celtic revival bullshit fool you - while these guys did have their fair share of folk culture and spiritual traditions, that alone didn't make them any less barbarous in their everyday habits than any other ancient people. The stereotype "Celts = good innocent peace-loving angels", "Germans/Scandinavians = evil vulgar bloodthirsty monsters" must be confronted some time in the future. All things Celt-related are hugely overrated in the public conscience - I mean, what with all the Welsh druid festivals and suchlike you could almost see the ancient Celts as this unique breed of superhumans living as one with Mother Nature, but guess what: so was the absolute majority of contemporary ancient cultures. The Celts just had the benefit of having their non-numerous descendents living smack dab in the center of advanced European civilization, so it's obvious advanced European civilization will hugely extol the virtues of the Celts before it starts extolling the equally nice values of, say, the Tungus people.

Of course, Enya is working from within the stereotype, and the spooky side of the matter is at best hinted at by occasional moments like 'Boadicea', driven by a deep "booming" synth tone that almost borders on industrial but never really crosses that border. (Not that the evil synth tone is meant to symbolize Boadicea herself - probably the bad guys that she, Queen of the Britts, was fighting). Even when you get a tune that's solemnly titled 'March Of The Celts', it turns out to be almost waltzeable, as if the Celts never really marched. (Well, they probably didn't - they had to be way too disorganised for marching, don't you think?).

I hesitate to apply the term "beautiful" to many of these numbers just because, if they turn out to be beautiful, this might mean that the rest aren't, and that would contradict the suspicion that Enya is normally working on the fabric of beauty itself. My personal feelings indicate that there are different degrees of beauty, though, and that the highest one is represented, for instance, in tracks like the second version of 'To Go Beyond' (especially when the violin and cello comes in), or by the bagpipe imitation on 'The Sun In The Stream' - but feelings are bitches, as we all know. Let's just agree to view the album as one inseparable entity, learn to love the Celts and their hi-tech synthesizers, and dissolve ourselves in the pool of spiritual bliss.

Actually, if you happen to be a Celt, don't take my little anti-Celt-revival diatribe of the day too close to heart. The Celts had a marvelous culture - perhaps just a little bit too idealized in the common perspective, but then again, all cultures tend to get idealized by whoever takes a deep liking to them. On the other hand, you don't really need to know anything about the Celts or old Celtic culture to enjoy The Celts, so don't take too much notice. It's still questionable whether The Celts really has much to do with old Celtic culture in the first place.



Year Of Release: 1988

Watermark indeed. If you only wanna buy one New Age/Celtic/Ambient/Nature Sound/Whatever You Call This Crap album, buy this one. It's as close to sonic perfection as could ever be expected from an album like this. Above all, it has depth: the trick of having subtle, hardly noticeable melodies that grow on you with each new listen is carried over here from The Celts and used in a far better way. It also has diversity - it's not all just Celtic, or just Nature Sound, incorporating a whole lot of influences from Gregorian chant to Indian tribal dancing or whatever. And it has what I'd call stature: there's a whole lot of artistic pretentiousness, all of it fully justified. No more "oh well, this is a mere soundtrack" feel about this one.

Plus, it's got commercial potential - it established Enya as this kind of "Queen of New Age" with people buying this record up all over the world. Maybe it was just a case of exceptionally good promotion, and maybe it did a harmful thing in establishing this absolutely huge market of derivative New Age bullshit - I mean, there's hardly anything easier to make in this world than an album consisting of a few cheap-synth-dominated "atmospheric" tracks and a bunch of equally generic chorale harmonies, which explains why most people with good musical taste shiver and tremble at the very expression "New Age". But believe you me, good music is to be found in any style, and as usual, Enya is not responsible for the miriads of talentless imitators.

I guess the best approach to analyzing Watermark is to see it as a hybrid between your basic "soft-rock" album and your basic "background muzak" album, sort of like what Brian Eno used to do early in his career, like on the second side of Before And After Science, before he converted fully to "background muzak". These here songs are static and dynamic at the same time: dynamic, because for the most part they are songs - verses, choruses, etc. - and static, because if you don't pay enough attention, you won't even notice that they're songs. So this works as both a background setup and material for serious listening.

Even the quiet piano melody of the title track, which opens the album, has a development of its own (with vocal harmonies added near the middle, for instance). It's a beautiful classically influenced melody too, a wonderful moody introduction to the experience. The second side of the LP, by the way, also opens with a short piano track ('Miss Clare Remembers') - far less interesting, but adding some symmetry to the record (too bad we don't get to experience it in the CD age. Perhaps it's time somebody invented a two-side CD which we'd have to flip over. Hey, don't make us people any lazier than we are already!).

There was actually a big hit single off the album, the catchy chant 'Orinoco Flow', with its funny harp-like synth riff and bedazzling harmony overdubs. It is, of course, sort of like a "Song Of Haiawatha" send-up, although the lyrics don't have much to do with Indian life (instead mentioning some of Enya's, er, business colleagues by name). It's drenched in the same mood-setting production as ever, but it actually functions as a regular, and good, "ethnic pop" song. If there are any true Celtic elements in that one, I'd like to hear more about it, but fact is, Watermark is not "Celtic" by nature - it's one big melting pot. I mean, 'Cursum Perficio'? It's more like a cross between a medieval mini-oratorio and a requiem, replete with Latin lyrics chanted in the Gregorian way. Celtic? You gotta be kidding!

My favourite parts of the album, though, are the ballads. The lady's got a real knack for that kind of stuff. Sure, at first it sounds oh so samey and oh so slow and boring and whatever. It takes her like thirty seconds to get through one line in one verse alone. But play this record at 78pm and that may help you see how well the songs are structured. And these choruses are gorgeous. 'Exile' is one of the best - the way she sings 'I'll find a way to come' hits all the right nerves in me (I could do without the woodwind solo, though; I friggin' hate these South American pipes, they've been so grossly overplayed all over the world now). 'On Your Shore' does not have such a distinct chorus, but it still has a lot of extremely beautiful vocal modulation, if you get my meaning. And so on.

All in all, this is a wonderful listen - and it pains me to see how these ideals of beauty have been vulgarized in the subsequent decade. I mean, imagine if nobody bought Watermark then, and if nobody else did music that'd be stylistically similar, and if it remained as sort of an underground cult classic. Then people wouldn't have to listen to loads and loads and loads of similar-sounding conventional romantic slime in airports and stores and diners and wherever else I might have heard it. Even worse, I'm pretty sure that if you just happen to hear one song off this album in the context of all the derivative sludge, you'll hate it - sort of like you can hate Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" on classic rock radio when it comes jammed in between Foreigner and Black Oak Arkansas. But give the album a chance and at the least I guarantee you'll see talent. Or maybe I'm just mellowing out for some reason.


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