Anonymous 4

Gloryland

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This album by the all-female medieval vocal ensemble Anonymous 4 resembles one of its earlier releases, American Angels. Both focus on American music, and specifically include the tradition known as shape-note hymnody -- it was (and is) printed with noteheads in different shapes associated with solmization (or, in the parlance of its practitioners, "fasola") syllables. Gloryland delves a bit more into later forms of white gospel music, and also includes more secular folk songs associated with the launch of a new folk duo by two of the ensemble's members. But the biggest difference between the two releases is that Gloryland features instrumental contributions by progressive bluegrass musicians Darol Anger and Mike Marshall. They accompany the singers and perform interludes and a few whole pieces by themselves on fiddle and mandolin, also using such novelties as a baritone violin and mandocello.

It seems safe to say that if you like Anonymous 4, and especially if you liked American Angels, you'll find Gloryland fascinating. The harmonies of the group are carefully prepared and truly ethereal, and when applied to the simple but strangely powerful American religious poetry of a hymn like Mercy-Seat they have a strangely compelling effect. Again as with American Angels, if you have shape-note singing and the sound of old gospel hymns in your ears, you might find Anonymous 4 a bit too wispy. Shape-note hymns are belted out by large groups at an unaltered high volume, and the various revival hymns of the Great Awakening featured here were even less intimate -- they were religious songs sung ecstatically by large, and often racially mixed, groups of people at outdoor gatherings. The almost monastic sound of Anonymous 4 doesn't quite fit, and the rather jazzy backing of Anger and Marshall displaces the listener's attention from the antiphonal energy that a song like Saint's Delight would have had in its original performances -- a simple refrain like "I feel like, I feel like I'm on my journey home" represented one of the first musical meeting places between black and white in America. All this said, Anonymous 4's performances make beautiful sense on their own terms. Translations into English and French are provided (not in parallel text, unfortunately), and European audiences, for whom this wonderful material may be exotic no matter how it's performed, should be very intrigued.

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