The Mediæval Bæbes, with their original melodies, harmony singing, and set of often electronic instruments, clearly use medieval music as a point of departure for new, creative activity rather than as a thing to be reconstructed and understood on its own terms. Illumination, the seventh studio album from England's Mediæval Bæbes, is perhaps the richest one the group has done sonically, with the strongest influence of pop production. Various Bæbes take lead vocals here, but the production makes them sound similar. This said and understood, they continue to get quite deeply into their source material and make varied new products from it, which is why they've transcended their initial novelty status and are well into their second decade of music-making, with a solid fan base especially in the British Isles. On Illumination, consider The Blacksmiths (track 3), an alliterative dialect poem of the early 15th century that is either celebrating or complaining about the noises of a blacksmith's shop. Probably it's little known outside scholarly circles, or has been little known until now. The Bæbes' setting runs through three separate sections, the first lightly accompanied with handclaps, the second turning the word "blacksmiths" into an anthemic line backed by full pop instrumentation, and a third building up to the conclusion from a single solo voice. This is original stuff, owing little to cinematic conventions of medieval representation or to the jolly medieval tunes with which cell phones come preprogrammed. The title Illumination might suggest a religious theme, but in fact the mix of texts is similar to those on other Bæbes albums, running from medieval Latin sacred poetry through various periods (notable here is the concluding setting of John Keats' La Belle Dame sans Merci) and up to original compositions like the opening Desert Rose, with mostly secular themes. This is one of several tracks on the album that have Middle Eastern flavorings that borrow from the world music moves of recent pop dance music; these are perhaps less convincing than those that use the standard Bæbes technique of taking medieval material and applying wild pop imagination to it. This album may be a bit of a stretch even for confirmed Mediæval Bæbes fans, but it is, as usual, worth hearing.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim