Jennifer Cutting's Ocean Orchestra, Ocean (Sunsign, 2004)
Freeland Barbour, Winter's Journey (Macmeanman, 2004)
Matt Dicksom, The Keeper's Log (Beachcomber Music, 2003)

Various artists, An t-Eilean (The Island) (Macmeanman, 2004)

The beast known as the 'Concept Album' may be considered a remnant of the distant "progressive rock" era of the 1970s. However, in roots music circles the concept album still exists. Here are four examples of widely divergent concept albums that demonstrate the potential of the form.

Jennifer Cutting first came to my knowledge through her group The New St. George, touted as the hot new folk rock band in the U.S. some 10 years ago. The band released one fine album (High Tea) and collapsed under a myriad of unrealized expectations. English-born singer and melodeon player Cutting is also something of an archivist and for the last few years has been working on Ocean. Make no mistake about it, this is a concept album and an epic one at that. Based on the rich symbolism of water and the work of seven years writing, research and compiling, Ocean is a powerful work.

Cutting has gathered a group of seminal names in the U.K. and European folk-rock world, including vocalists Maddy Prior and Polly Bolton, and instrumentalists Peter Knight, Troy Donockly, Tony Cuffe (on his last recording project), and Gabriel Yacoub. Also present are U.S. vocalists Grace Griffith and Lisa Moscietello and musicians Zan McLeod and Sue Richards. It's some cast! While not being based on a definite time frame and story, what Ocean reminds most of is Peter Bellamy's folk opera 'The Transports' with its all-star cast and operatic outline. This is an opera of sorts but with a wider, more general theme. Ocean is an undiscovered masterpiece.

Freeland Barbour subtitles Winter's Journey 'a seasonal journey through Northeast lands'. The album, composed by Barbour and played entirely on piano, is a set of brief pieces with a seasonal twist. The tracks work as individual pieces as well as a unified whole. Hearing Barbour in this guise is a challenge for anyone remembering him as the white-haired piano accompanist with Silly Wizard in the mid-'70s and his later outfit the Wallachmore Ceilidh Band. This is solo piano music in the Micheal O Suilleabhain mould, equally ambient and evocative. Traditional fans may find this a huge departure, but open-eared (and -minded) listeners will welcome its challenge and rewarding results.

Learn more at this Web site.

Like Jennifer Cutting's Ocean, Matt Dickson's The Keeper's Log is an album of original compositions based around lighthouses and pieces with nautical themes. Dickson, an English-born guitarist, lived in Paris for years before returning home to the U.K. and recording his first album, The Lighthouse Keeper. This, his second album, continues on the tradition of his debut, and finds Dickson writing and playing music in the symphonic rock/folk vein typified by talents such as Mike Oldfield and Dan Ar Braz. The music features a distinct theme for each track, which would make for ideal soundtrack music. Indeed, when I first heard it I wondered if it were a soundtrack to a TV series or movie, such is its resemblance to that particular genre. Using dense layers of guitars and keyboards, Dickson creates memorable tunes, which is a rarity in this field. The Keeper's Log is a worthwhile follow-up to its predecessor, but offers music influenced but not dominated by folk forms.

Learn more at this Web site.

The final concept album in this bunch, An t-Eilean (The Island), celebrates the link between Skye, Raasay, and Prince Edward Island. This is the result of a combined celebration of the emigration history between the Scottish islands and Prince Edward Island. In June 1803, in a scheme organized by Lord Selkirk, 800 people from the islands of Skye and Raasay emigrated to Prince Edward Island in Canada. The stories of the people mix homesickness, emotional ties to their homeland, and their hopes for the future. The musical cast includes Blair Douglas, Anne Martin (the featured female vocalist), and traditional musicians including fiddlers, piper and claireseach players.

Learn more at this Web site.

So, the concept album is alive and well. Jennifer Cutting's epic work Ocean outshines the others with its depth of vision, commitment and span of guest contributors. However, let that not take away from the other albums reviewed here. Each has its own unique vision and that vision has been realized.

[John O'Regan]