BLACKMORE'S NIGHT: FIRES AT MIDNIGHT (2001)
1) Written In The Stars; 2) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 3) I Still Remember; 4) Home Again; 5) Crowning Of The King; 6) Fayre Thee Well; 7) Fires At Midnight; 8) Hanging Tree; 9) The Storm; 10) Mid-Winter's Night; 11) All Because Of You; 12) Waiting Just For You; 13) Praetorius (Courante); 14) Benzai-Ten; 15) Village On The Sand; 16) Again Someday.
This is probably as good as it gets — or, at least, as diagnostic as it gets, so if you want to give Lord R. and Lady C. one lucky chance, Fires At Midnight might be your best bet. Not only is it as stylistically diverse as the duo would ever get, but it also achieves a stable balance between the «folk» and the «rock» visions of Blackmore as applied to his dabblings in past times with good companies. Which, simply speaking, translates to «it's still cheesy, but not as boringly cheesy as it used to be». There's even some bark-and-snap to it now.
Most importantly, Blackmore seems to have finally adapted the art of writing faux-medieval ballads to his trademark fiery style: almost as if he were a little tired of the exaggerated courteous gallantry of his previous two efforts, quite a few of these new compositions put their trust (and their thrust) in «power». ʽWritten In The Starsʼ opens the album deceptively, with some nearly accappella singing from Candice — but that is just the intro: at 1:05 into the song, the electric guitar kicks in with some heraldic chords, the martial drums and horns join in the attack, and the whole thing becomes a darkly romantic gallop, highlighted by ecstatic electric leads. No huge surprises on the whole, but this hint at «hidden menace», tragedy, and toughness is definitely something that neither ʽShadow Of The Moonʼ nor ʽUnder A Violet Moonʼ possessed.
Where royalty was earlier represented by Britain (Henry VIII), we now turn to Spain: the title track is credited as a reworking of a composition originally by Alfonso X of Castile, although we may safely assume that the guy was not quite as skilled at the electric guitar as Mr. Blackmore, his disciple, who turns most of the song's second part into a polygon for unleashing some long-missed amplified pyrotechnics at the listener. I am also quite unsure if Alfonso el Sabio actually made a provision for shawms in his original composition, but whatever be the case, they fit in well with this rather paganistic pandemonium. As simple and repetitive as the main melody is (which is not very surprising for a 13th century dance melody), they handle the build-up pretty well, and it does inspire Blackmore to go fairly wild on the guitar, though, of course, not full-out wild — even in a moment of ecstasy, the medieval minstrel should never forget that he does not have proper access to the whammy bar, since it has not been invented yet.
Other medieval heroes honored on the record include the obscure Dutch legend Tielman Susato, honored with renditions of the lyrical dance ballad ʽI Still Rememberʼ and the ceremonial, horns-driven ʽCrowning Of The Kingʼ (a little too pastoral, atmosphere-wise, but then again, we're talking 16th century here, when «pastoral» and «court» were not always that far removed); Jeremiah Clarke, whose famous ʽPrince Of Denmark's Marchʼ is adapted for a more lyrical purpose as ʽWaiting Just For Youʼ; the already previously honored Michael Praetorius, whose ʽCouranteʼ is played by Ritchie on basic acoustic guitar; and the long-forgotten medieval Jewish klezmer Hrodebert Zimbarman, whose woodwind-heavy gallant dance melody ʽDie Zeiten, Sie Ändern Sichʼ is usually better known to modern audiences through a corrupted neo-folk performance by one of his immigrant descendants; fortunately, we have Lord R. and Lady C. to thank for restoring the courteous authenticity of this fine, fine composition.
That said, unless you dig deep into the credits, it is quite impossible to distinguish the «authentic» material from the Blackmore/Night «originals» — the former pieces are always rearranged for the duo's usual style, and the latter are probably only «original» in the sense that they do not directly transpose the chord structures of the old musical pieces they are based upon... then again, considering that Blackmore's collection is said to consist of about 2000 CDs of Renaissance music, I think that the man himself would not be able to tell whether a particular «original» of his has been directly lifted from somebody or influenced. So, for instance, the up-on-your-feet and dance-in-joy ʽHome Againʼ, containing either the catchiest or simply the most repetitive refrain melody on the album, is marked as a «Blackmore/Night» composition, but I couldn't believe for one moment that that melody was invented by Ritchie — it just sounds like a melody that must have been in good use in village dance traditions for at least half a millennium or so.
Anyway, this is not the point. The point is that, despite some inevitable filler (again, it runs over an hour, when some of the more same-sounding tracks could have been trimmed), Fires At Midnight crackle with more enthusiasm than the previous two records, and some of that enthusiasm even rubs off on Lady C. — she sounds positively glowing on the weird Anglo-Japanese hybrid ʽBenzai-Tenʼ, an ode to a Buddhist goddess sung with Sherwood Forest harmonies (I count this as Blackmore's personal revenge on the world of J-Pop). While it would be too much to talk of stylistic revolutions or uncovered musico-semantic depths, Fires At Midnight finally fulfills the original promise, and honestly, professionally, and creatively delivers «Ersatz Entertainment», an embarrassingly guilty pleasure if there ever was one. Thumbs up and an overall recommendation — but do promise to at least check out Gryphon as a proper antidote for the cheap thrills offered by our little travelin' minstrel show.