The Phantom Tollbooth

Sweet Burning Light
Artist: Various
Label: Sparrow (US)/Alliance (UK)
Length: 15 tracks/61.17 minutes

Showing no signs of slowing, the Celtic music phenomenon is now well established within Christian music circles. Producer Jeff Johnson has long been one of this genre's pioneering figures, and his brief introduction to Celtic Christianity history included here shows that this particular outing's producers are aware of the phenomenon's roots.

Opening with a track from Richard Souther's album Vision, which explored the music of 12th century Germanic nun Hildegard Von Bingen, this album begins well rooted in history. While Bingen seems a strange choice given her distance from the Celtic church, in terms of theology she was not that far removed, and the arrangement here bears distinct similarities to many songs from her Celtic peers. Iona are unsurprisingly present with "Irish Day," the most accessible track from their most recent studio album. Individual Iona band members also contribute, including "Sights," a song from Troy Donockley's solo release The Unseen Stream, and David Fitzgerald and Dave Bainbridge's "Hymn of the Universe" from The Eye of the Eagle.

But this album is not limited to Iona and their kin. Jeff Johnson is well represented with two cuts, as are some other established Christian music figures such as Phil Keaggy, John Michael Talbot, Michael Card, and relative newcomer Michelle Tumes. Thankfully these artists are also well rooted in the Celtic music they offer here, and all the tracks feel authentic. Particularly interesting are John Doan's offerings, which hold tight to ancient melodies and instrumentation.

The homeland of Celtic music and Christianity, Ireland, is a recurrent theme, as is a focus on creation. The album sleeve contains the quote "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and that is a sentiment many of these musicians wished to capture in their songs. Although none of these tracks are particular to this compilation, they have been brought together in an unusually cohesive manner.

If you're looking for a sampler of the best that Christian artists exploring Celtic themes have to offer, this compilation may well be the definitive collection. It doesn't quite have the power of an Iona album, or the delicate crafting of a Michael Card release, but it is a refreshing offering in a genre which has become overcrowded with weak releases.

James Stewart (7/12/99)