The Phantom Tollbooth

Hymns of the Ancient Fire
Artist: Simon Cooper
Label: UK indie
Length: 8 tracks/55.37
Having previously experimented with rock, pop, and jazz, Simon Cooper is now producing music he describes as "picture music." And an apt title that is. The mixture of ambient synthesizers and classical choirs can easily draw images into the mind of vast cathedrals and luscious landscapes.

Given the nature of the music and the album sleeve's talk of "gods, wizards, prophets, mythical beasts, fabled creatures, fairies, kings, warriors and nature spirits," many will consider this new age music. But the heart of Simon Cooper is to express wonder at God's creative and redemptive power, and one need only look to the works of C. S. Lewis to see that it is possible to use these images and still retain respect within orthodox Christianity.

The powerful, majestic voices of Peter Siedlaczek's Classical Choir are particularly well integrated into the music, but are matched by the sopranists and boys's choirs who are also involved in this project. Each track is long--the briefest comes in just short of the six-minute mark-but there is a feeling of gentle progression which means that they only rarely drag, as long as the listener is relaxed enough to give each song the time it requires.

The choirs and sopranists are woven together on "Keeper of the Flame," along with a programmed beat, in a way that is initially disturbing. But as the synthesizer melody slips in, there is an increasingly joyful tone to the song, before the return to a feeling of mystery as the track comes to a close. It is in a way similar to a possible encounter with God, where we become aware first of his majesty, and then comprehend something new of his love but can't retain this insight as deeply as we would wish.

The use of synthesizers and samples alongside powerful classical voices is difficult to get right. Although I do have some qualms about the pipe sound on the fourth track, Cooper has managed to weave the styles together admirably. Occasionally I am left wondering how things would sound with a more organic flavour, but in the overall picture this is a small issue.

Simon Cooper is painting both cathedrals and landscapes with his music, but he's also helping the listener to explore them, and the God whose glory they portray.

James Stewart (5/25/99)