On first hearing Jessica Victoria’s album, Songs of the Summer Realm, you would not need to be told she comes from a classically-trained background as an opera singer. The strength and purity of her voice is immediately arresting but what lies beneath her instrument is something even more intriguing. Songs of the Summer Realm is not only an exploration of musical styles but a journey through art, literature and sensibilities, drawing in elements of folk music and Arthurian legends. Quite unlike any other musical project of recent times, Song of the Summer Realm is an album to escape from the rigors of the real world to and to don your suit of armour and face the lives, loves and drama of ages past.
We are introduced to Jessica’s mystical world with “To Find the Melodies”, a hypnotic, alluring track which naturally showcases Jessica’s fine vocals and a delicate piano refrain which gives way to a slow heartbeat of percussion, driving us gently towards the promised summer realm. Indeed, the summer realm is our destination, with the title track allowing a barely-plucked harp to wrap itself around birdsong, an utterly beguiling effect which takes you directly to the heart of the narrative, utilising words from Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle to transport you to an ancient world of Celtic bards. The themes of relationships, trust and betrayal may be timeless but the setting is almost intoxicatingly distant.
If the experience so far has been head-spinning, “The Prophecy” introduces no less an instrument than the crumhorn, the thick double reed cawing across imaginary glens, mist shrouding druidic characters, invitations to the wandering minstrel-esque “Song of the Warrior Queen” and the most plaintive track so far, The Calling of Arthur with its religious intonations and stark language. Excerpts from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King cycle are used to good effect in Triumph Song, a far jollier song and one that feels entirely in keeping with both the source material and the world of King Arthur and the round table – what could be more fun than, battle-axes and lances!?
Although the use of existing texts is for the greater good, the emphasis on Stephen Lawhead does somewhat lessen by the album’s midpoint and “Merlin’s Prayer” – it would be nice to hear more of Jessica’s own imagination at play, particular as the music is so sumptuous and rich. Praise should certainly be given at this point to the instrumentation on the album, in particular Mary Ann Kennedy (whose harp work is exceptional on the likes of Battle of the Grail Part II); Lorne MacDougall’s traditional pipe playing; Euan Stevenson’s piano and Finlay Wells on guitar.
Christmas Camelot is a sheer delight and is only missing the sound of turkey drumsticks and dropped goblets of mead. The levity of the song is entirely what the album needed at this juncture and makes its way into what I consider to be the album’s standout, A Little Bestiary, tellingly a track with all elements written by Jessica. Her arrangements and lyrics are terrifically entertaining on all levels, by turn intricate and deft but also flighty and whimsical. It’s not Monty Python territory in terms of bawdiness but it shows a real sense of confidence in her own musicality and storytelling ability.
As the album concludes (song titles at this stage do slightly give away the plot, a bit like cinema trailers used to in the 70s and 80s!), the surprises continue, from finger-clicking jazz odysseys, touching piano-led heart-wrenchers and the much-deserved white charger of a conclusion. Songs of the Summer Realm is a complex project not to be approached lightly – it requires the listener to devote themselves to the listening experience and to…yes…LISTEN. This is not an album which benefits from dipping into randomly, it is an immersive experience and one which delivers on repeated listens.