Portals by Sharon Knight
available on Bandcamp
digital download $12, CD $20
12 songs, 52:39
Over a year ago, Sharon Knight began a crowdfunding campaign for her new album. But this wasn’t going to be an ordinary album. This would be a big project not just to record Sharon and Winter’s music, but to create a exceptional musical experience featuring many of their fellow Pagan musicians. It was a lofty goal.
Imagine, if you will: An otherworldly carnival, traveling in and out of mystery, magic, the unexplained. You feel the hair raise on the back of your neck as a motley band of skillful and possibly dangerous musicians brandish their bows, their voices, their tambourines, and open portals to the realms of the fantastical! You thrill to the charms of seductive sirens, pixie pirates, steampunk sailors, metal warriors, witches and wanderlings, as a mighty cast of characters wield their mightiest mojo in a Theatre of Enchantment crafted to delight and awe!
Portals was released earlier this week. Does the finished product meet the expectations? That would be a resounding yes.
I’ve been a fan of Sharon’s music ever since I heard her rock band Pandemonaeon on the sadly-deceased “A Darker Shade of Pagan” podcast. Her voice is beautiful, strong, and unique. She and Winter are expert instrumentalists on the mandolin and guitar. I have six of her albums on my iPhone, plus an EP, plus two albums of Pagan chants she recorded with T. Thorn Coyle. So when Sharon started publicizing Portals last year, I jumped in. One of the perks of contributing to the crowdfunding campaign was getting the finished album early. I picked up mine at Pantheacon – I put it in my car CD player as soon as I got off the plane and I’ve been listening to it ever since.
The guest musician list is long: Pandemonaeon bandmates Caith Threefires, Tim Rayborn, and Mark Abbott. SJ Tucker, Betsy Tinney, and Alexander James Adams of Tricky Pixie. Sonja Drakulich and Dan Cantrell of Stellamara. Albert Robles, Paul Nordin, Nathaniel Johnstone, Heather Dale, and Wendy Rule. When I first heard Sharon’s plan, I wondered how well it would work. “Featured performers” often clash with the main theme of an album, either from ego or because a producer wants to use their notoriety to sell records.
But this works very well. As you might expect with more voices and instruments, Portals is deeper and richer than 2013’s Neofolk Romantique. But it sounds like one album made by one band. A band with a lot of different instruments and backup singers, but still one band. Among the guest musicians, only Betsy Tinney’s cello stands out, and that’s mainly due to the instrument’s unique sound… and the fact that I knew to listen for it.
The crowdfunding campaign raised enough for a professional video for “Porcelain Princess.” It’s beautiful, both visually and musically. And its imagery helps provide context for the rest of the album. At the beginning, Sharon said “through this project, we mean to convey the feel of life on the road, part of a traveling circus of performers who live in the realms of magic every day.”
Portals is not a Pagan album. Of the twelve songs, only “Trail of Prayer” is explicitly spiritual – it speaks of the powerful Nature spirituality many of us find in wild places. I can’t decide if “Let the Waters Rise” is a Nature metaphor for recovering from deep loss or if it’s a prayer for actual rain to alleviate the drought in Sharon’s California home… or possibly both.
But Portals is a very magical album. It includes china dolls coming alive, dreams and illusions, knights and mermaids and magical sea creatures, conjurers and mojo, and above all, the magic of longing and love. Its very name implies a gateway to another time and another world, a world where art and music and love are more important than buying and selling and hoarding money and things that never satisfy. And for 52 minutes and 39 seconds, it takes us there.
If Portals has a weakness, it’s that no one song stands out. There’s nothing that compares to “Fire in the Head” from Neofolk Romantique or “Fierce Black Soul of Night” from Pandemonaeon’s Dangerous Beauty. But maybe that just shows how solid and complete, how much of a “one thing” it is. There are no weak songs on Portals, not even the rather short, instrumental-only “Slipped Away.”
If you like Sharon’s previous music, you’ll like Portals. If you like the “Porcelain Princess” video, you’ll like Portals. If you don’t like either, what’s wrong with you?
Want to learn more about Sharon Knight? Read this interview I did with her a couple years ago.
North Texas friends: want to hear Sharon and Winter live and spend an evening hanging out with me? I’m hosting a house concert on Thursday, May 5. $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Contact me privately for location and other details.