I’m not a Wiccan. I’ve danced around the fire for many a year, and I’ve danced with the idea of the Craft, even being a bound member of a coven for a few years, but I never quite connected to that path. Wiccanism has always relied a bit too much on magic for my tastes, didn’t have enough music to make up for my Christian traditions, and left me feeling like men were appreciated, but not particularly needed. My yearnings to be a Wiccan have waxed and waned, and I’ve never rejected it entirely, but neither could I completely embrace it.
So it was with some small level of trepidation that I accepted the request to review Circle in a Box, the new album by Lisa Stewart which is available on CD and via iTunes. Not only am I not a Wiccan, I have never reviewed any music before, either! Was I the right person to carry this burden?
In short, the answer to that was “yes.” I’ve known Lisa and her husband Anton for some years, but there was no doubt in my mind that they were not expecting me to let the relationship taint my opinions. I also have some twenty-five years of Paganism under my belt, and I’ve reviewed no small number of books, so rather than decline the offer, I took it up with zeal.
I’m glad I did.
Circle in a Box is designed to be the structure of a Wiccan ritual. Other than the first track, “How to use Circle in a Box,” each musical composition fills a role in a typical ritual. It’s a very cool idea on its face, and the CD comes packaged in a cardboard sleeve (100% post-consumer recycled material, no less) that’s made up to look like a wooden chest that anyone would be pleased to store all their ritual tools in. (I’m also of the understanding that there’s a version that actually comes in a wooden box, replete with said tools; I haven’t seen it yet, but clearly the whole concept is being advanced in thoughtful, if not epic, ways.)
The first track, as I said, is instructional in nature. Stewart, the primary voice of the album and Wiccan priestess for some number of decades, explains that it’s a good idea to listen through entirely at least once before using it for ritual. The keyboard chords which play through her explanation give something of a sense of album’s musical style, which I describe as “refined New Age.” Keyboard is heavy throughout, but before one decides, “Oh, that’s not my thing,” be aware that this is not your mother’s New Age music. There is depth and purpose to these pieces, and it quickly becomes obvious that they were composed, arranged, and performed with magical intent.
The ritual itself begins with “Consecration: As Above, So Below.” It is a chant which sets the mood, and helps the listener achieve the clear mind necessary for ritual work. The chant is recited by many voices with gentle chords underneath.
“Calling The Quarters” takes it up just a notch, with the litany being recited while other voices sing to the quarters being invoked. This is followed by “Casting The Circle,” in which both Stewarts recite a traditional circle-casting chant.
Now comes the meat of the ritual, when the Lord and Lady are invoked. In “Invoking the Goddess,” Stewart modifies the popular “goddesses chant” and uses it as a bed upon which she lays the Charge of the Goddess. Stewart’s singing in this track is ethereal, while her spoken words are both nurturing and welcoming.
Following after is “Invoking the God,” which for me bridges some of the metaphysical gaps that have kept me from following this path to the exclusion of all others. Anton Stewart’s gods chant quickly reminds the listener that masculinity does not need to shrink into the shadows of the craft. The music is sometimes uncomfortable, and close to dissonant; this struck me as being reflective of the male condition, in which aspect which are often in conflict must learn to coexist. It is also, in my view, the strongest piece musically: the combination of the priest’s British accent (undeniably evocative of Wicca’s roots), the rousing chords with close harmony, and the swelling crescendos resonated within me in a way that got my heart pounding in my chair.
Being a man, not a woman, I can only assume that the prior track, which I felt to be beautiful and moving, is far more powerful in the female ear than I can imagine. It moves then into “Chalice & Blade,” which combines the prior to pieces as the Great Rite is performed. The merging is musically beautiful, capturing the power of this stirring ritual.
What follows is nine minutes of “Magickal Meditation,” an instrumental piece during which Stewart guides the listener through an open-ended space for the energy working which is so important to Wiccan practice. In this track is Stewart’s decades of work as a priestess is very prominent, as she sets the tone and environment for whatever the goal of the particular ritual might be. A soft chant of “so mote it be” serves as an undercurrent to the soft melody and gentle chord progressions.
“Cakes & Ale,” the celebratory passing of the cup and sharing of food, is very uplifting and joyful. Again, Stewart takes a guiding role, using this track for grounding as well as communion. There’s a good balance between experience the joy of positive energy work, and letting that energy go. The melody itself develops a more solid, earthy character as the song progresses.
With grounding complete, reprisals of earlier themes are used for “Releasing the God,” “Releasing the Goddess,” and “Releasing the Quarters.” The album concludes with “Merry Meet & Merry Part and Merry Meet Again,” an oldie but a goodie, and arranged with some very sweet harmonies. I’m an unabashed vocal harmony fiend, and any opportunity to layer in more of that always hits my sweet spot.
All in all, I find that Circle in a Box is a good tool couched in some pretty decent music, and some which is really outstanding. The tracks are stirring enough to evoke feeling when they’re just listened to, and more than able to guide one (or more!) people through an entire Wiccan ritual, providing they were at least passingly familiar with the structure and concepts beforehand. (There are plenty of books which serve that purpose, but here’s one writer who is hoping the Stewarts will pen a companion tome to this album.) Recommended for Wiccans with that basic understanding, particularly solitaries, and especially if they have an MP3 player, because the “psycho-acoustics” on some of the tracks are made for ritual with earphones in.
Visit the Circle in a Box site to link up with the artists and learn a little bit more about the music.