Review Summary: The phenomenal international debut album by Paris-based Indonesian singer-songwriter, Anggun. Released in 33 countries worldwide between 1997 to 1999. US release on May 26, 1998.
If most albums make a heart-to-heart or soul-to-soul connection, then this is one of those albums that does a being-to-being connection. Paris-based Indonesian singer-songwriter Anggun Cipta Sasmi (known simply as Anggun) was brought into international prominence with the album's title track, a heartfelt and haunting rhythmic world fusion ballad. The song became a modest to huge hit across Europe and Asia, and made little impact anywhere else between 1997 to 1999.
Along the way, the singer and her music have been greatly overlooked by international media, especially since follow-up albums have been released only in several parts of Europe and Asia. It is very rare to find professional, credible reviews for any of Anggun's releases; some of the best reviews can only be found on some blogs and on websites such as Amazon. Therefore, I--as a huge fan--feel the need to contribute a little something, which hopefully is credible enough.
Snow on the Sahara is an album that takes you on a journey. On the first of four interludes, "Le départ", Anggun puts it herself (although in Indonesian): "Atas nama bulan, aku ajak anda dalam perjalanan mimpi ini" which translates to English as "In the name of the moon, I'm taking you on this journey of dream". It could not be better said. After all, this album is more than just an album; it is that: a journey of dream.
"Snow on the Sahara", the title and opening track (which still remains to be the singer's biggest worldwide hit to date), opens the album spectacularly. Velvety and ethereal synth patterns, sweeping guitar works completed with Anggun's deep and husky vocals, the song could really have been a major hit. And if it had been, perhaps people would have given Anggun more credit. It is easily one of the best songs ever written - as someone has put it once: the ultimate anthem of hope and wisdom.
"Over Their Walls" takes you to China right away. The "walls" here is a reference to the country's Great Wall... Listening to the song does make you feel like you're in a traditional Chinese festival.
"On The Breath of An Angel" is a minimal ballad with subtle beats and harp effects. Simply an exquisite track which features Anggun singing in both English and Indonesian.
"A Rose in the Wind", the album's second single, opens with an exotic-sounding flute, subdued verses and a soaring chorus. It features a rock edge, which pays quite a homage to the singer's past as a pop-rock singer in Indonesia. Moreover, there are those Indonesian spoken parts.
"Memory of Your Shores" is simply stunning and heart-wrenching. It tells a story of a person moving to the city and recalling their past living by the shore. If you think you are touched enough by "Snow on the Sahara", then try this one. Highly sentimental.
After the 3-something sentimental minutes of "Memory of Your Shores", "My Sensual Mind" is the complete opposite. Much in the fashion of "A Rose in the Wind", it opens with an exotic-sounding flute, subdued verses and a soaring chorus, but this time Anggun digs her R&B side. This is a surprise turn at the middle of the album - a tantalizing one.
Afterwards, Anggun pays another homage to her pop-rock roots with "Valparaiso". This time referencing to the city in Chile, the song features a slightly harder rock edge with its distorted guitars and compressed vocals. There is a Latin feel throughout, made evident by the song's interlude, the sweeping acoustic guitar instrumental "Blanca" and the name-checking of another Latin American city on the bridge part, Colombia's Cali. It is worth mentioning that she also name-checks another city, Indonesia's Bandung.
"Selamanya" is the only song here to feature Anggun singing entirely in her native Indonesian. This short, minimal, almost eerie track features Anggun's vocals in all its glory. Do check out one of the rare performances of this song on You Tube; the US performance on Session at West 54th where she medleys this with "A Rose in the Wind".
Then comes "By The Moon". It has a stronger new-age feel compared to that of "Snow on the Sahara", with more velvety and ethereal synth patterns coupled with samples of a Bulgarian traditional song and sweeping guitar works towards the end.
If "Over Their Walls" takes you to China, then "Dream of Me" takes you to a village somewhere in Europe or Africa... in a traditional nocturnal ceremony by the bonfire.
Then "Secret of the Sea" takes you to the shores again, this time longing for the return of a lover. This sparse, soul-searching track gives a restless feel towards the end of the album... until the David Bowie cover "Life on Mars" comes along and sends you on that journey of dream once again. Anggun's rendition of the classic track gives it a otherworldly and wondrous sense that the original doesn't quite have. And when it's over, you'll press play again... or you just pause and wish to never get back to the real world again.
Yes, this album is that amazing. Each song (yes, even the interludes) demands to be discovered again and again and again and again. This is music tapping into the spiritual sphere, crossing boundaries, tracing lost civilizations. And perhaps that is the reason why it remains a hidden treasure that it is. Perhaps it was too good to simply exist as a product, an album. In fact, this is utopia... or heaven on earth? Either way, get yourself some now.