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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Fernwood

Sangita

Review by Scott Montgomery

This is a real gem!  It’s one of the most deliciously satisfying albums that I have heard all year.  On their second Fernwood release, Gayle Ellett and Todd Montgomery (no relation to the reviewer) have assembled a masterpiece of progressive acoustic music.  While Ellett is perhaps best known for his excellent work with the magnificent Djam Karet, Fernwood is very much a departure from the dynamically shifting, progressive powerhouse of Djam Karet’s alternately intense and atmospheric oeuvre.  Fernwood is more delicately stated, eschewing electric intensity and concentrating on the great sea of possibility of the sounds fashioned by acoustic instruments.  What is impressive is that Sangita does not complacently plod along, but rather moves seamlessly and buoyantly through a rich sonic palette that possesses both great variety and overarching cohesion.  It is deceptively traditional and simple-sounding without becoming precious or predictable.  Careful listening reveals a staggering array of changing textures, sonic colors and tonalities that make a superlative statement of an all-too-rare breed of progressive music – acoustic, instrumental, reflective world fusion.  Is it a “prog” album?  Not in the sense of sounding like any of a number of discernable styles of progressive rock.  Sangita is, however, a profoundly progressive album in that it sounds fresh and new – pushing and progressing beyond familiar musical paradigms.  Simultaneously exotic and familiar, eclectic and cohesive, Sangita offers a lyrical, melodic, and rich collection of tone poems for a new era of acoustic progression.  This is an album that warrants many repeated listenings.  Each of the many times I listen, I hear something new, some rich variation.  There is so much going on, yet it is so subtly and fluidly blended, that it takes many listens to catch the full array of shifting textures.  It is not a busy record, but a complex and tightly orchestrated, yet astoundingly subtle and rewarding listen – one that keeps giving with every spin.  This one is something new that should please discerning and open-minded progressive fans as well as appealing to non prog-heads who enjoy exquisitely wrought compositions of tremendous grace and beauty.  Free your ears and your mind will follow.

Comprised of twelve relatively short (3-5 minutes), tightly-focused pieces, Sangita delivers a satisfying smorgasbord of songs that are distinct yet adhere nicely, creating a smoothly flowing album that could be construed as an instrumental song-cycle.  Sitar, bouzouki, dilruba, oud, mandolin and other instruments from virtually all over the globe are used (in a single song) to create a rich tapestry of tones that continuously surprises and delights while maintaining a gentle continuity – constant, but varied….perhaps more constantly varied.  It is a mental soundtrack to a virtual pilgrimage around the globe.  But the varied musical traditions conjured meld into a rich, complexly textured amalgam of sounds produced via a geographically and temporally diverse ensemble of instruments.  This journey is undertaken largely through an impressive bevy of stringed instruments – plucked, strummed, and bowed.  As the back of the CD case notes, it is “all music played by hand, on instruments made out of wood.”  What we get is a lush forest of sound comprised of varied cultural trees.  This is not spacey New Age quasi-global music (not that there would be anything inherently wrong with that), but rather well-constructed compositions that adhere tightly yet vary expansively.  It is thick without being dense, complex without sounding overwrought, holding together in Arcadian tranquility and pastoral variation.

A point of reference might be the work of Stephen Micus in terms of the abounding admixture of tonal textures achieved through the use of a diverse array of instruments garnered from widespread global music traditions.  However, Fernwood’s music is more tightly composed and less like the expansive meditative space of Micus’ music.  Comparison might also be made with the sublimely textured work of Popol Vuh, particularly their 1970s output that melded varied instruments and musical influence into a dynamic yet coherent layering of shimmering sound.  But, Fernwood does not sound like the above-mentioned musicians.  While holding certain affinities with these other medleys of musical tradition, Fernwood is patently distinct and original.  There is something new on offer here and it is a delicious treat for the ears.  Fernwood do not “rock”, but they certainly do roll nicely, abundantly satisfying with their exquisitely vibrant aural tapestry.  The production is crisp and clean – felicitously so, as it allows each instrument, each varying tonal quality to shine forth.  I shall eagerly await future offerings by this dynamic duo comprised of Ellett and Montgomery.  Sangita is most rewarding and truly brilliant – a genuine masterpiece.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Kalyan

A single harmonic note rings and hangs briefly before being joined by a gradual succession of stringed instruments.  After each of a series of brief pauses, new instruments and tones enter this dreamy, languid space.  A wide array of strings merge in and out of the foreground all-the-while maintaining a slow minor-key gait.   There is a reflective, meditative quality that is both engaging and sonically compassionate – a gentle, almost languid opening to the album.

White Oak
After the more ambulatory “Kaylan,” “White Oak” seems to skip along, opening with a syncopated rhythmic plucking on a guitar that it soon joined by sustained Rhodes notes, mandolin, and sitar.  The tune alternately builds toward a more rhythmic ensemble then drops back down before returning again to its dancing gait. At times, the syncopated layering calls to mind some of Pat Metheny’s more delicate acoustic moments, but only fleetingly so.  As is typical with Fernwood, the tone, pace, and coloratura change so quickly yet smoothly as to defy much comparison.  It sounds most like, well… Fernwood.  There is a great, expansive feeling of great open spaces through which the song travels, alternately skipping and strolling.  Slowly winding down with a sustained space-like atmosphere, exquisitely beautiful bow work of exotic micro-tonal grace and subtlety gently carry the song as though on a long slow amble to the distant horizon.
Hobbs Bay

An easy pace is set by guitar joined by sundry stringed friends in a kind of Old World Country music.  But what country is not clear, as different instruments and tones converse in and out of the mix.  Two minutes in…is that a pair of harmonizing mandolins briefly transporting us to Napoli?  The distinction is soon obfuscated as additional stringed instruments enter and recede, pausing briefly before the mighty banjo makes its loping entrance.  There is a delightful quirkiness that cannot help but bring a smile to the face.  At times rollingly rhythmic and other times expansively spacious, this piece travels a marvelous aural topography, into which it drifts on a closing fade.

Helen Island

A tentative plucking pattern on banjo and guitar (or what sounds like guitar) resolves into a delightful lilting sitar melody to which a bevy of diverse strings periodically join and recede.  A sprightly “main melody” is played on sitar over a jaunty banjo pattern as mandolins and such add abundant texture and counterpoint.  How can this one not make you smile?  (ed. After all, Steve Martin says you can’t have a song with banjo that isn’t happy) Again, there is a quirky interplay of instruments, melodic snippets, and compositional complexity that cannot help but satisfy and amuse like a dreamy aural vision of Bill Monroe on acid at the ashram.  Yipee-o-namasté.

North Wind

Gently building from a single guitar into a symphony of intertwined string patterns, this piece gradually develops a theme that would fit a film score.  At times this composition conjures mid-70s Popol Vuh, particularly the shimmering texture of works such as the glorious Heart of Glass soundtrack.  Rather than developing a complex melody, this piece floats gracefully along as an atmospheric counterpoint to the more varied “Helen Island” that precedes it.

Rings Waltz

A rather delicate, laid-back, pastoral idyll is the setting for this dance.  It’s a waltz, but a slow and periodically stilted one. The relatively sparse arrangement conjures the vast spaces of the American plains in a manner equaled only by the brilliant Charlie Haden/Pat Metheny collaboration “Beyond the Missouri Sky.”  The return to the main melody at about three minutes is one of the most gorgeous passages on an album full of grace and beauty.

Mistral

Another lush, bucolic soundscape emerges, but it’s one that seems more evocative of a gently flowing stream wending its way through an untrammeled landscape.  A steady, understated double-bass pulse slowly carries the piece along this watercourse, with periodic pauses in eddies and pools.  As with many cuts on this album, I am pleasantly surprised at how splendidly and harmoniously such diverse instruments as the sitar, banjo and bouzouki converse.

Cimarron

A plucked pattern on a banjo is joined by complimentary bowed figures before being joined by guitars and other wooden friends in an oddly lilting amble.  Like a Renaissance dance fused with Southern Italian melodies and an odd Appalachian reverie, we get a delightfully improbable blend – dueling dilrubas?  There is a curiously comic feel, as though it is a soundtrack to a Douglas Adam’s book in which Arthur Dent and Zaphod Beeblebrox visit Naples.  This is not to imply that the piece lacks sophistication – far from it!  It is a neatly composed and serious piece of music, but one that is more than a bit pluckish in its sensibility.  Though they do not sound overwhelmingly similar, I am somehow reminded of Bill Frisell’s delightfully quirky pieces inspired by Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons (1996’s Bill Frisell Quartet).

Sargoza

Gentle, sparse strings ring out in spacious simplicity, gradually multiplying and receding.  Sitar and upright bass enter, adding delicate melodious lines and murmuring bottom-end upon which further tapestries of stringed song are woven.  In keeping with the rhythmically relaxed pace of the album, this lovely number winds slowly and gently through a series of tempo, harmonic, textural and tonal variation.

Kestrel

Following an initial guitar phrase, the glorious bouzouki enters and comes to the foreground, bringing us to a seaside reverie – possibly Santorini.  The relaxed pace conjures an image of placid azure seas, untrammeled beaches, and crystal clear cerulean skies.  A sweet, languid tune saunters along in a carefree gait, gradually gaining a buoyant hop before gently drifting off again to the opening guitar phrase.

Dor County

At just over five minutes in length, this is the longest piece on the album.  Like a number of tunes on Sangita this one opens with a spacious pattern from a single instrument (guitar in this case) gradually joined by an ebbing and flowing small orchestra of manifold stringed instruments.  Alternately strolling to the languid pace of the bass and shimmering in exclusively treble-end textures, a series of themes emerge and vary, with sitar, mandolin and other highly-strung siblings pulling and shifting melodic lines. The entry of the delicate harmonium for a brief melodic passage adds additional novel tonal texture before receding into the stringed tapestry.  Slowly and gradually, the song fades into the distance with stately serenity.

August

Evocative twangs of the sitar’s resonating strings emerge to establish a swelling underpinning for emergent bowed and plucked strings, fashioning a mystical soundscape that fuses Hindustani and Persian allusions.  “August” is a quiet tone poem that drifts gradually in meditative serenity.  But, this temple of sound is ever-shifting, slightly and subtly varying in a slowly unfolding, whispered conversation of global strings.  This quiescent reverie tapers into mystic mist……and we end close to where we began – in a gentle, bucolic idyll.  It is a most satisfying close to a most satisfying album.

 
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