America’s FERNWOOD is a side project for Djam Karet founding member Gayle Ellett and Todd Montgomery, both the musicians being multi-instrumentalists. This disc, “Almeria”, is their first collaboration and was released about a year ago. As the CD tray card says, all the music is played by hand, on instruments made out of wood.
As one might gather from looking at the names of the instruments used (Upright bass, Rhodes piano, harmonium, Greek bouzouki, Irish bouzouki, acoustic guitars, mandolins, banjo, violin, sitar, bulbul, gopichand, ruan, oud, dilruba, cumbus, rababa, dotara, swarsangam, gimbri, tarang and jal-tarang), the world has been the musical oyster of this duo, utilizing instruments from far and wide on this planet of ours. They have chosen a rather intriguing approach in the use of these instruments: one that indeed may be coined as fresh and adventurous. Instead of highlighting the individual instruments to create exotic soundscapes of the sort that would easily find a home among followers of new age music and philosophy, the men have chosen to go for complexity instead, demanding an attentive listener. The melodies are substantial enough to function as music easy on the ears, with dominating melody lines, distinct themes explored and hardly any use of disharmonies, but most people introduced to this music will have a hard time listening with half an ear to these songs. First and foremost we're served multiple melody lines at most times here, with as many as five or six different melodic lines at once. Sometimes they are utilized to produce layered harmonies, but most often these layers are interwoven, where the total mix of these at times complex woven patterns forms a distinct melody line as a whole. In most cases, one instrument – most often the acoustic guitar – will provide a basic foundation, a more simplistic theme underscoring the above mentioned interwoven melody. The result of this is a rich sound and a fleshed-out soundscape that takes on cinematic tendencies. The use of the exotic instrumentation seems to be with the purpose of creating contrasts just as much as an ethnic, world-influenced, atmosphere. At times a sitar or a ruan will add some subtle textures to a melody, but more often these and other instruments will be used for soloing and melodic overlays, adding a lighter exotic-sounding mood contrasting with a more simplistic foundation that is more traditionally western in approach. In addition, the main melody in the compositions will quite a few times have a staccato leaning, contrasted by a more flee-flowing solo performance of the instruments of Eastern or Asian origin. As intriguing as this production is, the first half of this album does sound a bit more interesting than the second. This may be due to the best compositions gathered early on, but also because the basic approach doesn't change that much in the different songs. There are differences in pace and sound, but the approach and structure remain similar throughout. The final track, Nightingale, is a special case though. On this one slow guitar work from a single instrument only is a distinct element to be found, and this time around exploring the drawn out notes and musical resonances is the name of the game: a relaxing mellow tune and the total opposite of everything else on this release.
Merrily and easily mixing ethnic musical influences from all across the globe in compositional structures with a heritage belonging just as much to the world of jazz and rock as folk music, this skilled and talented duo has produced an album that should appeal to individuals enjoying many different musical styles. Followers of world music may find this just as interesting as fans of jazz-fusion and progressive rock. Indeed, if you enjoy acoustic instrumental music this release is worthwhile checking out no matter how you define your personal musical taste. The album won't appeal to all and sundry of course, but my guess is that it will be a welcome and surprising discovery for selected individuals normally enjoying vastly different styles of music.
Since you, dear readers, have already learned of the quantity as well as variety of the instruments deployed on “Almeria” from the review above, I will focus predominantly on the stylistic-compositional characteristics of the release. First of all I must note that none of the twelve tracks here concern so-called World Music; the majority of them are creations of quasi acoustic Art-Rock, just mixing European and Oriental tunes, with some leanings towards Classical and Jazz-Fusion on no less than half of those. This effort has a high degree of originality, but nonetheless I was reminded of three artists when listened to it, the influence of Shakti being the most indistinct and the most widespread at once. To put it in a more comprehensible way, that ensemble can hardly serve as a direct reference point, since the resemblance takes place to a much greater extent due to the duet’s use of Indian native instruments, too, than to their approach to playing those. Either way, the oriental-sounding part of the recording most of the time arouses associations with India, and although such guitar-like strings as rababa and dotara, which are widespread in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries, are utilized as well, the corresponding colorations come to the surface not too frequently. The compositions vary in mood, pace and texture, though as regards the last two of these aspects, all the tracks from the disc’s imaginary side B aren’t too sonically saturated, most of those being slow throughout, while the preceding ones are structurally dense, all standing out for their multiple, normally differently vectored, leads which create swirling and serpentine, yet always harmonically cohesive patterns. So it’s on the first five pieces where Gayle and Todd show their skills as multi-instrumentalists in the most effective way. Ouch, I see I forgot what I, roughly speaking, promised to do when starting on my personal exploration of “Almeria”. Okay, while Ellett’s style of playing the bass, keyboards and exotic instruments is beyond comparison (as ever, bearing in mind his main band, Djam Karet, or any of his other side projects, either), his acoustic guitar passages on this particular CD can bear a more conventional character, those performed in a semi-classical key, such as on Sandpiper, Makena and Athenia, at times evocative of Steve Hackett’s, though the last of these compositions seems to have generally quite a good deal in common with Steve’s work, reminding me of his “Bay of Kings” – perhaps because it’s rich in keyboard patterns and reveals few Eastern motifs on the other hand. When Gayle provides a kind of rock propulsion for the composition with staccato (or maybe legato too: not sure, but why not?) guitar rhythms, he does so very much in the manner of Led Zeppelin, i.e. Jimmy Page: on Open Seas, Ruidoso, East Window and Pelican, to be precise. Of the remaining tracks, Crow, Crane and County Line all reveal probably the most well-balanced blend of European and Oriental melodies. Hungarian Holiday, the only piece featuring, well, what sounds not unlike accordion, has an extra, folk, component which, in defiance of its title, brings to mind France. Finally the last track, Nightingale, is in many ways a standout. Performed by Gayle alone, it consists of acoustic guitar passages which are played by fingering, slowly, with not event a hint of oriental music.
It would’ve been strange if such a gifted, truly open-minded, musician as Gayle Ellett had ventured on something similar to his primary band in style, and he didn’t. Under the moniker of Fernwood, in collaboration with Todd Montgomery, he offers us “Almeria”, a recording which is definitely his finest, most progressive as well as compelling side project to date. Nevertheless, while some of the tracks here are only slightly inferior to the others, the disc itself is compiled (which means produced in the end) not in the best way, to put it mildly, as the pieces with a different level of textural density were not intermixed among themselves. Hence the rating, which is somewhat lower than it should really be.
Almeria is an instrumental, acoustic album with a rootsy, world music vibe. It is a very pleasant album of instrumental music using a variety of instruments from a variety of cultures, which contributes to its charm. The melodies are warm and inviting. There is an immediacy and sense of close proximity to the sound, like sitting in your living room with a couple of friends, who just happen to be incredible musicians, though you could also imagine a dozen different musicians were plucked from around the globe to bring their own regional flavors to the compositions. The blending of such disparate regional sounds could be disconcerting, but instead the blend is intriguing, inviting and beguiling. It could easily be a soundtrack from a fantasy/science fiction movie where various cultures have been brought together harmoniously, while retaining their own cultural heritages. Come to think of it, it is a bit analogous to the melting pot or stew pot that is America, at least the ideal that we desire the country to be. I happily recommend "Almeria" for those who enjoy acoustic instrumental music of the stringed variety. To me, it feels like the descendent of Leo Kottke's 6 & 12 String Guitar or John Renbourn's Sir John Alot of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & ye Grene Knyghte. Fernwood has created music with balance and taste. It is relaxing without being sleepy, playful without being silly.
“Almeria” is simply a good album to put on, sit back in a comfortable chair, with a beverage of choice in hand and a sigh of contentment.