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TRACK LIST: 1. Kalyn 3:59 2. White Oak 4:08 3. Hobbs Bay 4:50 4. Helen Island 4:06 5. North Wind 3:23 6. Rings Waltz 3:50 7. Mistral 4:24 8. Cimarron 3:02 9. Sargoza 4:56 10. Kestrel 3:37 11. Dor County 5:10 12. August 4:57 LINEUP: Gayle Ellett – instruments (read below) Todd Montgomery – instruments (read below)
Prolusion. Based in Malibu, California, USA, FERNWOOD are a duo consisting of two talented multi-instrumentalists, Djam Karet founder Gayle Ellet and Irish and American music specialist Todd Montgomery. “Sangita” is their second album, recorded – like its predecessor, “Almeria” – using only instruments made of wood. Gayle Ellett plays Greek bouzouki, guitar, mandolin, upright bass, ruan, oud, dilruba, quirquincho, bulbul tarang, jal tarang, harmonium, dotara, gopichand, swarsangam, cumbus, gimbri, rababa and piano. Todd Montgomery plays Irish bouzouki, mandolin, banjo, guitar, sitar and violin.
Analysis. “Sangita” is undoubtedly a very unusual album. Totally acoustic, and featuring only wooden stringed instruments – some of them with impossibly exotic, unpronounceable names – it has ‘niche release’ written all over it. However, the music showcased on the album proves to be much less unapproachable than one might expect at a superficial glance. “Sangita”, the Sanskrit name for a composite art consisting of melodic forms, drumming patterns and dance, would suggest a disc strongly pervaded by the influence of world music – an impression compounded by the awe-inspiring list of ethnic instruments played by the two Fernwood members. In fact, one definition I have come across – ‘Acoustic World Chamber Americana’ – would seem to fit the low-key, intimate feel of the music to a T. For someone not well-versed in the technical aspects of music, recognizing the sound of the various instruments can be an impossible task, and I do not believe that the main purpose of Fernwood is to engage the listener in a sort of guessing game. As intrigued as one may be by those exotic names, it is much more advisable to sit back and soak in the music, enjoying the subtlety and sophistication of compositions that are only apparently simple. The two musicians alternate moments of playful sparring with others in which they proceed in lockstep, dishing out a series of tracks that are often as multilayered as anything involving a much larger instrumentation - but that can easily become forgettable without any dedication on the part of the listener. This is the downside of music as distinctive as this – it needs attention, even more so than the average progressive rock record, as the risk of turning into glorified background music is always behind the corner. On “Sangita”, just like on their debut effort, Gayle Ellet and Todd Montgomery delve deep into both Western and Eastern musical traditions. The 12 resulting tracks may at first sound remarkably similar, but the distinctive nature of each item will slowly unfold at every successive listen. Obviously, any detailed description of any of the tracks will be beyond anyone familiar with the individual instruments involved. “Sangita” is rooted in the eclecticism of the two artists, their in-depth knowledge of world music, and their search for the most effective ways to blend these often disparate traditions in an original whole. At any rate, the structure of the individual compositions is as complex as anything conventionally labelled as ‘progressive’, even though this is not immediately evident. As it is to be expected from a completely acoustic recording, the music is laid-back, devoid of sharp edges, and quite soothing to the ear. The tracks where the upright bass is prominently featured possess a fuller, almost ‘orchestral’ sound, as do those where the violin is present. This is particularly true of Rings Waltz and Dor Country, the latter a slow, dreamy composition enriched by the lilting sound of the mandolin, and of something sounding very much like an accordion. The full, almost booming chords of the upright bass, underlying the intricate interaction between the other instruments, bring to mind The Pentangle, a seminal prog-folk outfit that, much like Fernwood, merged European and American folk traditions in their musical output. More Pentangle comparisons crop up in Mistral, where the instruments seem to create subtle layers of sound, while Cimarron is a lively variation on one of the staples of European folk music, the Irish jig. On the other hand, the Eastern-influenced side of Fernwood’s music makes its appearance in the rarefied, sitar-led Sargoza, which may recall at times the likes of John McLaughlin’s Shakti project, and especially album closer August, a slow, evocative piece that might have come straight out of a Ravi Shankar album. An album that is both accessible and demanding, “Sangita” is a beautiful slice of eclectic, wide-ranging music that, however, can easily turn boring if left ‘unattended’, so to speak. Since this kind of music requires a lot of concentration in order to be properly appreciated, I believe the album would have been even more successful if it had been somewhat shorter (though 50 minutes is almost nothing these days).
Conclusion. “Sangita” will certainly appeal to fans of acoustic music, as well as anything with an ethnic flavour, while its attraction for people who are not patient enough to look for subtle nuances in their musical experiences will be quite limited. A finely-crafted album, born of the staunch dedication of Ellet and Montgomery to their art, it is also one that requires all of the listener’s attention, or else it will inevitably fade into the background.
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