1. Bells Spring (3:44)
2. The Pan Chaser (4:56)
3. Vision at Vasquez Rocks (3:59)
4. Red Hill Trail (3:52)
5. The Lost Night (4:21)
6. Crossing the Divide (3:49)
7. Owens Hideaway (3:51)
8. Young Mountain Memory (3:18)
9. After the Big Sky Falls (2:42)
10. Escape From Sycamore Canyon (4.46)
11. Winter Way (3:12)
Gayle Ellett – Greek bouzouki, dilruba, charango, tanpura, surmandal, Rhodes, harmonium, ruan, dobro, upright bass, guitar, piano, tenor ukulele, bells/chimes, moog, mellotron, organ, electric guitar, field recordings
Todd Montgomery – Irish bouzouki, sitar, guitar, banjo, baritone guitar, mandolin, violin, slide bouzouki, bowed guitar, EBow, electric mandolin, baritone electric guitar
A lot of the music released today under the “progressive” umbrella has very little in common with the banks-of-keyboards variety that flourished in the early Seventies. On the other hand, the rather stale adherence to modes of expression that were forward-thinking in their time is still seen by many as a requirement for artists who want to aspire to the “prog” tag, and anything deviating from that template is often hastily dismissed.
Southern California duo Fernwood belong to that vast grey area, which often houses veritable gems always at risk of being overlooked by the “prog audience” at large. However, one half of the duo has serious prog credentials – being none other than Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet fame. The epitome of eclecticism, Ellett (one of the few professional musicians in the modern prog scene) is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and composer, involved in projects that go from movie scores to the hypnotic, Crimson-infused sound of Texas outfit Herd of Instinct. Though not as familiar to prog audiences, the duo’s other half, Todd Montgomery, has a 40-year-odd career as a musician under his belt, especially in the field of traditional music from the Old and the New World.
My first contact with Fernwood came a few years ago, when I was writing for another website, and often had to deal with music that did nothing for me (and that’s an understatement). When I received the duo’s second album, Sangita, right from the first listen it felt like a diamond lost in a sea of coarse glass. While the music – performed with an array of exotic, mostly wooden instruments with arcane names – was disqualified from being “rock” by a lack of drums, it possessed a beauty and elegance (not to mention a level of subtle, understated complexity) that are often missing in a lot (of conventional progressive rock. Now, better late than never (as the album was released in February, when I was dealing with some personal issues), Arcadia, Fernwood’s third recording effort has finally come under my scrutiny.
Packaged in pristinely beautiful nature photography, Arcadia is a concept album of sorts – its 11 tracks (all on the short side, the longest clocking in at under 5 minutes) representing stages of a journey in search of the titular Utopian paradise. Unlike in most of my reviews, there is very little point in a track-by-track analysis in the case of Arcadia, as the compositions form an organic whole, and the differences between them are a matter of subtle nuances. In fact, they can be seen as impressionistic sketches, in which the instruments are used like colours to create a warm, multi-hued palette celebrating the beauty of nature. Influences from a wide range of musical traditions (Celtic in “Vision at Vasquez Rocks”, Far Eastern in the rarefied “Winter Way”, to name but two) are brought to bear, each piece exploring a range of shifting moods in tune with the changing seasons. Here and there, touches of modern technology, such as brief but recognizable Mellotron washes, enhance the delightfully laid-back atmospheres.
Needless to say, Arcadia is not recommended to anyone looking for a true-blue prog album in the key of Ellett’s main gig, though it will appeal quite a lot to those who are on the lookout for interesting music on the fringes of the variegated prog sphere. Soothing and refreshing, and romantic in the original sense of the word, Arcadia is the perfect antidote to the frantic pace of modern life, and to the plasticky, disposable quality of most of what passes for music these days.