If it wasn’t for Martin Mull’s 1970s TV series, Fernwood T2 Night, the name Fernwood would more instantly conjure up pastoral images of a backwoods town from a time gone by. The band called Fernwood does that, only their backwoods could be in Bangalore, Senegal or in the Appalachian hills. It’s not that the music sounds antiquated. It sounds completely out of phase, flowing in it’s own timeline, creating a global music that could only come from a 21st century imagination.
Gayle Ellett is one half of Fernwood. I’ve been following a progressive rock band out of California called Djam Karet for about 30 years now and Ellett is one of their founding members. But when he isn’t burning up the fretboard in strange time signatures, he unplugs and plays an acoustic brand of music that seems to emerge from the Appalachian Hills, Tuscan orchards and Irish moors. Todd Montgomery is the other half of Fernwood. He’s a sitarist and that brought him to all kinds of stringed instruments like the dilruba, bouzouki and mandolin. They bring all these instruments and more together in their band, Fernwood. Their second album, Sangita was an Echoes CD of the Month five years ago and now they have new album, Arcadia that continues their global chamber fusion. Ellett and Montgomery orchestrate 25 or so acoustic stringed instruments drawn from ancient cultures. Greek and Irish bouzouki, sitar, dilruba, quirquincho, Chinese ruan, Turkish cumbus, Moroccan oud, harmonium, gimbri, rababa, bulbul tarang, jal tarang, dotara, surmandal, tambura, manjira, tumbi, bugchu, gopich are some of their more exotic instruments.
With that instrumental array, you can expect a rainbow of different timbral hues from Fernwood and they deliver on their third album, Arcadia, where the colors shift like a kaleidoscope on speed. They don’t just change modes from song to song, they alter them from bar to bar within each piece. On “Bells Spring,” they take you from Appalachian Hills to a Venetian gondola to an Indian temple – all in about 30 seconds. That might sound like a whiplash change, but Fernwood weaves these styles together seamlessly and serenely, playing as a unified global chamber group more than a cobbled together smorgasbord.
On their first two CDs, Almeria and Sangita, their sound was centered on Americana motifs and moods. With Arcadia, that element is still there, but the focus is on a world music sound that’s often hard to pin down, but is mostly drawn from eastern modalities. On “Red Hill Trail,” dilruba, guitar and sitar sit on a backwoods porch like they were always played together, a Deliverance duel of the east-west imagination; a sound steeped in traditions dating back centuries.
Fernwood aren’t world music purists. In fact, “purists” is something of a non sequitur in this context given that they’re already mixing cultures and instruments. They’ve got Moogs, mellotrons and electric guitar in the mix as well. Those electronic sounds are used sparingly, as a brush-stroked shading, like the mellotron strings that emerge for just a moment on “The Lost Night,” or the synth drone that creates a moment of tension on “Winter Way.”
On Fernwood’s website, they say that the title Arcadia is loosely based on a narrative that suggests an endless search for an unspoiled wilderness of great beauty, a utopian paradise. I think their sound more closely aligns with the original Arcadia in Greece: an isolated region in the middle of the country where ancient Greek culture was reputedly maintained during the Dark Ages. Like Arcadia, Fernwood is preserving an ancient sound; but they’re accomplishing that by making it new, even a bit surreal, with a sound that could only be made in the 21st century of musical globalism.