Fortress of the Sun

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The first thing a listener encounters on Arborea's Fortress of the Sun is the clarity of its sounds, all introduced separately and pristinely. On opener "Pale Horse," they slip from the silence to the center of a mix that wraps itself around Shanti Curran's nearly gossamer alto with requisite warmth and space. Buck Curran's electric slide and acoustic guitars, and his backing vocals, color Shanti’s airborne shimmer while Anders Griffen's spectral drumming roots it in the earth. While there is no question that Arborea's music is psychedelic folk, it offers none of the amateurish playing or songwriting that the genre distinction sometimes bears in the 21st century. These songs are composed with precise melodic ideas and produced with great care. There is a series of loosely knit themes at work here as well, centering on notions of travel -- across land, through history -- with the recurring image of a horse as the being that ties together earthly and spiritual dimensions. It’s the combination of musics woven so purposefully that sets Arborea apart from many of their peers. They use the frames of many roots traditions in a thoroughly modern context, from British, Celtic, and American folk music to country to neo-psych to near-Gothic (à la This Mortal Coil), yet strip out anything and everything that doesn’t suit their aesthetic, which, in sum, seems to be the sound of twilight itself. "Daughters of Man" uses a repetitive, hypnotic, droning strain of Appalachian folk music (the same way Bob Dylan did à la "Ballad of Hollis Brown") via Shanti's acoustic guitar and nocturnal, otherworldly singing that moves the tune over a border and closer to Pentangle, especially given the interplay of Buck's electric and e-bow guitars. The juxtaposition of these textures moves it into its own realm. Shanti's use of a muted, treated banjo and harmonium on "Ghost" surrounds her whispered lead vocals and seemingly wordless backing-vocal tapestry to create a blur of atmospheric richness and elegant spirit music: "I sigh and pull the veil and leave this place again/Divide the world/ Divide the world and see you fade into the mist…." On "Rider," the very next track, Buck's baritone intones through a mercurial folk blues, highlighted by Shanti's celestial backing vocal. On "When I Was on Horseback," Buck's modern guitars are tilted back in time by Shanti's hammered dulcimer. Here, Shirley & Dolly Collins, Pentangle, Davy Graham, and Martin & Jessica Ruby Simpson, breeze through one another as Arborea extends the reach and influence of each into the new century. Closer "Cherry Tree Carol" is a traditional number, thoroughly revisioned through the Curran's multivalent, gauzily textured gaze, as e-bow, banjo, acoustic guitars, and hammered dulcimer are answered by a droning viola from the ether. Fortress of the Sun, Arborea's debut on the revitalized ESP-Disk, brings all of the elemental gifts that graced their four previous albums in a dark, poetic, and glorious, whole.

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