Advent is a holiday album released by the group Erwilian, an ensemble that I regret to say I am almost entirely unfamiliar with (I regret it because based on Advent I would enjoy their music, I imagine). Advent, however, is not your typical holiday recording, at least I suspect it will not be for most American listeners. While the maxi-EP (six tracks, about thirty minutes of music) only contains one original (by group member and acoustic guitarist Scott Melton), of the other five traditional carols, only one was familiar to me, "Carol of the Bells." The others are, I would guess, better known in Europe, and specifically, France, England or the UK. That statement has literally nothing to do with the quality of the music on the EP, or the artistry of the performances of the band members. It is merely a relative statement of the carols' "familiarity" to me, and I would imagine, the average casual holiday music lover.
Erwilian's members are the aforementioned Scott Melton (acoustic guitar, mountain dulcimer), Jordan Buetow (harmonium, percussion, soprano recorder, hammered dulcimer), Matt Garcia (harp, bass), John Hintze (celesta, drums, percussion, hand bells), Malcolm Lee (bass), Bethel Melton (hammered dulcimer, chimes), and Keely Rendle (violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar). You can judge (I hope) by the instruments, that Erwilian's sound evokes a bygone era in English folk music, and a most ear-pleasing era it is. I've always been a fan of both the recorder and the hammered dulcimer, and the musicians who play these do so with uncommon talent. All of the artists contribute mightily to the overall "whole" of the recording and the production quality (engineering, mixing, and mastering) is flawless.
Let me start out with the one carol I am familiar with, "Carol of the Bells," which gets a fantastic interpretation, featuring no less than THREE hammered dulcimers playing the lead melody. This has always been one of my seasonal favorites and Erwilian does right by it, infusing it with the right mixture of haunting beauty and jaunty energy. The hand bells are the perfect touch as well. By the end of the track, the energy level and drama have ramped up before coming to a wonderful fade out. "Wexford" kicks off the EP with the droning harmonium counterbalanced by twinkling celesta notes and the main melody on violin. The mood at the outset is pastoral, evoking a gentle snowfall over rolling hills, switching to an uptempo cheeriness enhanced by hand percussion and hammered dulcimer. Simply delightful! Recorder also contributes to a truly festive musical atmosphere later in the song, and one can envision the countryfolk dancing in joyous celebration. "Whiteout," the original composition by band member Scott Melton, reminds me of any number of midtempo tunes by the duo Tingstad and Rumbel, owing to the fact that it features acoustic guitar and recorder (although, technically, Nancy Rumbel plays the ocarina, but the similarity is still there to my ears). Gently rollicking, the main melody is also covered by violin, the music should elevate the listener's mood nicely – it does mine.
The next two tracks have their origins in France, I believe. "Animaux: La Crèche" (here translated as The Friendly Beasts but I think it can be loosely interpreted as the animals which appeared at the Nativity, and "Animaux: La Faune" (which, per Google translate, means "wildlife animals." Both are listed as traditional and the latter is noted as a Burgundian carol. "Animaux: La Crèche" is a lovely slow tempo carol, featuring guitar, celesta, dulcimer, and recorder, and I could picture the various animals (frequently featured in paintings of the Nativity) at rest beside the manger. "Animaux: La Faune" immediately elevates the energy level of the melody and rhythm, making it easy to see how the two carols diverge, i.e. "friendly beasts" compared to their "wilder" counterparts. This song sounds like an English folk dance melody (as do some of the other here). Lively and spirited, but also possessed of a haunting mood at times.
The EP concludes with "Nova" which per the liner notes is "Westminster Quarters (Traditional)." The opening bells (sounding like church bells) obviously convey a joyous holiday spirit, as does the hammered dulcimer. The mood here is the most celebratory of all the tracks, with a more pronounced underlying rhythm and a "kick up your heels and let your hair hang down" feeling of joyfulness. It's great ending piece.
Advent may not be your typical American collection of holiday music, but I recommend you expand your musical horizons and give it a virtual spin. If you entertain family or friends, I have to think this would make great music for the gathering as it paints an appropriate festive mood but does so in unexpected ways when compared to the usual fare.
Advent and other Erwilian albums are available from CDBaby, Amazon, and iTunes.