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  • Jonathan Widran

ERWILIAN, Cascadia (Live)

Even now, four years since the pandemic took over the world and sparked our collective anxieties, there are still inspiring musical projects being released that would never have existed without the lockdowns and actively recording and touring musicians being kept from doing what they do best for months and even years.

In the new age/global music realm, there’s no better example of this than the stunning Cascadia (Live), a wildly melodic, joyfully rhythmic and soul transcendent concert recording by Erwilian - a #1 Billboard charting Pacific Northwest based Celtic, world and folk influenced seven-piece ensemble of skilled multi-instrumentalists whose array of exotic instruments speaks to their nearly quarter century of studio and live concert innovation and adventure. Complementing traditional instruments (acoustic guitar, bass, drums, percussion, piano), their pieces include hammered dulcimer, harmonium, celesta, violin, handbells, Cajon, Glockenspiel, bowed marimbaphone, soprano recorder, harp, whistle and bouzouki.

When Erwilian performed the concert in Seattle in December 2019, their intention, as per tradition, was to record the show for their own consumption and critique. They had no intention to ever release commercially, but when they revisited it nearly a year later in the midst of lockdown, they were more impacted than they expected, a feeling enhanced by the reality that they had no idea when they might have the chance to perform again. They decided to collect the best eight pieces to create a 50 minute “best of” recording, then during the mix cut the hypnotic ambient two-minute intro from “Fantasy and Dance” to create a short standalone piece titled “Cascadia.”

Although the concert was performed during the last pre-pandemic holiday season and has several pieces connected to the Christ birth narrative - including the whimsically galloping closing adaptation of “Masters in the Hall,” recorded on Mannheim Steamroller’s 2007 album Christmas Song -  group member Jordan Buetow is adamant that Cascadia is not a Christmas album but a celebration in part of timeless themes presented in their clever interpretations of pieces associated with the sacred texts.

Erwilian’s sweeping presentation of David Davidson’s “Fantasy and Dance” as the first major piece at the start of the show is a means to understanding the religious themed selections as part of a larger context that’s not limited to a single season. Starting with a swirl of a lush, dreamy caress around Keely Rendle’s gorgeous violin melody and then evolving into a high energy percussive dance, the band expands beyond the song’s traditional Celtic instrumentation with Scott Melton’s bouzouki, marimbaphone and verrilion handbells. The piece was also a catalyst for Erwilian+, the band’s supporting ensemble featuring additional strings, percussion and acoustic instruments.

For all the bold fusion of instruments throughout, one of the most emotionally impactful pieces is another from outside the sacred realm, “The Lark Ascending – Excerpts,” featuring elements of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ haunting The Lark Ascending. Performed midway through the concert and designed to bridge the album’s two thematic halves, it’s a gorgeous, contemplative, otherworldly (and often improvisational) duet by Rendle on violin and John Hintze on piano. It’s followed by the collection’s final secular piece, a mystical, slowly building, harp, hammerd dulcimer and violin driven original (ultimately incorporating over 300 strings!) titled “Átta Fossar.” It’s a fanciful, impressionistic tribute to the majestic landscape of Iceland, which includes hundreds of waterfalls that connect in a continuous flow from the heart of the island to the ocean. The composition reflects on the relatively peaceful trickles, followed by the explosive, often unexpected burst of nature’s great chaos as the water makes its way.

The first of the religious-themed pieces is a two movement, nearly eight minute suite titled “Animaux,” a gently lyrical, soprano recorder threaded medley of two French carols filled with animated animal themes, paired with the original composition “La Forêt Chante (‘The Forest Sings’).” Its whimsical, innocent charms emerge from the legend of animals that surrounded Christ’s manger and the good news traveling from the stable, through the increasingly jubilant streets of Jerusalem and then across the wilderness.

The spirited, loping, soprano recorder and hammered dulcimer dominated follow-up piece "Angelía" is a musical retelling of another key part of the Nativity, the annunciation of Gabriel to Mary as depicted in Luke 1:26-28. The increasingly percussive composition incorporates three classic compositions centered on this theme, the most familiar of which is the Basque carol known in English as “Gabriel’s Message.” Another gem in Erwilian’s “Christ canon” on Cascadia is the sweet, graceful and expansive “Wandering,” a contemporary extrapolation on the 1930s originated Christian folk hymn “I Wonder as I Wander,” which begins with a soprano recorder melody buffeted by orchestral strings before incorporating an intoxicating violin solo and picking up later energy exploring the percussive possibilities of the recorder.

Though it all seems perfectly and precisely composed and performed, Erwilian’s composition process incorporates quite a bit of improvisation based on each member’s individual history, interests and artistry. As entertaining and exhilarating as their concerts are, they often use them as incubators for new arrangements and melodic/harmonic/percussive ideas. A perfect example of this on Cascadia is the debut of “Minuit,” a slow building, nearly ten minute ballad they had been working on throughout 2018-19. Though as originally orchestrated, the piece was always designed to feature the Rendle’s violin and Hintze’s piano, the two brought a surreal dramatic power and energy to their performance that took the composition to the next level – and led to later performances incorporating this unexpected, spontaneous fire.

If you’ve never heard Erwilian before, Cascadia (Live) – their first recording since their #1 2019 EP Advent – is the perfect way to experience their fascinating fusion and the emotional journeys they take their audiences on. In case you were wondering, Cascadia is the name of the region they all live in. As Buetow says, “We decided to name the album Cascadia not only because we’re inspired every day by the staggering natural beauty of our home, but because the album was performed, recorded, mixed and mastered here. It was a fitting homage.”


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