Arborea: Fortress of the Sun
The fifth full-length from Arborea duo Shanti and Buck Curran won't disappoint fans of long-standing and offers an accessible entry-point for those coming to the group's timeless, Appalachian folk-inflected sound for the first time. That's especially the case when Fortress of the Sun doesn't depart dramatically from the seductive mysticism the duo has refined over the course of the group's existence and when it's largely a pure Arborea product in being almost exclusively created by the Maine-based partners. As always, Shanti's haunting voice is front-and-center and heard against a luscious instrumental tapestry the duo weaves from banjo, guitars, harmonium, ukulele, hammered dulcimer, and flute. Buck contributes vocally, too, most often as background harmony but also as a lead (“Rider”).
Quintessential Arborea, “Pale Horse Phantasm” entrances with the sound of Shanti's delicately wrought title utterance backed by a lilting array of acoustic and electric guitars. It's as haunting an incantation as any the group has created (especially when augmented by the cry of Buck's slide work) and inaugurates the album in fine style. Similar in tone is “After the Flood Only Love Remains,” which also serves as a powerful showcase for Shanti's vocal gifts and Buck's guitar playing. Their penchant for crafting timeless folk songs comes through in “Daughters of Man,” which plays like a revolutionary vocal ballad that could have been written in 1860 just as much as today (“Daughters of man / Gather your seeds / Take to the land / Cast out your hands”), and in “Rider,” whose ambiguous lyrics might as easily refer to an escaped convict as a freed horse (“Run like the devil with no race to win”). Based on the life-and-death saga of Civil War Cavalry Commander J.E.B. Stuart, “When I Was on Horseback” is haunting, too, notwithstanding the fact that its traditional melody evokes “Scarborough Fair” so vividly. Two solo turns arise midway through the album: accompanying whispered spoken word with banjo, harmonium, and spectral vocalizing, “Ghost” finds Shanti acting the shaman and channeling the spirit world, whereas the recording's lone instrumental, the brief “Rua das Aldas,” features Buck adding flute tones to acoustic guitar playing.
Fortress of the Sun is, admittedly, modest in length: the vinyl version of the album includes only thirty-six minutes of new music, whereas the CD version is longer for including alternate mixes of three songs; for the record, though, those alternate mixes are hidden tracks that aren't listed on the CD and thus are not official bonus tracks. Regardless, Fortress of the Sun remains pure Arborea and as such offers more than its share of spellbinding moments.