Ávalon - Beltaine
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cd cover It took a few listenings for me to warm to this second recording from Galician female quintet Ávalon; it doesn't sound like much anything else I've heard, and resists facile categorization. Beltaine contraposes traditional sounds to contemporary, vocal tracks to instrumental. At first, even the production seemed aggressively elaborate, but soon came to make sense and seem natural: how else could these songs possibly sound?

The first two tracks, "Xira o Mundo" and "Arieñium," are interleaved, so that the percussive instrumental retreat of the former repeatedly returns to interrupt the arrival of the vocal-dominated latter, as if hesitant to yield the field. "Xira o Mundo" has a gentle smiling beat, and is reminiscent of Enya's more atmospheric outings, with synthesized drones and boinks, looped percussion, but with differences: Patricia Hermida's vocal has a happy astringency, penetrating even deep reverb and doubling, and Xela Conde's lilting flute figure keeps the atmosphere light. "Arieñium" couldn't be more different, with quick percussion, featuring Belén Leis' ringing tablas, strummed oud-like guitar in the background, stuttered vocal sampling punctuating lively ensemble singing sounding as Balkan as Galician, at times artificially compressed, reminding me of San Francisco's D'Cückoo.

The pretty Sephardic instrumental "Velo de Maya" begins with fragile flute over street sounds, gathers Marta Barrecheguren's violin both bowed on melody and plucked for chords, and exits on simple booming percussion and cello. "¿Cómo Quieres ...?", one of the high-points of the album, begins with staccato finger-picked electro-acoustic guitar and ringing hand percussion, Hermida's high, exultant lead vocal in call-response with chorus, flute and violin collaborating on a lilting break-figure, Macarena Montesinos' throbbing cello adding drive and depth. And Ávalon sure knows how to end a song!

"Espello" is the first of two exciting tracks, group unison vocals on verse, harmonies on refrain, all to a galloping beat driven both by drum and vocal percussion. "Muñeira de Fermín" raises the ante, quick bagpipe and fiddle figure introducing driving percussion, with Hermida's vocal cruising nasally above, interspersed with whispered breaks, exiting on maracas, drums, and spoken lyrics. These tracks alternate with two lovely instrumentals: "Area," plucked violin and bowed cello backing a lovely, emotional whistle melody so Celtic it could be Scottish, so intuitive you'll swear you heard it in a dream last night; and the title track, slow and ruminative, featuring cello and moody keyboards.

Beltaine is well worth the effort of familiarization and appreciation, an original and enjoyable melding of Galician tradition and contemporary influences. - Jim Foley

The band's web site: www.avalon-folk.com

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