In May it was announced that Avi Kaplan would be leaving the acclaimed a Capella group Pentatonix. Quoting the breakneck pace of his involvement with the quintet over the past few years for his departure, he has decided to move toward different musical avenues. The most prominent of those avenues in the present day is none other than a folk outfit named Avriel and the Sequoias. Yes, Avi Kaplan's full first name is "Avriel." And he loves sequoias. Who knew?
I'd never guessed that Kaplan had an interest in folk music before stumbling upon one of the music videos for his new group's EP. I don't know how much of a secret it really was, but it threw me a bit, and I was also surprised to hear that he played guitar for the group in addition to his leading vocals. Go Avi!
"Sage and Stone" was released on June 9th to iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and Google Play. It contains five songs, and its total duration is 21 minutes and 57 seconds. The extended play speaks well to its title and to the name of the group. "Sage and Stone" offers a breath of calm wind to the musical landscape. It feels green and calm, but there is also a hardiness to it, as well as a tension. Even as nature may be serene, it is always tinged with chaos and calamity. The workings of Mother Earth are like a bowed low-note on a cello, one might say. This EP has a few of those, I'll tell you.
The first song in the tracklist, "Fields and Pier," harkens to the legendary folk duo Simon and Garfunkel. It has an early-summer-at-evening feel, with rich, echoey vocals. The song makes great use of bowed instruments in pair with bright guitar plucking. While the lyrics lack storytelling power, the atmosphere of the track makes up for any literary holes. In some ways, the tune may have a story to itself, like the wordless orchestral pieces a few centuries gone. You can watch the official music video for "Fields and Pier" here if you would like to match some visual cues to the music.
"A Quarter Past Four" follows in the list, a darker, moodier appeal to the visceral senses. Here, Avi's mastery of an aged-oak timbre radiates through the trunk of the work, heightened bass notes rawer and purer than ever. As the song develops, piano joins with meandering guitar and a strange metallic hum; then it falls away, replaced with a backing vocal echo. It returns for a second pass before the tune begins to fade, washing out into a sky-like emptiness. The music video for the song is also quite good. You can watch it here.
The longest track on the EP, positioned in the middle of the play, shares its name with the album. Its fresh guitar strokes and drawn-out phrasing show a kinship to Hawaiian tradition, though the roots of the song rest firmly in contiguous land. The tune opens up in the middle. I can identify the violin, but the full complexity of the passage is beyond my skill to pull apart. A hearty bass thump and the jangle of brass permeate until all fades into two (or possibly a few) echoed voices.
"Song for the Seeker" offers a more Appalachian tone. Female voices back some of Kaplan's lines and repeat others. A banjo lends its distinctive sound to the ground level of the work, adding texture to the genteel, full vocals.
For a Mumford and Sons vibe, look no further than the EP's final track, "Sweet Adeline." The video for this song is so fun that I'm going to link to it up here instead of at the end of this paragraph. Complete with whistling, low-pitched utterances of "hey," and some clapping, the bouncy tune of upright bass, mandolin, two kinds of guitar, banjo, and more complements a pleading, energetic vocal backbone.
It's a bit of a pity that Kaplan is leaving Pentatonix, but if he's going to continue producing music similar to "Sage and Stone" with his new group, I think I'll be all right with it. This EP shows different sides to the bass than had ever been exposed, and there is a wonder to it that is lacking in much of the music of today. In fact, the intensity of these five tracks may be rare from any age. So what are you doing? Go. Buy it. Listen. Take it all in for just a moment.