The contemporary folk group Erwilian uses this project to transform traditional spirituals and praise music into something more universal, taking away the specifics that comes with attaching lyrics. The results are stunning, as refined as they are inspirational, as approachable as they are inclusive.
Light from Darkness begins with a quiet devotional, as Jordan Buetow uses only soprano and alto recorders to shape “Adoramus,” a reworking of Palestrina’s devotional “Adorarum Te, Christe” – which is recited during the Stations of the Cross ceremonies of Holy Week. That leads to this touching, full-band rendition of “St. Brendan’s,” a favorite of the so called folk-mass movement of the 1960s and ’70s written by Peter Scholtes. Buetow remains on soprano recorder. He’s joined here by Bill Bowser and Scott Melton on guitars, Bethel Melton on hammered dulcimer, and Jeff Reed on drums. Buetow’s tandem work on melodica and harp only add to the song’s pastoral joy.
“Resignation,” a melodic interpretation of the 23rd Psalm, soars with a simple, resilient beauty as Buetow and Bowser’s instruments intertwine. Reed’s layered rhythmic work subsequently moves to the fore during “Angus Dei,” an English medieval carol. Buetow’s soprano recorder sets a chipper atmosphere, before his tandem dulcimer work with Bethel Melton then pushes the track into a handsome new stoicism. “He Leadeth Me,” the 1860-era William Bradbury composition, finds Scott Melton and Bowser performing together on an acoustic intro for “Follower” – based in part on another Bradbury work. Buetow adds a tenor whistle and celesta to his familiar recorder sound here, giving the song a sense of child-like wonder. An insistent stringed accompaniment propels the track toward this ringing conclusion.
“Radiance” combines the theme from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with a new composition from Buetow and Scott Melton, imbuing the familiar theme with a Celtic fervor – thanks, in no small way, to Melton’s animated turn on the violin. This complex and delightful tune is made complete by hammered dulcimers, a Bodhran, and percussive elements made from found objects. Buetow then pairs with Kathy Spampinato’s darkly expressive cello for “Atta Fossar,” before Erwilian moves deeper into a thankful reminiscence on “Ex Tenebris.” Bowser’s acoustic guitar creates a thoughtful space for Buetow’s turns on alto recorder and then, in a moment of happy briskness, the xylophone.
The hushed “Williams” blends songs composed by a pair of famous Williamses – Ralph Vaughn (1906’s “Kingsfold”) and Thomas John (1890’s Welsh folk tune “Ebenezer”) – to create something entirely new and enchanting. The first is, of course, best remembered as “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem,” while the latter became more widely known as “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.” By combining the two, Erwilian creates never-before-heard connections – and both are born anew. A stirring acoustic interlude from Bill Bowser, called “Vision,” leads then to “Gehalgian.” Merging John Dykes’ memorable 1861 theme for “Holy, Holy, Holy” with a newer song by Robin Mark from the mid-1990s called “Jesus, All for Jesus,” the track has a meaningful, episodic sweep. Bowser makes an initial statement on guitar, then the track shifts into a rumbling, multi-faceted segment before finally shooting toward its heart-filling, anthematic conclusion. There isn’t, on this album, any greater argument for Erwilian’s canny ability to blend styles and sounds – and eras of music. Everything comes together for the band, right then, in this triumphal moment of song.
They conclude Light from Darkness with a return to happy quietude, as “Vespers” melds two 1800s compositions by John Zundel and Simeon B. Marsh. Titled after the Latin word for “evening,” the song makes for a perfectly conceived closing statement, one of reverence and of peace.