The Hidden Land, the first album of new material recorded in the wake of a year off the road, is the logical extension of the Flecktones' recent activities. It makes sense to go back to the basics and start afresh. Also, after the eclectic complexity and artful ambitions that produced the last Bela Fleck/Flecktones album (the three-CD set Little Worlds), there may have been little further afield to go, given the way the group married production and musicianship lavishly and intricately, retaining spontaneity at the heart of improvisation.
The Hidden Land opens with the band rendering two Bach pieces almost as if to warm up, which makes sense as this somewhat studied combination gives way to the more free-flowing likes of "P'lod in the House. Radiating the joy of collaboration, each of the four musicians is in perpetual motion, yet the music doesn't sound busy or flashy. In a more subdued vein, "Rococo finds Bela and the 'Tones waxing and waning respectively, their interaction delicate but authoritative.
Jeff Coffin's flute work recalls the warm whimsy of the earliest Flecktones material (prior to his joining the group upon the departure of Howard Levy). While that atmosphere wasn't necessarily the target of the sessions that produced this CD, it's a natural and welcome byproduct nonetheless. The beauty of Fleck's production of The Hidden Land is that it captures the timbres of the instruments accurately through the expert recording and mixing by Richard and Robert Battaglia. As the group escalates to high gear on "Labyrinth, the welcome simplicity of Victor Wooten's bass supplies gravity, as does Futureman's kick drum, alternating with his brushes.
Bela Fleck often belies his roots in bluegrass (as through the New Grass Revival), particularly when his banjo so closely approximates the sound of an electric guitar, as it does on "Kaleidoscope. Yet the quick circular turns he navigates with the Flecktones recall his sources, at the same time rendering distinctive the sound of this band. The Celtic motif that ran through the previous album may be gone, and though no guests appear on the new album, the same integrity that earmarked Little Worlds, with its host of outsiders, remains intact here. "Who's Got Three? proceeds as if a natural outgrowth of Fleck & 'Tones instrumental chemistry, while "Weed Whacker will again bring to mind the refreshing simplicity of their earliest projects together. You might criticize the group for not breaking any new ground here, but reinventing themselves is not the point here, reinvigorating themselves is.
Hearing the band proceed through the deconstruction and reassembly of the evocative "Misunderstood," it's hard not to hope that the down-to-earth approach which distinguishes The Hidden Land carries over when the group returns to live performance later this year. This group is often plagued by an impersonal distance on stage. However, this newest studio effort finds Bela Fleck and the Flecktones radiating a warm rapport that in turn generates music which is eminently accessible on its surface and endlessly fascinating below.
Track Listing: Fugue from Prelude & Fugue No. 20 in A-Minor, BWV; P'lod In The House; Rococo;
Labyrinth; Kaleidoscope; Who
Personnel: Bela Fleck: acoustic and electric banjos, Bantar; Victor Wooten: four-string electric bass and
five-string fretless bass; Jeff Coffin: sax,flute, whistles and keyboards; Futureman: Synth-
drumitar; acoustic drums; Zendrum, vocals and throat-singing.
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