||Native American (Mi'kmaq/Cree) flutist Gareth (Laffely) is only 17 years old yet this is his third recording. By any measurement, that is an impressive feat. According to his website bio, he views his music as a way to positively impact the world, e.g. one of his songs was written by him to be used as part of an anti-bullying campaign that he brings to K-12 schools. Clearly, he is a mature individual from both a musical standpoint as well as a human being perspective. As it so happens, his music is as good as his intentions.
Sky Before A Storm represents Native flute fusion music in not just the standard fashion, i.e. with typical new age-ish accompaniment and emphasizing the haunting beauty and flowing serenity of the lead instrument (although some of that is here too). Instead, Gareth mixes things up on some tracks by incorporating folk, folk rock, and even overt rock influences. The only other Native artist I can recall doing the latter is Douglas Blue Feather whose collaboration with guitarist Danny Voris, Rollin' Like Thunder, likewise interjected electric guitar and rock drum/bass rhythms to create a powerful flute fusion subgenre. While Gareth's rock influences don't always reach Blue Feather's intensity, there is plenty of them to be heard here. There is a solid assortment of styles, though, on this mega-EP (29 minutes long), from sedate pieces to all- out rockers.
Twelve guest artists appear on various tracks, most notably Grammy-winning pianist Laura Sullivan on "Regen's Song" (a song which seems to be getting a lot of recognition, either in part due to her appearance or that the track is a tribute to a 12-year old cancer patient who lost his battle on Christmas day in 2013). Other players contribute on piano, drums, guitar, bass, percussion, and cello. All the accompanists featured do a fine job and whether the track is a soft number, e.g. "Regen's Song" or a full-tilt rocker ("Spirit Horse"), Gareth's lead melodies are always enhanced by their participation.
Gareth's flute playing displays his talent for coaxing all manner of styles from his instrument, whether weaving a delicate mournful melody or generating dramatic soaring solos. On "Regen's Song," flute and piano intertwine gracefully, each playing off the other with sublime beauty and restraint, and not succumbing to melodrama or over-the-top pathos (given the inspiration for the song, it could certainly have occurred). "Steal the Moon" is another soft piece with an emphasis on Gareth's lyrical flute leads over a piano accompaniment and gentle drum rhythms. When I describe this as "soft" it's not ambient-ish or new agey, since there is enough of a drumbeat to gently ease the music into a mild folk-rock vein. However, the core of the piece is still more or less serene. The aforementioned "Spirit Horse" is a tear-the-roof-off rocker, and it does indeed rock the house. At its peak intensity, I think the tune overreaches a bit with the power chords not quite finding a level of comfort with Gareth's flute, but I give the musicians an "A" for effort on even venturing into this territory. It just may not be my cup of tea (I had the same problem with the Douglas Blue Feather release, too).
Opening with Gareth's narration detailing the plight of the Native people's during their forced migration to reservations in 1830, "The Journey" is a heartfelt somber song, on which flute is accompanied by two acoustic guitars, one laying down a steady backing refrain and the other adding some melancholy strummed chords. There is a faint hint of both blues and western influence which melds tastefully with the Native flute. "Miles Together" blends acoustic guitar and piano with flute and the mid-tempo piece captures the titular image of traveling down the road, injected with a subtle sense of sadness. "Flight of the Thunderbird" returns the music to a rocking sensibility (which one might guess from the title). Trap kit drums pound out a solid rhythm, joined by guitars (acoustic and electric) and over it all Gareth's flute dipping and soaring. Things ramp up as the song progresses, stopping just a little short of the power and energy heard on "Spirit Horse." "Flutitude" doesn't waste any time ramping up, though, as it bursts out of the gate at full speed amidst furious drums, chugging organ and some amazing flute runs by Gareth. Of the energetic tracks on the EP, this is my favorite, as just the right balance between power and finesse is struck. I'm still not a huge fan of this approach to Native flute fusion, but I have to admit that this song gets into my bloodstream moreso than the others (the organ riffs help a lot, although the instrument is, oddly, not credited in the liner notes). By the end of the song, these cats are really flying! Concluding the recording, the title track is a gently flowing, plaintive affair, with flute, piano and orchestral strings. Genuinely stirring, the romanticism of the melody is emphasized by a brief vocal section sung by Gareth which speaks of a lover who was taken from him (a drowning accident perhaps?). He has a good voice and I wouldn't have minded more singing from him (maybe on a future release?).
Sky Before A Storm bodes well for this young (in years), accomplished and talented relative newcomer. According to his website bio, he has already garnered some considerable praise and recognition and this album indicates it is no fluke and is, instead, well-deserved. Gareth is obviously a musician to keep an eye and ear on as he continues to grow as an artist. He has already shown that his heart is in the right place, that's for sure.