In Brief: Travel is a set of beautifully composed, reverent reflections on how one man relates to, and is changed by, an infinite God.
I have a bone to pick with Eric Owyoung, lead singer/songwriter of the band Future of Forestry. And that bone has nothing to do with the quality of his band’s music. I’ve long been a fan of his songwriting ability and his ability to work as part of a musical collective that churns out some of the most beautiful and thoughtful music that could possibly be labeled as “Christian rock” in a day and age where that genre (especially as far as the sub-niche of “worship music” is concerned) is often regarded as lacking intelligence or creativity. Ever since the days of his previous band Something Like Silas, I knew the man had talent. But my complaint has to do with Eric’s new approach to making and releasing his music, because in both live concerts and videos posted to YouTube, he’s described the band’s latest effort, entitled Travel, as “the new Future of Forestry album”. And it only has 6 songs. See Eric, where I come from we call that sort of thing an EP. And we advertise it as such.
Now to be fair to Eric, what FoF truly has here is merely the first in a planned series of three discs containing songs loosely themed around the subject of travel and the spiritual analogies that spring to mind because of it, so it’s not like the band has skimped on material. 18 songs, given the occasionally drawn-out meditative lengths that FoF will sometimes extend them to, is understandably too much to fit on a single CD. Splitting it into two collections of 9 songs each and calling it a double album might still seem a bit deceptive. And if there was a natural dramatic break between each set of six songs, then I suppose it made sense for Credential Records to give Eric the freedom to package those sets of songs individually. Nobody’s being cheated here. It’s just annoying to think you’re looking forward to a full-length album and only get an appetizer of 6 songs. There aren’t any bad songs here. In fact, Travel might be the most consistent work that the band (either as FoF or as SLS) has put out yet. But come on people, let’s call it what it is! (At least it’s priced accordingly for the amount of material presented.)
So what’s Future of Forestry sound like these days? Well, if you’ve been drawn in by the band’s blend of arena-sized grandeur with delicate, snowy keyboards and nervous “indie rock-styled” guitar crescendoes before (or, having never heard the band, if you like the “huge climax” parts of Sigur Ros songs, and you can appreciate the devotional poetry of “indie Christian” acts such as Sleeping at Last or The Violet Burning), you’re not going to be shocked by anything that you hear on Travel. It’s a perfectly logical follow-up to their album Twilight, perhaps removing a bit of the rock factor (largely due to the departure of founding member Nick Maybury and, oh shoot, pretty much the entire band aside from Eric) and replacing it with a classical touch just to add to the majesty, but still recognizably big and yet intimate at the same time. Eric’s penchant for personal songs of reflection that say a lot with a few simple words is intact – you’ll hear no choruses that could easily translate to Sunday morning services, but there’s no denying the reverence for God expressed in each meditative piece. That’s the one significant difference between SLS and FoF, which perhaps justified the name change – the musical style is more or less the same, but SLS was a little bit more intentional about constructing artistically viable worship songs, while FoF’s music is an expression of worship that may sometimes choose to honor God by more implicitly exploring his presence in human relationships, or just the simple beauty of the world around us. At times the lyrics are more abstract – you see what you want to see, and it’s the surrounding context that points to the Creator. If the name of Jesus shows up in a song, that doesn’t guarantee it’s one of the “simple praise songs”. It’s more like a glimpse into someone’s personal prayer time, since a lot of the words Eric writes are little reminders to himself, an attempt to put the comforts and challenges that God has given to him into human language so that they may resonate with other humans.
Losing pretty much the entire band does seem to make this project more like Eric’s baby and Eric’s alone than anything a band he’s fronted has done in the past. While it was hard to hear that Nick had left and I was also disappointed when I saw them live recently and found out that drummer Spencer Kim was no longer hanging around (though some of his work was used on this recording), I think Eric’s done a pretty good job of finding day players who can replicate the sound established by the band so far. But a current band roster is nowhere to be found. I can live with that if the vision behind FoF’s music doesn’t change. If it ever starts to become just one guy and a guitar or piano, I can’t see that working as well beyond the occasional song that breaks from the norm. Future of Forestry is a wall-of-sound band, one that tries to go beyond a limited, personal worldview to capture a sense of God doing bigger things than what the human heart and mind can take in all at once. No musician can accurately represent the infinite on a recording of finite length and volume. But Eric Owyoung and whatever players happen to surround him at the time are admirably determined to give it their best effort anyway.
1. Traveler’s Song
Wait, stay here and have a drink of time
A drink of time
Wait, before you split yourself in two
There’s time for you…
It’s intentional that the project starts with its theme song, since it’s really this theme song that birthed the entire Travel project in Eric’s mind. I’d describe it as a “cautiously upbeat” track, not really a rocker but definitely more up-tempo than most of the songs which follow it. Simple, harmonic notes from the electric guitar are the song’s identifying mark in place of the expected riff or strum pattern. The song floats through with its bells and wispy guitar playing more than it hits with a solid hook – the chorus is catchy enough with its invitation of “If you travel here, you will feel it all, the brightest and the darkest”, but it’s an invocation more so than a central thesis. Insistent drums provide a rhythmic backbone throughout the whole thing – perhaps it’s a bit too insistent about always accentuating one particular beat with the cymbals, but that’s a minor gripe. I’ll save the major griping for one of my fellow reviewers over at the Jesus Freak Hideout, who upon hearing Travel, declared this song to be the simplest and therefore the best. This is a nice song and all, but I must say I’m extremely disappointed at “Christian rock” fans who balk at any measure of musical complexity. Really, the band’s just getting warmed up here.
2. This Hour
This is the life, your soul is just what they seek
You feel the clash, but you scarcely can see
Love is alive, and is pouring down like a flood
I know you’d step back and see if you could…
If you’re looking for a big rocker on this record, this is about the closest you’re gonna get – the melodic force of it certainly resembles “All I Want”, which was a standout on Twilight, while the rambling drums are reminiscent of that same album’s “Open Wide”. But the swooping strings and the cascading piano and glockenspiel give it an identity all its own. One might take the simple chorus which urges us to “Sing out, sing out and let it go” for your usual “worship song fare”, but this really a song about bravery and taking hold of one’s God-given purpose, more so than just a pretty worship song about singing pretty worship songs. If Christian radio still cared about creative bands, this would be the most likely candidate for a single from Travel. But, as I’m sure you’re heard me say about a million times before, I won’t hold my breath on that one.
3. Colors in Array
Today is more than me
The disarray of things that I can only hold or see
For today you shine your light
What you say that’s more than words is spoken in your eyes…
Here’s where we really start getting into the heavy duty stuff. If the high-pitched, electronically manipulated vocal effects don’t remind you of Sigur Ros, then well, you’ve probably never listened to Sigur Ros. (And for a band I thought was reasonably obscure when I discovered them, they sure seem to have influenced a lot of “slow burn” type indie rock bands over the course of the last decade. So you’ve heard them even if you haven’t heard them.) Take the usual “frosty majesty” of that aforementioned Icelandic band and match it up with more of an immediate, drum-march sort of feel, and add some uncharacteristically forceful falsetto vocals, and you’ll get this song’s grand entrance. Eric’s clearly trying to thing outside of the usual verse/chorus box here – there’s a definite structure to it, but the verses are really the hook that hits hard, with the chorus being much more peaceful and meditative, an antidote to the chaos. It’s when the lyrics fall away completely and the band goes into full-on crescendo mode, cymbals crashing and guitars and bells clanging away, that the song really shines. It’s all been building up to an elated outpouring of sound that says what Eric knows his words are inadequate to communicate. It’s a song of gratitude to a God who builds order from out of disarray. They might veer a little too close to the exact sound of their Icelandic musical mentors with the extremely Christmas-y outro, but it’s beautiful enough to be easily forgivable.
4. Close Your Eyes
The house sits stale, it lets you roam
Inside it just don’t feel like home now
I promise hope will pull you out
For that’s what love is all about…
While Future of Forestry has a clear love for walls of sound, two of the brightest musical moments on Twilight were actually its acoustic tracks, the quietly comforting “Speak to Me Gently” and the unabashedly romantic “If You Find Her”. This track feels like a synthesis of the two – strings may swell up in the background and there may be other little bits of ambiance there, but it’s mostly Eric deftly picking away at a six-string and singing a peaceful song of a formerly stagnant life being reborn. It feels like an intensely personal revelation gave life to this song – the words are sparse but descriptive, painting images of a lonely house being reimagined as a place of healing and solitude. In terms of “religious content”, it’s the most explicit track on the album, being fully comfortable in its statement that “A man you call Jesus was still a son like you”, but it’s clearly not a praise chorus or a name-drop for the sake of pleasing a crowd. Just a simple instance of faith informing an artist’s approach to describing real life events.
5. Closer to Me
I wish I could feel just the warmth of your breath
Around me as I lie on my bed
I wish I could taste of your sweet ruby wine
As you lift me to heaven, to the place where we shine…
There’s something so beautiful about the immediacy of this song’s intimate expression that it’s hard to put into words. It’s really a simple slow dance, with the clean electric guitar echoing off into the quiet air at first, then later joined by gentle drum rolls and an accordion, of all things, giving it a waltz-like feel. Love songs written to God are a tricky prospect in music – because of our tendency to idolize romantic relationships, such songs often come across sounding oddly sensual, if not wholly unrelatable for male listeners hearing a male singer singing words of undying devotion to a God usually described as having male characteristics. For me, this song bypasses all of those problems, choosing its descriptive terms with passionate precision while not beating us over the head with raw sentimentality. The words used hint at a connection deeper than one two humans could experience, perhaps taking subtle inspiration from the Song of Solomon and from that U2 song everybody knows about having found God but still looking for God all the same. That’s the paradox of the honest Christian – you know enough about who God is to know that your five sense generally aren’t going to allow to you feel or see or taste God. Maybe that’s just the way things have to be while we’re still mortal. But that longing is a very real thing which is difficult to capture using the English language, and Eric has done a stunning job with his best attempt at it here.
Hearts unfold before you
In the light of the sun
Fill the sky, Adonai…
Another musical inspiration that came to mind while listening to “Colors in Array” was the band Sleeping at Last, but it’s here where that influence really comes into play. While the whole “music box” angle doesn’t strike me as something that band would do, the drums have that same “entering into a royal presence” sort of feel – compare this one side by side with SAL’s “Hold Still” and tell me you can’t hear the striking resemblance. Here, Eric seems to be drawing upon ancient texts, using the Hebrew word “Adonai” (which simply means “my Lord”) as a term of affection and reverence for God, and there’s really not much else to the words other than a simple bit of reflection on how God inhabits the universe and everything within it. The stark, drawn-out chorus of “Halle, Halleluiah” (yeah, no idea why he used an alternate spelling there) is really the centerpiece, and as this six-minute epic draws to a close, the thrashing of the drums and the wailing of the theremin get louder and more intense. It’s definitely got the feeling of sitting on the edge of something eternal, something inconceviable, and looking over into that abyss to ponder one’s own comparative smallness. The melody warps into something more dramatic – perhaps the one point where Future of Forestry might plunge into a bit of musical overindulgence – right at the end, before its spacy sounds fade away on an unresolved note, leaving the first act of this three-act play to end on a question mark.
So now we’ve explored the far reaches of the sky and found just a corner of a fraction of who God is. We’ve had that experience of holy fear and trembling. But how does it change us? Where will this supernatural force take us next? These are issues that presumably will be answered on Travel II and Travel III, which are due out in September 2009 and January 2010, respectively. I have the strong feeling that I’ll need to hear those other two pieces to fully appreciate this one, so for now, not knowing how complete the different phases of this project will sound when put together, I’m gonna have to go with a four-star rating. It’s an enthusiastic but cautious way of grading the album – they’re off to a solid start but they’ve only grown the Future of Forestry sound by a matter of small degrees. Due to the established theme, I’m sort of expecting the next two discs to go down some roads less traveled, in order to make them distinct (otherwise, I’ll have to call into question the reason for dividing the songs up into such small morsels in the first place). But even when taken alone Travel is great music, made by a talented band from whom I expect nothing less.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Traveler’s Song $1
This Hour $1.50
Colors in Array $2
Close Your Eyes $1.50
Closer to Me $2
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.