In Brief: An expectation-surpassing follow-up to the first Travel disc. This could be “Album of the Year” material if the third installment wasn’t due out in 2010.
Future of Forestry is one of those bands that frustrates me in the way that I most enjoy being frustrated. It seems that the band’s music only gets better with time – one can trace the evolution from the already creatively-minded offerings of Something Like Silas, the previous incarnation of the band, up through FoF’s proper debut Twilight and the first Travel EP that came out earlier this year, and notice a gradual shift toward an artful, unique expression of faith. And this is why they frustrate me. I enjoy everything they’ve done, but they’ve finally reached the point where I attempt to come up with a genre tag so that I can keep things organized all nice and neat in iTunes… and my ability to categorize fails me. What is this? It’s upbeat and rhythmic, but not guitar-driven enough to simply be “Modern Rock”. There’s a lot of classical influence in the instrumentation, but they’re still a band at the core, so tagging them based on the instruments they play don’t seem to cut it. And forget calling them a “worship” band. They busted through that horizon years ago, which I take as proof positive that Christian musicians don’t have to confine themselves to Sunday morning sing-alongs or else be treated as if their music is somehow less “holy”. I honestly can’t categorize it. “Experimental Rock” is the best thing that I’ve come up with, because it occasionally unfolds with the slow grandeur or the thick, euphoric sound layers of some of their favorite indie rock inspirations, but there’s nothing underground or subversive about it – this is simply an open, honest, enjoyable attempt to make beautiful music with sometimes unconventional instruments.
The release of Travel II, the second installment in a trilogy of thematic EPs, only baffles me further by ditching the slow-burn approach almost completely and allow more immediate, primal, percussive instincts to take over. You won’t hear six-minute epics with heavenly, meditative choruses on this one, except for perhaps at the very end. You won’t be able to immediately pin down the “big starry-eyed praise song” like you could on previous discs. The approach here is allegorical, using nautical imagery to describe humankind’s gradual journey from Eden to Heaven. If the first Travel disc, with its air travel-oriented flights of fancy, felt like it was already heralding an arrival in Heaven, then this disc could actually be seen as the previous installment in the story, the rough, storm-battered journey to get there. The idea of making music themed around an ocean setting might inspire calm, placid instrumental passages from some artists (the Water disc of Thrice‘s Alchemy Index being one example), but Future of Forestry decided to go the other way with it, playing up the big poundy drums that inspire men to row boats in perfect sync, the drunken sing-alongs of sailors with no one but the full moon on still waters to serve as their audience, and the memories of reading books like C. S. Lewis‘s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a child. All of it is built around a desire that lead singer Eric Owyoung apparently had, to use the songwriting process as tool to cast off his own antiquated and no-fun assumptions about Heaven being a big, foofy, boring place with angels and quiet harp music, and replacing them with jubilation and the relief of finally laying down one’s burdens. In that sense, the entire Travel series is a process of writing the things that he wants to believe with his heart and not just his head, and then bringing in musical collaborators such as the band’s new percussionist/guitarist/all-around whiz kid T. J. Hill to help flesh out those artistic visions. It brings those emotions more immediately from Eric’s brain to our ears, as it’s only taken a short few months to get the first two discs from mere concept to finished product. So it’s chance to hear the musings of a person in the process of being changed, which is something I’ve always enjoyed about this band.
Anyway, I don’t want to spend more time yammering about the concept than it would take to listen to the entire CD, so let’s get on with the journey.
1. Hills of Indigo Blue
Pounding drums, vocal chants, and extremely fuzzy bass open up this new chapter in Future of Forestry’s evolution, the big ships bursting out of the docks at the exciting prospect of discovering new lands. For Eric and his crew, the mission is nothing less than to recapture the paradise and innocence of Creation, as summed up in the rhyming couplet that leads into the chorus: “Then we turned to remember our birth, our Eden/Then we turned to remember our worth, our freedom.” The chorus brings in a bit of shimmery guitar and scales back the drums a bit, allowing the band’s signature sound to creep in before diving back into the maelstrom of percussion. The words are beautiful, tactile – Eric describes a “northern sapphire sky”, and already I’m wondering why more Christians songwriters can’t describe a place of infinite joy in more inventive terms such as this. One possible strike against the song might be its soaring refrain of “oh”s that might remind of some of Coldplay‘s “Viva la Vida”, but shoot, that’s an excellent song, and wasn’t it ripped off from like five people anyway? It’s aural bliss if I take my critic hat off for just a few seconds. But even with my critic hat on, I’m in love with this song, right down to the backmasking of the song’s opening vocal chant that finishes it off.
This is the only one of the new songs that seems to have a defining electric guitar riff driving it – it’s the big “rocker”, I suppose. T. J. still has his drums going four to the floor, and xylophones and other heavenly sounds are still raining down at certain points, because this is a band that can’t resist referencing the ethereal even when they’re exploring the more primal side of their musical instincts. In any event, this one provides the theme that “Traveler’s Song” did for the first disc, asking us “How do you feel about the ocean?” and inviting us out on a journey beyond the safe confines of dry land. It’s solid, and it keeps the momentum moving without missing a beat in between the high-energy tracks surrounding it.
3. Set Your Sails
There’s such a simple acoustic guitar strum driving this one, and yet there’s so much emphasis on it that the guitar, too, feels like it’s being used as percussion. That and the simple but forceful “thump, thump, thump” of the drums and the accompanying handclaps seem to be setting a rhythm, the ship’s sailors rowing in time to it. This is Future of Forestry at their most primal, everyone involved throwing their heads back and playing the role of the sailors singing in unison the chant that will sustain them during those endless months at sea: “Hey, hey, hey, the night is waiting for you/Take a picture of the silver moon/Hey, hey, hey, she will be shining for you/On your journey home.” But we get two choruses for the price of one here, as that chant gives way to the majestic crash of bells and cymbals, like massive waves rocking the boat, and Eric describes how the changing tides and weather patterns over those long months enable us to “Set your course for Heaven’s shore.” T. J. even throws in a purposefully sloppy electric guitar solo, which is great fun, and a surprisingly “ragged” move for a band that’s usually a bit more polished and reverent.
4. Slow Your Breath Down
The band goes for the long fade-in with this one, allowing the smooth, even tone of an organ to create a sense of suspended animation for a rare moment of calm on this otherwise fast-paced disc. The lyrics hint at a treasure chest discovered, something that is lacking in comparison to expectations, and a soothing voice giving our dejected sailors a hint that greater treasure lies ahead. Of course, we’re all trained to expect that the calm, sustained introduction is leading us up to something big, and sure enough, it isn’t long before T. J. breaks in with another chunky beat (though a little more relaxed this time) and Eric is filling the empty spaces with a heavenly downpour of bells and/or glockenspiel. The song plays out as words sung from God to man rather than the usual “worship song” approach of doing it the other way around – the lyrics encourage a deep breath, a posture of prayer, a moment just to stand back and realize that the vastness of the ocean and the rich colors of the shoreline that change with the setting sun are merely hints at this greater treasure. If you liked “Colors in Array” on the first disc, then you sort of know where this one’s going, though it’s a bit more subtle in its approach.
5. So Close So Far
The band might as well be auditioning for Stomp, given how driving and excitable its intro of footstomps and handclaps is. It’s one of the most thrilling and surprising moments on the disc, and it’s only the introduction to a song that defies expectations by being loud and in your face where your usual up-tempo song would start off quiet, and then backing off for a more subdued chorus, almost turning it into a glitchy Radiohead song for a bit with the idiosyncratic programmed beat, and Eric’s falsetto lamenting the limbo that is mortal life – too far from birth to remember innocence, too far from death to fully grasp the longing for Heaven. Eric’s words give more of an impression than a full explanation, his words at once reverent (“You’re the scent of home when you’re near me”) and enigmatic (“So close, so far, and so familiar/Is where you end/And where you came from”). All of this would already amount to a superb song, but the band sweetens the deal even more with a collaborative drum solo in the middle eight – and let me tell you, this is only the tip of the iceberg compared to how they play it live!
The closing track feels a bit “off” to me – it’s more of a dusky, reflective, moody song that threatens to drift off into the ether without much of a resolution. It’s the one point on the album where they subvert their newfound love for the dramatic percussion and give a song the space to build slowly enough that it sort of sneaks up on you. The first few times I listened to this one, it didn’t really register with me that it was an emotionally resonant anthem in its own right, because I was too focused on the “dryness” of its first half, which is vaguely driven by the nervous, trembling sound of an electric guitar and the steady drone of Eric’s accordion/organ/Wurlitzer/whatever the heck that is. The second half is where it gets interesting, with the “Whoa”s that finish off the chorus swelling up in time with the crashing cymbals, once again mimicking the sound of waves crashing as our boat heads into uncharted waters towards its final destination. Heaven isn’t described as “pretty” in this final song – it’s described in more esoteric terms as a sonnet, a song, a place where the things we know and grasp and measure in this world all fail. But it’s also a break from the mundane. There’s a reason why this ends unresolved, in stark contrast to the dramatic crescendo that punctuated “Halleluiah” from the first Travel disc.
The second item in any trilogy is always bound to be the transitional piece, the story of the stuff that transpires on the way from A to B, which needs its compelling origin story and the promise of a spectacular ending ahead to give it context. As such, I would imagine that Travel II was a challenging record for the band to create, especially given all of the “big” instruments and sonic experiments that went into it. But it sets us up nicely to expect the unexpected for Travel III, due out in early 2010. I actually asked Eric for a spoiler about the sound of that one at a recent concert, and he could only say that he didn’t know because he hadn’t written the songs yet. So it’s being dreamed up as we speak. Maybe it’ll be smaller, more intimate, more earthy, in keeping with the theme of land travel. But there’s no way I could have predicted where Travel II would take the band, so for now, I’ll simply assume that my expectations are likely to be subverted in fascinating ways.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Hills of Indigo Blue $2
Set Your Sails $2
Slow Your Breath Down $1.50
So Close So Far $2
Eric Owyoung: Lead vocals, guitars, various instruments
T.J. Hill: Guitars, backing vocals, percussion, various instruments
Ben Wurzell: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.