Future of Forestry – Travel III: Did You Lose Yourself?

2010_FutureofForestry_TravelIIIEPArtist: Future of Forestry
Album: Travel III EP
Year: 2010
Grade: B-

In Brief: It’s good enough experimental/electronic rock music by normal standards, but Travel III doesn’t quite live up to the task of completing a series started by two other amazing EPs.

The automobile has been the most common mode of transport used by the vast majority of Americans for several decades now. While it might also be quite common for us to use airplanes to travel great distances, or boats to reach places where roads don’t go, this generally isn’t the sort of thing most people do “every day”. There’s still a sense of wonder to flying or sailing, perhaps an increased appreciation of the seeming defiance of physics that these activities both require, for all but perhaps the people who do these things most often. Yet almost all of us take cars for granted. When you get into a car, you generally know what to expect, so while our culture may still romanticize the “great American roadtrip”, our everyday usage of these vehicles doesn’t inspire that same amount of wonder. (Your mileage may vary if you live on a secluded island or somewhere out in the Alaskan bush – in which case, please allow 6 to ∞ weeks for delivery.) While cars can serve as a potential means of transportation to distant places that we dream of going, they tend to be a much more tedious way of getting there. Cars are, to put it simply, quite normal.

Future of Forestry‘s third and final EP in a series based on the concept of travel was loosely inspired by the automobile, coming after the discs Travel and Travel II, which were vaguely themed around the themes of flying and sailing, respectively. And my reaction to Travel III is quite similar to my everyday reaction to my car. I’m not wowed by it the way I might be when stepping aboard a plane or a ship. It’s not a bad thing, of course. I like driving, and I like listening to Travel III. But coming off of two close-to-euphoric collections of songs, one very worshipful in its atmosphere and seemingly trying to scrape up against the floor of heaven itself, and one a fascinating allegorical journey across a tumultuous sea to the shore of heaven itself, it’s a little hard to see that same level of grandeur in the “highway to heaven” depicted on this album. It’s hard to say why – the same energy level is there in the upbeat, rock-oriented tracks, and the same slow-building approach is used in the more reflective tracks. Maybe it just feels a bit more “streamlined” now, as if stripped of some of the bells and whistles that made FoF’s past efforts so engrossing, and more determined to grab you quickly with thrashing drums and zippy electric riffs, while taking the more computerized, almost minimalist approach on the slower stuff. I’m not against any of these tactics, but when I heard Eric Owyoung speak of possibly scaling things back to use “smaller” instruments on this last EP, I guess I assumed it would mean a more acoustic, instrument approach, still rife with a variety of instruments, but they’d just be easier ones to lug around on tour. Instead, the musical approach is tough to differentiate from the similarly aggressive Travel II at first, but soon reveals itself to be an economic mix of the traditional rock arrangement (drums/electric guitar/bass/vocals), plus a few strings and a laptop. These are all elements that FoF has used before, and used better.

I don’t mean to be harsh on one of my favorite bands – the four-star rating (rounded up from 3.5) should indicate that I still find Travel III to be an agreeable listen. I’d still take this over your typical rock radio stuff any day. I was probably just led to have stratospheric expectations by the amazing Travel II, due to how it evolved the band’s sound my mixing their proven knack for the ethereal with some of their more primal instincts, to great effect. Here on Travel III, it almost feels like the primal takes over, creating some great song intros, but often not completely paying them off, as if the urge to establish a good beat or riff went into auto-pilot after a few minutes (and yikes, now I’m mixing my travel metaphors!)  It’s kind of like starting off on a long road trip and being excited just to get the car out on the highway and open her up and see what she can do, but then finding your excitement level and attention drifting as mile after mile starts to look the same in the long stretch between Point A and Point B. Mixing this record was apparently a bit of an impulsive choice as well, as the louder songs (while they do a great job of pumping up the energy level and getting me absolutely psyched) have a bad habit of hitting the compression ceiling and muffling the vocals in the process. So while there’s nothing here that I hate, it’s also alarmingly easy to find flaws with the stuff that I love. Had I been able to catch the band on the “3 Tour” this summer, those problems likely would have sorted themselves out in a live setting and I might appreciate the songs behind the recordings a little more for it. But with only the disc as recorded and the other two in the series for context, this EP feels half-baked, and that’s a surprising thing to discover for a band whose career so far has consisted of one full-length album and five EPs (the rest of them top-notch, even the self-titled debut EP they put out to tease the album). Were this the work of a brand new band, I’d definitely tell you to check them out. But since this is the work of a band that I’ve come to consider musical heroes, I think, “Alright, guys. Not bad, but you can do better than this.” Maybe some extra pressure was placed on Travel III due to it being the end of a series, but still, sometimes when music is simply “good”, it’s mildly disappointing.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Bold and Underlined
The muscle car comes snarling out of the gate here, displaying a bit more rock & roll attitude in the lead riff than we’re used to from Eric’s electric guitar – his style is usually more atmospheric. That buzzsaw riff is the driving force (um, yeah) behind most of the song, with an electronic rhythm anchoring the comparatively mellower verse, much like Travel II‘s “So Close So Far” (except the drums and handclaps were the major force there). It’s a loud, brash song about someone who likes to live their life with the volume knob cranked up to eleven, or I’d at least presume as much – the lyrics on this disc are some of the band’s most minimal. And as cool as that riff sounds with the cymbals thrashing away, I feel slightly nagged by the rhythm section being pushed so far out to the front – the volume level goes into the red and it gives the cymbals a tinny quality and the bass a fuzzy one. Fun song, and one of the highlights of the disc, though it is a bit guilty of repeating its riff a few too many times for lack of knowing what else to do toward the end.

2. Working to Be Loved
When you write a song about hard work that is never done, it almost makes sense for the music to be repetitive, which is the sense I get from the acoustic guitar strum that propels this song along. Despite being persistent, it slopes up and down through some interesting chord changes, with T. J. Hill‘s syncopated drums bringing a feeling of life to it. There are some squealing sounds in the background – a little bit of the atmospheric stuff from the electric guitar just to remind you that this is still an FoF record. The chorus has a heckuva lift to it after the weary verse, what with the crashing drums and lilting strings (not driven totally into the red this time around) and it’s got a hook that I’m sure a lot of folks raised in a Christian environment will relate to “I’m so tired of working, for so long, to be loved.” While subtle, I figure this is a song about grace and our sometimes frustrating lack of understanding of that concept, still attempting to “make” God love us and not understand that He will never not love us.

3. Did You Lose Yourself?
The programmed beat here pops and crackles like the snap of a whip, creating one of FoF’s most idiosyncratic tracks with some of their oddest lyrics: “Echo, goes the info in your head/’Cause you’re a techno and you’re techno-bled.” That might give some insight into the role computers play on this album, as they’re trying to strike some sort of a balance between the cold efficiency of the pre-programmed stuff and the more lively, messy feel of the live instruments. The band is a bit more restrained during the first half of the song, keeping the mood atmospheric and meditative up until the point where the glitchy programming falls away into a bed of plucked strings. Then the band goes for a climax with that same string section soaring over a bed of crashing drums. It’s pretty, but it’s no “Colors in Array”. I don’t quite feel like the song preceding it has quite earned the euphoric outburst – as with many of this album’s tracks, it feels slightly incomplete.

4. Protection
Another snap-crackle-pop sort of electronic beat and ominous beat meet up with another sweet electric guitar riff here, for a song that fuses minimalism with a full-band attack – see how that lead guitar melody suddenly jumps from subdued to voracious when the chorus drops. This song’s bound to be a live highlight, and the band ups the ante even more by bringing in sawing strings on the second verse – this isn’t the kind of song you’d want to pretty up with strings, and yet they actually add to the tension. You’d expect something perhaps a bit softer and mushier in the music department upon reading the lyrics, which sympathize with a person who’s been beat up and lied to, saying, “Trust me, I can see you want protection.” But I like that the band went the other way with it and gave it more of a visceral sense of danger, as if to say “I’ll protect you despite all of this noisy, scary stuff crashing down around you.” Once again, the scope of sound that the band is aiming for doesn’t quite fit the limitations of the recording medium – just listen to the relentless, smashing cymbals and you’ll be scratching your head over why they felt the need to compress the crap out of them. Despite the production flaws, though, it’s still a bad@$$ song (which is a compliment, just so ya know) – and that’s not a tag I’d generally use to describe Future of Forestry’s music.

5. Horizon Rainfall
Some pretty slick sound effects are at work here, and this track plays the “ominous” card for all it’s worth, matching a start-stop beat with a mysterious two-note keyboard loop, and running Eric’s voice through some sort of odd filter effect that makes it sounds like it’s full of sharp, metallic edges. It’s pretty cool until you realize that there are almost no lyrics – they’ve painted a fascinating musical setting, and then forgotten to populate it with an actual story. Not that I mind the occasional bit of experimentation for experimentation’s sake – this one sounds pretty darn cool once the strings take over and turn it into more of a chamber-pop-meets-electronica sort of piece. But I feel a bit left out of the climax when Eric is wailing “Horizon rainfall!” over and over. At least when Radiohead furiously spat out “The raindrops, the raindrops” over and over, I felt like there was some worthwhile build-up to it. The fact that this track’s only three minutes long might be part of the problem – there probably could have been more of a full-bodied song here and a longer, more satisfying buildup to the eventual payoff.

6. Your Day’s Not Over
This song seems to cheat on the grand finale, crashing in with its big crescendo of sound right at the beginning. As the cymbals, soaring vocals, and guitars back away, we drop back into ominous electronica-land, with more skeletal electric guitar words weaving in and out between the beats as Eric croons “Come with me, we could be lovers/Such love for us, love for us all”, and then later mirrors this statement: “Come with me, we could be painters/Such hope for us, hope for us all.” This could be the start of a pretty intriguing lyric at some other point in the band’s career, but here they throw in the chorus (which you can probably guess the complexity of at this point, given other choruses on this record that are little more than the song’s title) and apparently decide to call it a day. As always, I love the array of sounds on display, the laptop beats and dark bass flirting with the overactive keyboards and such. But it all feels a bit disjointed, especially when that opening climax comes back around for a reprise, beefed up a bit with horns and more persistent cymbal crashes. Remember that this is the track which ends not only the EP, but an entire series that started off thematically strong with “Traveler’s Song”, and should presumably end up with a closing thought that punctuates this entire journey that the band has taken us on. It’s a lot of pretty noise, but when that final keyboard fades out, I’m still left feeling a bit disconnected on an emotional level. This doesn’t even come close to the awestruck crescendoes of “Halleluiah” or “Someday”, which closed the previous EPs.

Perhaps the band was trying to be more spontaneous and not overthink things with this disc. Or perhaps they were starting to feel fenced in by the framework they’d set up for themselves to work within over a year ago, and just cranked these last few songs out for the sake of completion. Either way, despite there being no bad material on Travel III, about half of it feels a bit like I’d have been okay with hearing it once or twice as B-side material, and having the strongest songs from the entire series (a few tracks from disc 3, most of disc 1, and pretty much all of disc 2) put out in the form of a single, full-length CD than ran for 12 to 15 songs. (I spent a good 9 months before Travel III finally dropped listening to the first two discs back-to-back as if they were a 12-song album. Thank God for the iPod!) Not to stifle the band’s creativity and their willingness to eschew the typical format and see what happens – but doing so has made a good case for taking the time to think through a project from end to end and make sure the strongest material ends up on the final project. I hope that they apply the lessons learned here to a full-length album within the next year or two that expands upon the stylistic diversity of the Travel series while being as consistent of a listening experience from front to back as Twilight was.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Bold and Underlined $1.50
Working to Be Loved $1.50
Did You Lose Yourself? $1
Protection $1.50
Horizon Rainfall $.50
Your Day’s Not Over $.50
TOTAL: $6.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Eric Owyoung: Lead vocals, assorted instruments
T. J. Hill: Drums, assorted instruments
Liz Lee: Cello
Derek Jackson: Violin

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

WEBSITES:
http://www.futureofforestry.com/
http://www.myspace.com/futureofforestry

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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