In Brief: A modest, but enjoyable album from a band that’s proven themselves capable of aural grandeur in the past. They tried a bit too hard to simplify things here.
Future of Forestry is a revolving door band. I’ve known this for years. But sometimes it’s hard for me to make my heart accept what my brain knows to be true. Eric Owyoung is the sole member of the band who has survived its numerous lineup changes between 2006 and now (as well as the tumultous years preceding that, which led the band formerly known as Something Like Silas to re-christen itself). FoF was only ever a true “band” on its first release, Twilight; after that, they parted ways with guitarist Nick Maybury and drummer Spencer Kim, two musicians who had done a great deal to help shape the majestic sound of that album. The trilogy of Travel EPs that followed drifted farther and farther from the expected FoF sound as a result, still keeping some of the shimmering ambient rock elements and the overall worshipful tone, but experimenting more with baroque pop arrangements, percussion-heavy pop sounds, and even a bit of electronic rock. Combine these with their lushly orchestrated Advent Christmas EPs, and it was pretty hard to figure out where FoF would go next. And it was multi-instrumentalist T. J. Hill who helped to shape the sound of both sets of recordings, turning Eric’s penchant for grandiose songs of personal meditation into something of a mad science. I greatly enjoyed this influence and felt that the band had grown creatively by leaps and bounds during this experimental period. I had come to view T. J. as Eric’s right-hand man, a welcome new addition to the group that I hoped was a permanent one.
Well, T. J.’s presence is only barely felt on FoF’s new full-length album, Young Man Follow, which trades in most of the familiar names I’ve seen collaborating with Eric over the years and brings in a new batch of performers to help bring his musical visions to life. In many ways, the ten tracks on this album signify a leaner, more streamlined approach to making music, and that hunch was verified when I read Eric’s introduction to the album and realized he was trying to simplify things on purpose. For him, the importance of communicating a message outweighed the need to follow his muse further down the rabbit hole. That doesn’t make Young Man Follow an album devoid of creativity – there are still tons of little rhythmic quirks and lush instrumental flourishes that remind me it’s still the band I’ve known and loved all these years – but it does cause them to teeter a little too close to the edge of normalcy for my liking. More than anything, Eric seems to want this album to paint a picture of a place where lonely souls belong, where they can find acceptance and spiritual nourishment and wise guidance, where they can rest in God’s arms and one another’s arms and know they are not alone. It’s certainly an admirable thing to try to convey through your art – this is similar to the central theme of Jars of Clay‘s The Shelter, which is another of those records I gradually came to appreciate despite feeling it wasn’t one of the band’s most creative efforts. But when it reduces the smartly layered dynamics of FoF’s previous work to a simple pop/rock beat or a dry acoustic guitar strum without much else to support it, that’s where I have to point out that a message alone isn’t enough, and that it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a band who has tackled similar subjects with more creativity in the past to continue to set that bar high.
For better or worse, Eric also self-produces his band’s records these days. This is a practice that started in the Travel days, and while it has the advantage of giving him complete control over the mood and shape of every sound, he’s got this odd habit of reducing larger-than-life sounds to strangely muted proportions at times. This was a pretty big problem on the third Travel EP, where the whip-crack electronic beats and heavy bass routinely escaped the confines of the small box that they were crammed into, often obscuring the vocals in the process. Here, the approach is less intentionally abrasive, but there’s still a small sense of letdown in many of this album’s big crescendoes. One, we’ve heard FoF do this better before, and two, even with the more laid-back approach they’re taking now, it sounds like all of this must have been so much more big and powerful in the studio than it comes across through my speakers. Those looking for thrilling moments resembling the thundering climaxes of “Sunrising” and “Colors in Array” will walk away disappointed. Those hoping to get wrapped up in the graceful intimacy of a song like “If You Find Her” or “Closer to Me” will find their heartstrings briefly tugged by a few of this album’s softer moments, but it will probably pale in comparison to what those old songs made you feel. Those who loved the celebratory drum circles heard on the second Travel EP… well, just hang in there until the end of the album, they’ve got you covered. What you hear along the way, while it does manage to pull together most of the genre-hopping that FoF has tried before, is unfortunately the biggest mixed bag that the group has managed to come up with so far. I hate to knock a young artist when he’s going the completely independent route with no bosses to please and when I have to assumehis recordings represent nothing less than a pure expression of the artistic voice God gave him. But this is one case where it probably wouldn’t have hurt to have one or two more experienced producers in the room to offer a little feedback on how best to convey the moods he’s going for.
Fortunately, where this album does hit home with me, it’s strong enough to make repeated listening pleasant enough that I’m willing to be patient through the tracks that miss the mark. Once my initial disappointment wore off, I decided that there was still enough good stuff here to just barely rescue Young Man Follow from the grey wasteland of middling three-star albums. It just barely grabs hold of that fourth star… but I can’t bring myself to call this thing merely average when a decent percentage of it is quite good.
1. Young Man Follow
It’s not every day that the rhythm of a song leaves me so baffled trying to understand its pattern, and yet so entranced by it that I instantly fall in love with the song. That’s sort of what the title track on this album did, though as it turns out I was overthinking it. The drums place emphasis in odd places, accompanied by the sort of electronic “snap” common to many of the songs on Travel III, while electric guitar harmonics add ambiance like the distant call of a bird in the wilderness. Eric’s vocals stray from his usual even-keeled, rhythmic style to the point where the loose cadence of his words seems intentionally contrary to the rhythm, sort of like the verses of my favorite Rich Mullins song, “The Color Green”. Through it all, your signpost is the continuous acoustic strumming, a reminder that the beat is a simple pattern of fours, no matter how much the twinkling piano and the off-beat percussion might have you imagining triplets or other compound rhythmic constructs. This all pulls together into a beautiful, climactic song that is classic Future of Forestry in one sense and yet, it doesn’t seem to be repeating a bunch of their old tricks. Although the production hinders the song, with its gradually thickening drum rolls, from reaching the thundering crescendo that it’s clearly aiming for, this is an ideal song with which to invite the listener into the album, to echo the calling of a mysterious, ancient being who simply beckons you to leave behind your naive and impatient preconceptions and follow it into the wild.
2. Come Alive
The second song is almost too careful in how it unfolds. That might be the fault of one too many piano-based rock bands going for the sort of indie/baroque pop plateau that this song seems to be climbing toward, and normally I don’t mind how many bands are attempting it as long as they’re doing it with some sort of grace and texture. But despite all of the window dressing (chimes, slide guitar, some interesting vocal effects and heavy layering during the bridge), I feel like this is all quite simplistic on a melodic and lyrical level. “Come alive, don’t let go, love will be enough”, the chorus pleads with us, “‘Cause you are not alone, you are not alone.” The mood is calming, and infused with a subtle hint of splendor, and yet the song feels trapped in the middle, unsure of whether it wants to proclaim its message of encouragement by shouting it from the rooftops, or by gently wrapping an arm around you and whispering it straight into your ear. Compare this to songs like the gentle caress of “Close Your Eyes” or the lovestruck, starry-eyed dance of “Closer to Me”, and it becomes clear that there’s an ingredient missing, resulting in a song that feels quite good, yet doesn’t feel like the band totally nailed it.
So much of this album feels like it’s about finding a pretty pattern and repeating it. This song is a good example of it, taking a quiet but speedy guitar melody and the constant thumping of the bass drum, along with some other fun percussive bits like handclaps, plucked strings and toy piano that are played a bit too subtly to really stand out at first, and somehow enslaving them all to a rather pedestrian pop/rock tune. I’ve dinged FoF for playing it a bit too vague on the lyrics before (especially on Travel III), but for some reason I tend to feel especially indifferent when bands start to base songs around someones and somethings and somedays, etc. Here, as phrases that veer uncomfortably close to the magentic poetry of typical CCM worship bands are casually thrown out (e.g. “Break my heart with mercy”), one gets the feeling that they’re trying to describe a relationship with God that enables a person to trust more deeply where they might have previously been too protective of themselves due to past hurt. The implications of that are never really fleshed out in favor of an all-too-easy chorus that just states, “You’re someone, someone I can trust/You’re someone to light the way for us.” There’s being artistic in your expressions of faith (I’m not a stickler who expects God to be explicitly named just to consider something a “Christian” song), and then there’s being overly vague to the point where it doesn’t really do the relationship justice. The crashing cymbals help quite a bit to bring this one to a solid finish, but it feels like an anthem without a strong enough cause to win the affectionate response from the crowd that it seems to be going for.
4. As It Was
One of the album’s slowest songs is up next in the queue – thanks to the soothing wind chimes that appear here and there, and the intentionally understated percussion and programming, this almost feels like the sort of thing that might have shown up on one of the group’s Christmas EPs (except for the fact that it’s an original song and it doesn’t refer to the holidays at all, just a passing mention of December that’s wide open enough to be interpreted however you like. The whole song is like that, actually – it’s one of the group’s most striking due to its understated but flawlessly executed textures, but heck if I know what these memories of cold snowy nights and the “lights [that] will always come out for you” are all about. The minimalistic lyrics serve the mood of the song well, so when Eric slowly croons in the chorus, “Brothers… sisters… don’t leave… your… hearts”, I don’t get impatient with it, but instead I feel like I’m staring through an icy window at a man telling a group of captivated children some story that is as old as time itself. I can’t even hear the actual story from my vantage point… but I can see from the children’s wide eyes that it’s quite a fantastic one.
5. Would You Come Home?
The changing of seasons (which seems to be a very subtle theme throughout this album) brings FoF to one of their most melancholy songs, one which sounds like it carries a great deal of personal weight for Eric as he sings it. Unfortunately, it’s got one of the blandest and most middle-of-the-road pop/rock arrangements that I’ve ever heard from the band. To their credit, they’re still trying to build up delicately to some sort of emotional release, with the guitars picking out a bittersweet melody rather than just clumsily strumming along, and the drums click-clacking with their constant rhythm that never quite brings in the full power of the drum kit, as if out of respect for the uneasy situation expressed in the lyrics. But then they bring in fake strings at the bridge. Really, guys? With all the creative arrangements and unusual instruments you’ve used in your songs, you have to resort to the freakin’ Mellotron? It doesn’t serve the band well. Eric’s lyrics are the sort of thing that could be really stunning, if given just a bit more detail – clearly he’s narrating a story in which the protagonist is at an uneasy point of not knowing whether a lover wants to stay or leave. His habit of drawing out the syallabels of his words slowly and evenly doesn’t leave him much space to be descriptive, and the chorus is one of those rare moments where I’m more frustrated than intrigued with a cryptic turn of phrase: “When you go, you don’t, and when you stay, you’re skies away from here.” Then later: “When you’re still you’re restless in my soul”. Clearly he’s enjoying slamming those logical contradictions right up against each other, but it feels like he’s setting up something that he never pays off by pointing this out and then just leaving it wide open like that. Dude just needs to add a few more words to his songs. I don’t ask for much, but I feel like I’m trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle with only the corners here.
As some backmasked synth sounds come washing over us, and the deep thumping of a programmed bass line, and more of those starry-eyed guitar harmonics… “Uh-oh”, I start to think to myself, “This is veering uncomfortably close to a ripoff of U2‘s ‘Beautiful Day’.” Well, the U2 influence is obvious (as it has been since the Something Like Silas days, though to be fair this is a band that’s generally leaned on it far less than most of the popular worship bands overrunning the industry today), but the song establishes its own mood and identity soon enough… which is mostly because it never really takes off like you’d expect from a song such as “Beautiful Day”. Drawing that sort of barely-conscious comparison and then doing nothing with it is a risky proposition… this one just keeps on chugging down the road at a polite speed, as if Eric and co. had wanted to create their very own roadtrip song. Not the kind that you blast with the windows down when you’re feeling excited about first hitting the road, and not the kind that would come on over an AM radio station to keep you company on a lonely stretch of road… it’s more like the sort of thing you’d gently tap your toes to while you’re just trying to pass the time during some midday hour of a pleasant but uneventful journey from A to B. There’s a sense of warm familiarity in the textures of the song, due to how the different moving electronic parts dutifully loop around and around behind the Edge-lite guitar soloing that runs throughout the song. But since there’s little variance throughout, it feels like a journey without a destination in mind.
Some oddly-timed handclaps work wonders here, in terms of jolting me out of the intentionally robotic guitar plucking and the soft “Da da da”s that Eric sings at the beginning of the song. This is the only moment I can recall where FoF has genuinely employed an unusual time signature – 7/8 to be exact. It dutifully conforms to 4/4 once the verse kicks in, but then the chorus breaks out into a joyous moment of guitar glory as that rhythm returns, accompanied by a soaring vocal and… OK, actually the drums aren’t as loud and joyous as I had remembered. Weird, how the modest production boxes this one in when it so clearly wants to escape the “tiny indie rock” confines of the band’s now-typical sound. I have no qualms about a band deciding that rock isn’t their thing so much any more, and that they want to explore different musical landscapes. But if a band wants to triumphantly return to the old rock sound that made some of their classic songs like “All I Want” so hard-hitting, then the drummer needs to sound like he’s putting some real sweat and blood into slamming those skins! Despite this complaint that I’m clearly spending too much energy on, I’m willing to bet this will be a rousing highlight of their upcoming live shows, and it’s fitting for a song that’s all about flying away to new horizons. The same sort of invitation to explore something ancient and exciting that was expressed in “Young Man Follow” is echoed nicely enough here to make the track feel like it’s one of the cornerstones of the album.
I struggled with this one a bit before ultimately deciding that I ultimately liked it in spite of its simplicity. Lyrically, it pulls off that rare feat of stating something profoundly poetic in the usual compact space that Eric allows himself. Given the vague title and the rather unimaginative rhythm of percussion and muted acoustic guitar that are the song’s most noticeable characteristics, it was easy to miss the unabashedly romantic undertones of the song, using the landscape of God’s creation to describe someone that he holds dear: “You are the summer/You are the sun/You are the desert plain/Where the wild horses run.” Sometimes simplicity can be used to express incredibly compelling things, and this is one of those times. Musically, once the band brings in the glockenspiel and the electric guitar during the bridge, it starts to feel more reminiscent of the breathtaking vistas that FoF so frequently treated us to on their earlier efforts. This one’s just a bit stubborn about the time it takes to get us there. It sounds too “normal” for nearly half the song, and the understatement of it all makes it easy to miss the softly soothing melody.
9. Things that We Should Say
The same lyrical vagueness that led to intentional contradictions with little depth to back them up in “Would You Come Home?” now comes back around to bite the band again as Eric unloads a rather pedestrian folk song upon us, which dares to base itself on the central premise that “Before our time has gone away/We should say the things that we should say.” Thank you, Captain Obvious. Of course the thought behind that is that the things which should be said are apparently self-evident, and Eric tries to detail that as he describes some sort of a relationship in need of reconciliation, which languishes in silence due to both parties being afraid to make a move. I’ve heard a lot of bands create something compelling out of such situations, where you can feel the weight of the songwriter’s conscience convicting him to break the stalemate. This isn’t one of those songs. It feels cheap, like any number of unplugged tracks you’d hear at or near the end of rock albums by bands desperate to prove they’re deep just because they can whip out a “three-chords-and-the-truth” sort of ballad and surprise you with their softer side. FoF just plain doesn’t need this. They have an arsenal of painstakingly gorgeous slow songs (even some acoustic ones – see “If You Find Her” and once again, “Close Your Eyes”) that don’t skimp on the instrumental talent, and it’s not like their default mode is mindless rocking out in the first place. The uncluttered setting might place more focus on the lyrics, which seems deserved given the subject matter, but the amateurish and repetitive rhyming of say, stay, way, and away really kills the chorus, even when I’m not hung up on the truism at its core that doesn’t come across as profoundly as it obviously wants to. And there come those fake-sounding strings again! I’ve heard this band work wonders with string arrangements before (there was a even cellist in their lineup for a few years there). For all I know, there are real stringed instruments here, too, but they just sound so mannered and cliched that they might as well be canned.
10. Love Be Your Mantra
Thankfully, rather than ending on a weak note, the band comes back strong for the finale, setting aside a lot of the electronic stuff and hammering out a beaut of an organic jam, centered around mandolin and acoustic guitar, and gradually bringing in a few different drum kits (some played with sticks, some played with hands, and possibly a few things that just got stomped on to add to the celebratory mood), as well as an accordion and a trombone and whatever odd sounds they could rustle up in the studio. The result has a communal sort of feeling to it, and since it’s so heavy on the drums and the anthemic group vocals, it could have easily fit on Travel III, but the off-kilter musical parade also suggests a bit of Sufjan Stevens influence and doesn’t feel like anything they’ve ever done before. Despite coming from seemingly out of left field, this is a beautiful thought to end the album on, a simple encouragement to do the best to love others with whatever cards you’ve been dealt in this life. On paper, that probably sounds a bit vague and maybe even a bit too “one-size-fits-all” to really make a statement on a record that’s supposed to be about answering God’s calling. It’s a fair criticism, and I’ve certainly dinged them for that on other songs. But taken in context, I think it’s a good conclusion to draw from the subtle nudges toward “God is love” that so many of the preceding songs have tried to offer us. Plus? This one is gonna be a blast in concert, if their past tendencies to tack long, crowd-pleasing percussion solos onto the ends of songs like “So Close So Far” and “Little Drummer Boy” are any indication.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Young Man Follow $1.75
Come Alive $1
As It Was $1.25
Would You Come Home? $.25
Things that We Should Say $0
Love Be Your Mantra $1.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.