Artist: Future of Forestry
Album: Awakened to the Sound
In Brief: It’s a stretch these days to call Future of Forestry a “rock” band. This album is much more like a film score. Exciting, climactic percussion sounds abound on a few tracks, bringing back fond memories of the Travel series, but as a whole this record is something else, weaving Eastern-styled strings, drums and vocals into a much more classical-oriented take on the Future of Forestry sound.
There’s always that one album that seems to slip into my year-end Top 20 list just in the nick of time, usually a November or December release that I’ve finally decided is pretty good, but haven’t quite found the time to review. In 2016, I was delinquent on reviewing the latest album from Future of Forestry, and thus I didn’t have a longer write-up to link to from the blurb in my year-end roundup. I’m making up for lost time now, I guess.
Future of Forestry has been in my pantheon of favorite bands ever since they made the transition from the artsy modern worship band Something Like Silas to something a little more esoteric and not so easily defined, but still very vertical in its lyrical focus, and often inspiring a sense of reverent grandeur with some of their musical passages, even when the lyrics were minimal or completely absent. Twilight and the Travel series easily rank among my favorite records of the 2000s. The early 2010s saw my faith in the band falter slightly, as they put out the still-good-but-not-quite-epic Young Man Follow, a few follow-ups to their first Advent Christmas EP that were pretty but not quite as strong, and the ballad-heavy record Pages just last year. Though I never actually reviewed it, I’ve made it pretty clear with any offhand mention of Pages elsewhere that I don’t exactly consider it a thrilling record. I don’t want to belabor the point here, as I’m supposed to be reviewing the band’s new record Awakened to the Sound, but it’s important to note that Awakened was released a mere year and a half after Pages. That would seem to imply that Eric Owyoung, the band’s mastermind and only permanent member, probably had the ideas for both albums kicking around in his head before starting either of them, or at least before Pages was complete. Because while the arrangements on Pages were often quite simple – usually just a piano or acoustic guitar, a duet vocal, and some modest instrumental adornment – Awakened is the kind of record that you don’t just throw together. This is the kind of record that has to be composed and arranged, not just merely written. And while I’m thrilled at the inclusion of a few more urgent, adventurous tracks that use vocal chanting and booming drums to great effect, I think it’s important for me to clarify that this is not a rock record by anything but the loosest definition of the term. Guitars may come into play on a few tracks, but the piano, string, percussion, and some other exotic bits of instrumentation (particularly the sarangi, heard frequently due to some of these tracks being a collaboration with Indian musician Suhail Yusuf Khan), are far more prominent. It’s not a strictly classical record, either. It’s the sound of both Eastern and Western classical sensibilities meeting up with an indie/baroque pop sort of sound and embarking on a highly scenic journey together. At times that journey is taken at more of a frantic, galloping pace, but for the most part, it takes its time and enjoys the majestic views. Some patience will be required here, especially if you’re expecting the immediate hooks or more “rocky” climaxes of those early FoF records.
The lyrics are probably where it’s most obvious that this is still a Future of Forestry record at its heart. Eric Owyoung has long been fascinated with the concept of taking listeners on a spiritual journey – he based the entire Travel series around musical personifications of different modes of transportation, after all. The longing for home – a nation to call one’s own, a place of spiritual belonging – resonates throughout these twelve tracks in a way that seems like it must have come from an especially personal place this time around. Like a lot of his songwriting, it’s easy for me to feel like a song is saying quite a lot, and then look at the lyrics and realize he’s actually saying very little, but the music is communicating more than enough emotion and painting more than enough of a picture to fill in the gaps. This is a guy who likes to set the mood and let the listener’s mind go where it may, and he doesn’t set out to prove points with his songs or to preach at the listener. A number of these songs certainly have God on their mind, and I’m totally comfortable calling this a “Christian” record, for whatever that’s worth in the fully independent climate where Future of Forestry operates. But it’s also worth noting that you can listen to an instrumental version of Awakened on Spotify, which I think is worth doing at least once to get at the nuances of some of the underlying arrangements in these songs, and if you were to listen to that wordless version in a vacuum without being told it was Future of Forestry, you’d have almost no way to connect it to any of their previous work. In some ways, it’s a challenging listen even for their longtime fans. There are a handful of slower songs that, when the record comes to an end, I have to admit didn’t make as much of a mark on my memory as I would have hoped for. But when this record is strong, it’s really powerful, in an otherworldly sort of way. Their ability to do that is the essence of what still intrigues me about Future of Forestry after all these years of their sound being rather unpredictable from one record to the next.
1. On Giant’s Shoulders
As soon as the strings start busily humming at the beginning of this song, you know you’re in for an adventure. As Eric sings the first verse, inviting us out of the harsh desert to the banks of a cool, refreshing river, it feels like a call to action similar to the title track from Young Man Follow. Then Khan’s chanting leaps out at you during a break in the verse. If that doesn’t get your attention, turn up the volume a little. This record does seem mixed a bit quietly compared to their others, which is perhaps an attempt to give it some dynamic range. While it bugs me a bit that some of the softer parts of the album are nigh inaudible at my usual volume setting when there’s any white noise in the room, I can’t deny that it makes the chorus of this song really powerful when it kicks in. (And I highly recommend listening to this album at full volume – it really accentuates the climactic moments of some of the softer tracks later on.) “Your heart has brought you to this land!”, Eric cries excitedly. “You’re standing on giant’s shoulders!” As the thundering drums come crashing in, reminiscent of classic FoF tracks like “So Close So Far” or “Hills of Indigo Blue”, you can practically see the cavalry come roaring over the horizon to save the day. This is the single most thrilling song that FoF has come up with in a very long time. It’s a stellar way to kick off the record.
2. Covers You
I hate that my first reaction to a much more spacious, slowly unfolding song that immediately follows a downright huge opening track is usually to think that it’s too slow or takes too long to “kick in”. I made that complaint about “Words that You Say” on Something Like Silas’s album forever ago, and that became one of my favorite songs of theirs. And I felt that way about this one at first. The rolling piano melody in triple meter is restrained, but beautiful, especially as the strings interweave with it somewhere around the second verse. But it takes until after the bridge for the full force of it to come in. And I’ve realized, despite my initial hesitation, that the song needs to establish a feeling of intimacy before hitting you with the climax. Eric’s vocal melody is really interesting here, shifting through what sounds like a few key changes in the middle of each verse and he sings of the beauty of a sprawling landscape awakening a person’s heart to the sound of God’s love. It’s comforting without being in any way schmaltzy. And of course, my favorite part is when those rolling snare drums finally come in for the final chorus. Each time it drops into that chorus feels like something special, though, because there’s a key change there as well, and it’s fascinating to me how there’s complexity in the little musical details and yet the song is so straightforward and soothing on the surface. This’ll grow to be one of my favorites over time, I’m guessing. For now I’m ranking it as “pretty darn good”.
I’m not going to pretend that this one doesn’t get me feeling all weepy inside. Songs about lost children finding home tend to do that to me these days. Eric takes on a very fatherly, comforting tone here, probably meant to represent the voice of God, as he reassures his child, “In my voice you will know the sound of hope”. The melody here is simple and a bit repetitive, yet it resonates with the power of something far more ancient than it actually is. I love how the seeming dissonance of the sarangi at the beginning, and the sound of the tabla drums, give it the feeling of wandering through a foreign land, and then of course when it’s time for the big finish, along come the huge drum hits and stomps and claps that make it sound like a village celebrating the return of a long-lost citizen. Pretty much everything here is ingeniously orchestrated. A part of me likes to daydream that one of these days, I’ll be singing the words of this song to a young child as a lullaby.
The nautical-themed lyrics in this song really take me back to the days of Travel II, but this is one of the more subdued songs on the album, so it doesn’t really remind me of it musically. For some reason the mid-tempo electric guitar groove on this one strike me as “dry”. it’s a nice, light groove complemented by a mellow drum beat, but it’s the strings that really provide the action, plucking about during the verses, and then swooping in dramatically during the refrain, as Eric implores us to “Turn against the current”. Once again he’s taking on the persona of a loving, guiding voice that clearly has a person’s best interest at heart. It’s a perspective that he often sings from, as if trying to capture the things that God is teaching him, song by song as he works through it all in his daily life. I could see this one fitting into the narrative between “Set Your Sails” and “Slow Your Breath” down just perfectly, but the song is on this album, so I should really stop trying to put it on an older one.
5. She Walks in Beauty
As I’m sure a lot of musicians have done before him, Eric sets the words of poet Lord Byron to music here, and his version gets an appropriately tranquil, yet lush backdrop, which appropriately fits the lyrical theme of a man admiring a woman who seems to be the pure embodiment of grace and light. It’s not a love song per se (I think Byron originally wrote it about his cousin), but the overall demeanor of it feels like a better executed version of the lovey-dovey atmosphere FoF tried to establish with several of the slower songs on Pages. You’ll probably like this if “If You Find Her” is one of your all-time favorites by the band. I personally struggle with it a bit – I admire the intent and it’s the most decidedly classical track on the album. I’m not sure Eric’s vocals 100% fit the setting (this is sort of like how I felt about the title track from Jimmy Eat World‘s Integrity Blues, now that I think of it), and it doesn’t have a set tempo to speak of until the piano gives it a gentle rhythm to follow in the final verse, meaning the words can ebb and flow with whatever thoughtful pauses Eric deems necessary. It’s a bit more structured than when Björk does stuff like this, I guess.
Remember how I said that listening to “On Giant’s Shoulders” made me feel like the cavalry had arrived? Admittedly it’s easy to confuse that song with this one, which literally mentions horses carrying someone through grasslands, and which has a very similar mood to it, from the repeating pattern of strings that opens it to the dramatic percussion breakdown during the chorus. What’s different is that Eric’s lyrics (which are sung mostly in falsetto) are even more minimal here, and the chorus sounds like it’s being sung by a choir of either women or young boys. It may well be the “soundtrackiest” thing on the record, and I could see it fitting a scene from a historical epic where the heroine either clinches a victory or has some sort of a harrowing near-death experience. Something she’d need courage to face either way, I guess. The Latin in the chorus translates to “today is the day”, which could be encouraging or ominous, depending on how the wailing strings, blasting horns, and what I like to call the “war drums” strike you.
On paper, there’s very little to this song other than a paraphrase of Jesus’ words: “Come to me you weary; I will show you rest.” It’s how the song builds up to it that I find striking. Since the first few minutes are a somber piano intro, I actually thought the entire track was going to be instrumental, and in a way it almost is, with the lyrics serving as a mantra rather than following a standard verse/chorus structure. But it’s pretty clear when the piano picks up a little bit of speed and the plucked strings come in that we’ve reached the meat of the song. Its slow build to a crescendo is really well earned, and I like how it drops back down to the quiet piano melody it started with at the end. This track might be the album’s best example of “composition” being more meaningful than “songwriting” in terms of how a song communicates with the listener.
8. Edge of the Sea
Another very minimalistic song is up next, feeling like bits of poetry with a lot of slow-moving instrumentation padding them out, and while I’m not opposed to this approach in principle, this is where I have to admit I start tuning out the details because there are a few too many down-tempo tracks in a row. This one, like “She Walks in Beauty”, has no rhythmic mooring to speak of – it’s a long, slow swelling wave of emotion, and I like the mood being set here, but I think the track takes a bit too long to unfold. Coming after “Rest”, this one feels a bit redundant, to tell you the truth.
It’s weird – I tend to characterize this one as a “slower” song even though the violin and piano melody it uses as a hook is actually fairly upbeat and cheery. I think it’s because it feels a bit static compared to the other songs – it starts off very likeable, but doesn’t really build or do anything else all that impressive once it’s played the few cards it has to play. There’s some drum buildup at the end, but it’s not as noticeable as it is elsewhere. Breaking out of the minor-key moodiness is a nice change of pace, though, and I do like the hopeful charge given in the lyrics: “Summoned from our cities/To spaces deep and wide/To shelter young and innocent/And gather all the wise.” The chorus is rather weak in its attempt to follow-up on this, making me wonder if perhaps Eric forgot to write the last two lines of it: “It’s what you give/It’s how you love/Oh, oh.” While I can admire the art of using as few words as necessary to communicate a message and letting the music do the rest, you probably want to choose your words and syllables a little more carefully, especially when you’re being positive and upbeat and it all threatens to turn into meaningless glurge.
10. You Are Love
I hate to feel like the limit of my patience is being pushed with all of these down-tempo tracks, especially when this one brings back the otherworldly sound of the sarangi and some other beautiful instruments like the harp and some choral backing vocals. There’s just so much vast space in the back half of this album (compounded by the fact that if you’re listening casually, you’ve probably kept the volume at a level acceptable for the louder moments that haven’t occurred since “Horses”) that I feel like there’s a lot of beauty that needs to try a little harder to make sure it’s heard and remembered. I can’t complain about Eric’s lyrics this time. They are pretty much a Biblical paraphrase: “You’ll trade their ashes for our roses/You’ll trade their sorrows for our joy/You’ll take their wreckage and their rubble/To build a world of truth and life.” He’s been slowly weaving a tale of a lost, wandering person or tribe or something like that, finally discovering who they were created to be and emerging from a long sojourn in the wilderness. Thematically, this song is on point. Musically, despite the solid performance, I keep forgetting that this song is even here. I feel like such a song might work better in the hands of an artist like Timbre who would make it stand out more vocally.
11. Life Begins Today
From the entire back half of this album, this is the song that stood out the most to me on first listen, because after the verse tricks you into thinking it’s going to be another slow, poetic movement, a defiantly poppy chorus kicks in and part of me is like, “Finally!” and part of me is like, “What the heck?” I mean, it’s not mainstream programmed pop or anything. But there’s a bounciness to it, kept aloft by the perky strings, that make it feel like we’ve suddenly switched from soundtrack mode to “Hmmm, I guess this record needs a radio single” mode. The patched-together quality of articulate lyrics with generic ones that I discussed above under “Canyons” is very much a factor here, too. The verse may contain some of the best word-weaving Eric’s done yet: “As sunlight paints her colors/Across the eastern skies/The westward murmurations/Of starling birds float by.” This all feels like it’s building up to something very profound and victorious, and then: “Say good morning to the day, yeah!” That’s pretty much the entire chorus. It’s a very distracting juxtaposition of lyrical and musical styles, and I’m almost convinced that this chorus began life as a commercial jingle. “Start your morning off with 8 essential vitamins and minerals! It’s Future of Forestry brand breakfast cereal! Say good morning to the day (TM)!”
12. The Wait Is Done
This song also pulls a surprising switcheroo on the listener midway through, but this time it’s more in the sense of how a lot of soundtracks will end with some sort of a reprise and closing credits, all on the same track. Honestly, I never remember much about the slow first few minutes of this track (because at this point, it sounds like a few other tracks that have done similar things with similar instrumentation), though in looking at the lyrics, I can appreciate the narrative satisfaction of having finally arrived at that promised place one can call home. If the first part of the song were the reflective final scene of a film, the more upbeat second half that suddenly kicks in, with the drums and strings and acoustic guitar and choir – and of course the sarangi – building to a loud, rhythmic crescendo would definitely be the part that plays when the credits roll and all but the faithful few hoping for a post-credits sequel hook scene are sticking around to enjoy it. It really makes me wonder – would a lot of the slower-moving pieces of music on this album resonate more with me if they were set to a visual? And if so, how does that compare to the tracks that were perfectly captivating on their own with only my mind’s eye to flesh out the possible action that might happen onscreen? Am I just the wrong audience for parts of this album? I can’t really answer these questions, but I’m grateful that, despite it feeling a bit long and tedious toward the end, this album does genuinely end on a high note.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
On Giant’s Shoulders $2
Covers You $1.25
She Walks in Beauty $.75
Edge of the Sea $.50
You Are Love $.50
Life Begins Today $1
The Wait Is Done $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: