At the 4:00 mark of “Badlands”, the emotive, built-up ninth track from Forests’ heavily anticipated debut full length, The Moon is Man, the album’s umpteenth massively catchy hook begins stabbing toward one last rollicking series of whoa whoa whoas. This nearly minute-long series of licks, offbeat mid-bar starts and idiosyncratic ticks is as improvised-sounding as any moment on this album – of which there are many. Buried in this segment is the sound of a cable being adjusted or stepped on or possibly bumped at an amp input - and the resulting electronic interference. Whatever the cause, it’s a sound that signifies and kind of sums up all that is fleeting and live-feeling about this debut record. This feeling, as hard as it is to pin down, is something that is woven into each of this album’s nine tracks. Make no mistake, this thing is alive.
“Split Hate Ender”, which keeps getting reshuffled in my mind to become Split End Hater (recent sunny days and chlorinated pools), ushers fresh listeners into a kind of grunge-oriented universe. Grunge here is used really only to contextualize the song’s sound, not to dredge up rainy ghosts from some far off northwestern state’s days of defining the sound. In any case, Jon Du’s scream-wail vocalizations, blanketed for the most part by the song’s heavily distorted main guitar/bass hook, are best understood by way of those half daydreamed terms that minds imagine into existence in the absence of actual understandable lyrics – a trend that continues through most songs on the album. At barely 2:33, the song strikes a reasonable balance between not wearing out this song’s single riff welcome and being a strong inroad into Forest’s thickets.
“Something Genius” introduces Du’s first few sets of vocalized wah wah wahs, which meld with Tseng Kuo-Hung’s low frequency stoner growls to effectively steer the song, and the album as a whole, away from anything resembling the quickly definable. Strands of the dark and strange lurk around the edges of the song, but these strands never really let you take them too seriously. And so, as with much of the album, the most resonant emotion at song’s end is a lingering, weird, joy.
Du’s cascading guitar notes and Tseng’s buttery smooth and hooky bass line are “Little Minnow”. Combined with Luo Dzun-Long’s use of nearly every percussive surface within reach – and within the space of just a few bars – “Little Minnow” is a technically tight, though simply constructed arrangement. Systematic forays into short bursts of sonic chaos aside, the song is more or less as straight forward as A, B, (bridge), C.
“Cracked Ice” doesn’t last long enough for it to really arrive. While it feels a little underdeveloped at 1:50, it pops in with some random-sounding guitar hits, shouts some stuff, sounds like it’s riding the range with a bunch of cowboys on acid, “hates the devil” and welcomes in the next song, “God as the Devil”, the album’s (so I say) intermission piece. This track has the protagonist running with the devil over a veneer of sparse guitar and whisper-sung sublingual utterances. Tseng’s insistent, though nicely sporadic-sounding bass line eventually leads the number away from a rare feeling of building tension into a fun, if predictable, noisy finish.
Following this brief tour of Du’s perversely pious valium ranch, the band hits (the forest) floor with all paws galloping. “The Fool” is lined with vocalizations and bass maneuvers that are summery and nostalgic and seem to bare the mark of bassist Tseng’s prior project, Sunset Rollercoaster. And you just end up falling in love with barely understood lyrics like “don’t wanna celebrate, I’ll follow you to your grave”. Intoned with an almost palpable knowledge that all such sweetness cannot endure, “The Fool” is an apt anthem for the end of summer.
“Bichii” builds up in such an even, non-rushed fashion that by the time vocals kick in at around 1:20 you’re totally ready without really knowing you wanted words to begin. Your brain is just singing along anyway and the fact that human voices suddenly begin is a bonus and because they so naturally slip into the song, it’s almost like they’re just another instrument, which is of course what they are. But oh, besides the whoas, waahs, and ohhs, you really want sometimes to know what actual words Tseng and Du are trading off. Whether or not impossible-to-understand lyrics are a downfall or not is totally up to the listener. Between these heartfelt vocal tradeoffs and the angular chord hits that stab in later on in the track, “Bichii” features some of the album’s most skilled song writing and what some might look to as precursors to exciting times Forests are yet to live.
Pinning down how screams and moans and other sublingual utterances are embedded with feelings of loss, anger and the aching that comes with admitting that something good will end, absolutely, is futile. The grim sweetness of loss is a black butterfly on a dark flower at midnight and it flies long before your senses connect with how and why and where. “Why Where You” contains all this business of fleetingness, along with some healthy doses of epic guitar/drum solo build ups and finishes with, for once, the very well understood lyric refrain, I said you’re a whore, Don’t creep in my head. It is repeated with conviction and you’ll believe it with every last scorned memory you possess.
And then we enter the “Badlands”, the final track on The Moon is Man. I know you can’t mention live shows in album reviews – so apologies. But if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve sweated and swayed and rolled with the slow burn of the build. You’ve pitched forward, head bowed to the rock gods, impelled by the tractor beams of this song’s indubitable appeal. A more astute critic might fret about the overuse of a single hook or the predictability of a return to said hook – again – after the breakdown. But fuck it, the song sums up the rawness of youth and summer and the coming of age of a scene so long in the making. This song captures the essence of what is an album very much caught in mid leap, an album not without flaws – but one that embraces the missteps and insecurities and pitches them, still breathing, back in your face.