Exactly where do things start with Forest Fire? You’re excused not knowing or having heard much of them, Staring At The x is the Brooklyn/Oregon five piece’s first release since 2008’s Survival album, and it’s slid into the indie firmament with little fanfare and perhaps limited coverage since its actual release last autumn. I chanced upon the album while researching other new releases on the band’s label FatCat, and I quickly realised I’d made something of a find. The culmination of several years work from this committed group of NYC musicians, Everything about Staring At The x is tightly controlled and composed, from its guitar chords through its electronic bass lines right up to the mixing board pyrotechnics that propel the songs forward.
Firstly, “Born Into” grinds into life with a pre-industrial rhythm and a bewildering array of densely packed guitar and electronics which cut out to give Mark Threshers vocal the space it needs with an audible jolt. The track sets the tone of the album immediately, one of electro-harmonics and tribal percussion, and mixing board pyrotechnics given a subtle gloss in the production that adds just enough depth to the songs and provides the entire album with propulsive, verging on entirely warped energies. After three (at least) years of writing and rehearsing, Forest Fire are presenting us with their fully formed masterpiece and perhaps their label are keeping them slightly hidden just to ensure that their work isn’t watered down or condescended to. Listening to Staring At The x really does resemble gaining admission to an exclusive and ultra-hip nightclub, a gig you didn’t know what to expect from which turned into one very memorable evening.
The album’s highlight “They Pray Execution Style” really shows Forest Fire utilising everything at their disposal. A crashing bassline provides a backdrop for Natalie Formann’s nihilistic vocal: “don’t make those plans / don’t go to the doctor / don’t smile for the neighbours” before the song takes a turn into industrial disco without sounding either overly ironic or reverential. It’s the one track on the album that might make even the most jaded hipster pay more attention to what Forest Fire are able to achieve, and Nathan Delf’s reverberating guitar lines recall Spacemen 3 and then MGMT as the song crawls to its verging upon frenzied conclusion.
The album’s title track is a laid back, bluesy drawl of a song that’s the only noticable reference to Forest Fire’s folk influences on the album, although it’s comparitively lo-fi ambiences are no less potent for that. “Blank Appeal” might’ve started off as a similarly acoustic number but is given a blasting electronic backing that takes the song to a very different place entirely. Finally, at just over eight minutes, “Visions In Plastic” has Forest Fire pulling back on their more expansive instrumentation, a folktronica epic that gains in power as it progresses, swaying and euphoric at the same time.
I very nearly didn’t get to hear Staring At The x although I’m very pleased that I did. It’s alternately epic, intimate, subtle and ultimately almost overwhelming in its scope and defined power and after spending several years preparing the album, Forest Fire deserve more in the way of kudos than they might actually receive for their considerable efforts here.