An album that’s half space rock and half Animal Collective worship. Which side wins? Unfortunately, neither.
You might be thinking, “Enough already with the bands who drop woods into their name” -- as if referencing nature bespoke some kind of authenticity in this hipster-dominated world. Well, this quartet of mountain men from Denver, CO, look the part (beards), but luckily, they aren’t doing just another folky-indie thing. Rare Forms is Woodsman’s second proper album, though the band has put out some long EPs and CD-Rs. The major difference with this release is that Woodsman has morphed from an instrumental group to one that sometimes has vocals. Of course, these vocals are buried in the mix of percussion, tape loops and guitars, so it’s not like they’re trying to sell out or anything.
Now whether or not the addition of vocals to the mix is an improvement is a matter for debate. Rare Forms really seems to want to go in two directions: one is space rock and the other is an Animal Collective-inspired jam band. The space rock sound winds up book-ending the Animal Collective cover album: at the beginning and end, you get one personality, and in the middle, you get another. Now, Woodsman’s Animal Collective debt has been noted before by reviewers, but it seems to have developed quite to such a degree as to be almost problematic.
Let’s start with the less interesting part first: the Animal Collective collection of songs is inaugurated by the aptly titled “Spectral Creatures”, a minute’s full of rumbling drums. (Two of the band members are percussionists, by the way, as they should be). The next four songs build the shimmering, rippling, and humming using the same palette of sounds that Animal Collective uses. The zenith of this paint-by-numbers is the watery production of “Beat the Heat”, an almost shameless Panda Bear imitation but without the catchiness. It’s like they were working up the courage with the last few tracks to actually do it.
It seems however that Woodsman really isn’t interested in writing songs in the Animal Collective vein. Sure, these guys have proven they can do good, droney psych jams, but can they morph into catchy experimental pop? Let’s just say, Woodsman’s strong suit isn’t coming up with dynamic melodies. Maybe it’s a commitment to the lo-fi aesthetic of mixing all the instruments in together, without the vocals out in front. Either way, the songs don’t have a central vocal theme and thus don’t cohere into a pop formula. They still have that instrumental, drone-heavy quality -- so that the songs in the middle end up sounding like scratch tracks for Animal Collective songs.
But there is something good in here too. What Woodsman does that’s more interesting and perhaps even more pertinent is the other half of the album, the spacey drone. The first track on the album is probably the best, but it’s maddeningly misleading. “Insects” has a heavy sound driven by a reverb drenched in delayed guitar chords, around which weaves a looping pentatonic lead that references John Squire from the Stone Roses. The vocals actually soar in this song, rather than sounding timidly imitative. Woodsman is doing their version of late ‘80s or early ‘90s British rock, a mix of shoegaze and spacerock. (Think a less bombastic Verve doing Spacemen 3 covers).
Now, the space rock direction isn’t necessarily less derivative -- or even less timely than sounding like Animal Collective -- but that isn’t the point. Rock is about making repetition new. Woodsman certainly has the repetition down, but the group could improve on the making it sound new. For example, “Insects” builds and the guitar starts to do some really interesting things in the interludes, and right then, the song abruptly stops. They manage to pull out a couple more instrumental tracks in this vein, even mixing in some Earth type Western drone. And then this band takes five until two songs towards the end of the album: “Inside/Outside” and “Serfer”.
It makes you wish Woodsman had decided to explore this more compelling half a bit further -- even if it only came up to an EP. In the end, the two directions don’t come together in an enlightening way. If Woodsman stuck to the heavier and ultimately more interesting sound, at the very least it would actually sound adult (emphasizing the “man” rather than the “woods”).