The soundscapes created by Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers are nothing if not panoramic. The band’s music is writ on a large canvass, epic and grand, yet always tied to the earth. So lush is their sound at times, it’s easy to forget that the primary lead instruments are acoustic: guitar, mandolin, banjo, and violin.
Part of A Forest of Arms was recorded in a cave, Ontario’s Tyendinaga Cavern; Great Lake Swimmers are fond of recording in unusual locales. Yet that big sky sound still comes through, no matter how claustrophobic the recording environment may have been.
This is the band’s sixth album, picking up where 2012’s New Wild Everywhere left off. In the interim, band leader Tony Dekker released two solo albums (one a covers collection). This prolificacy may be part of the reason A Forest of Arms isn’t quite as immediately catchy as New Wild Everywhere was. On initial listens, the songs share a bit of sameness with each other. Repeated listens reveal more breadth and depth then is first apparent, though.
The album is constructed in a loose circle, with closing song “Expecting You” being a rewrite of opener anthem “Something Like a Storm”, the lyrics differing only very slightly. While “Something” is all big choruses and tribal drumbeat, “Expecting” is slower and more acoustic, getting to the folksy roots of the track.
It’s within these two ends of a musical spectrum that Great Lake Swimmers sail their ship, with a common lyrical theme being the natural world. Whether it’s surreal lines like the one the album title comes from: “a forest of arms turning into fins / with ancient veins on granite chins” (from “Great Bear”) or passages like “Over the highways and in between aisles / and into the woods so deep / tough as a winter freeze / light as maple keys / where I will earn my keep” from “A Bird Flew in the House”, nature imagery is everywhere. This is one of the band’s selling points, setting them apart from many of their contemporaries and giving them an individual identity.
“I’m in someone else’s shoes”, Dekker sings in that song (“A Bird Flew in the House”). That identity crisis (shoe crisis?) continues two songs later in “I Must Have Someone Else’s Blues”, where he sings, “I can’t help staring at my shoes / I must have someone else’s blues”. The song is another anthemic number, and the most sing-a-long track on the album, with a driving beat, complete with backup whistling.
The quieter side of the band is best shown in “I Was a Wayward Pastel Bay”, a late night lullaby adorned with shaker percussion, gentle piano, and slight twang belying Dekker’s country music influences.
In the end, the strength of A Forest of Arms becomes more apparent with each listen. A solid album with a number of beguiling songs and a lot of spirit, it’s the sound of a band well into their musical journey, with many more miles still to go.