If you're a deaf, tramp-like, fire-eating, unicyclist elf, then Forest might just offer the soundtrack to your life.
Where's a Lumberjack When You Need One?
It has taken me forever to produce this review of Forest's self-titled debut album originally released in 1969. This has probably warranted me the wrath of my editor and I may never be given another record to review. Maybe she already hates me, which would go some way to explaining why she sent me this assignment in the first place. The thing is, no matter how many different times I started writing, I had to stop myself from composing yet another diatribe of critical abuse.
If I'm to be honest, before this recording fell into my letterbox I'd never actually heard of Forest. And yet it seems that I should have. The band's mix of psychedelia and traditional folk music saw them hailed by John Peel. Apparently it was Peel who urged them to move down to London (from the small rural community of Walesby), and he even put them up. Things then seemed to worsen, sorry, escalate -- they found themselves on the same books as Pink Floyd and were soon signed to EMI's Harvest label, for whom they recorded two albums, this being the first. And fully partaking in hippie philosophy, the albums were true commercial flops. By 1973, Forest's fire had burnt out. Okay, okay, I'll leave the puns alone.
As we would expect from an acid folk band, the pastoral themes abound. Lyrically, there's no getting away from glades, whirling leaves, grass pillows 'neath willows, and soothsaying rain. Lines like "listen to the colour of dawn" offer us some synæsthesia (or mixed metaphors, depending on your point of view). And melodically, well, you have to wonder if they manage to see the wood for the trees (I lied about the punning). It is claimed that the accompaniment was partially improvised, but more orchestration is what is needed here. The idea of having a rolling lead vocal is in keeping with hierarchy-free ideologies, but often leaves the other two band members shouting haphazard harmonies in the background. The sleeve-notes inform us that, to augment their arrangements, Derek Allenby, Martin, and Hadrian Welham used instruments they found lying around the EMI studios. Unfortunately, the result is more disturbing than interesting. And did they really have to play them all at the same time? Come on boys, the use of pipes would have Pan turning in his grave. Check out "A Fantasy of You" to see what I mean. Not to mention its "In my mind, hair a dark chestnut brown" lyric -- careful now, that kind of fantasy is surely just too mind-expanding.
There are, however, moments that hint at late '60s underground relevance. "Sylvie (We'd Better Not Pretend)" is reminiscent of Ian Anderson's early vocal style, bearing in mind that Anderson wasn't yet singing for Jethro Tull when this album was recorded. Managing to look beyond the "Butterflies and bees, they live happily free" torment-of-a-lyric, "Lovemakers' Ways" carries with it some melodic themes that will be later used to great effect by the likes of Led Zeppelin. In fact, it comes as little surprise that Forest almost supported Deep Purple on a US tour. By the same token, it comes as little surprise that this idea was also dropped. That said, you can sense prog-rock just around the corner, even if it's a corner that can't be turned quickly enough.
Add to this list my personal favourite, "Fading Light", the twee "A Glade Somewhere" and the hey nonny-no "While You're Gone" as the three standout tracks on this album -- or at least, Forest doing what they do best -- and that just about wraps up the value of this disc. At times, listening to Forest brings home with a vengeance the meaning behind Et in Arcadia Ego . And here we are spoilt for choice when it comes to identifying what is dying a death. If you ever wondered why traditional English folk music never got the worldwide recognition that Irish trad got, then look no further than Forest. "Do You Want Some Smoke" has suffered badly the passage of time, belonging firmly to the Homo Surdus period. "Don't Want to Go" is six-and-a-half minutes of sheer hell. And the wanting-to-be-sing-a-long "ah's" of "Mirror of Life" echo through one's head as arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!.
It is possible to buy both of Forest's albums on one CD. Surely there's a Geneva Convention that outlaws this kind of persecution. For me, only archivists, historians, period enthusiasts, and music reviewers at the bottom of the food-chain will want to suffer this recording. You'd be better off rediscovering early Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Roy Harper, and Chinese water torture.
John Peel's original sleeve-notes are reprinted here carrying the title "Being a Singularly Boring Description of an Association with a Merry Group of Pranksters". But it's the sleeve-notes that are the most interesting thing here. Peel truly was a great music aficionado, but he didn't always get it right.