Book Of The Folded Forest
Before you even hear the first note, the Book Of The Folded Forest strikes you by the awkwardness of its cover. A bearded hunter from another era looks rather severe, a long rifle in his hand while a dead deer lies on the back of his horse. The background looks like a desolated wood, the morning fog seems to slowly dissipate and while you look closer a small hand-written inscription says: “Guard over my solitude”. Quite an enigmatic first encounter with the album to say the least… As you continue your exploration and open the 8-panel CD and DVD package designed by Urban9 and look at the 6 addition postcards tucked inside, as well as the wonderful accompanying poster, you find yourself transported right inside that strange and unsettling place inhabited by rather awkward characters. A little boy plays with sticks on a drum while his sister holds a sleeping fox. They look at you sternly. Elsewhere another girl and her ghost double are sitting on a stone. There’s nothing around but a couple of dead trees. This goes on and on and all the characters encountered look rather strangely out of place. Their awkwardness is only matched by the unsettling landscape they inhabit. Everything looks familiar and yet it all seems slightly disconnected from reality, like in a tale whose inhabitants are as much real as they are imaginary.
This pretty much sets the tone for the album itself. For an hour or so, the music takes you to this strange and solitary place where you loose yourself in dense woods and comforting clearings while animals pass nearby, unaware of your presence whilst you hear faint whispers emanating from the trees. Like the physical package, the record works as a tale more than a self-contained collection of songs and while the overwhelming presence of this elusive forest give the music a strong sense of place, themes of solitude and mourning seem to hover over the music throughout the album.
As in all of his precedent releases, Orla Wren delivers here a sound of incredible tactility and haunting beauty but overall the 13 compositions are much more ambitious and far-reaching in their scope compared to anything he’s done before. The instrumentation stretching from modular synthesisers, guitars and cellos to toy piano, flutes and singing bowls is still very intimate and wonderfully detailed, while throughout the record a slew of guest musicians and vocalists come and go from one song to the next, and in the process contribute to the otherworldly atmosphere of the album. All the tracks are so carefully orchestrated, so delicately constructed that exploring them feels like walking inside that mysterious folded forest where you meet spirits and ghosts from the past who appear and disappear as you follow the path. Like the physical package everything sounds familiar and yet neither the individual tracks or the whole album itself sounds like anything you’ve encountered before.
Most of the time, the music doesn’t follow discernible chord progressions and none of the songs on the album go anywhere in particular: they just branch out laterally, spreading like a dense rhizome and sending tendrils to see how far they can go while exploring emotional landscapes more than narrative chapters. Often, the instrumentation mutates throughout the course of a track without obvious shift of atmosphere and yet you feel the delicate impact of Orla Wren’s quiet orchestras taking you to places you’d never thought existed.
The first song ‘The words under the wood’ is quite representative of the overall album, not that each number will follow the same formula (far from it in fact), but it demonstrates quite beautifully the scope and compositional breadth of Orla Wren’s musical and poetic vision. The opening tones and sounds are so delicate that they conjure iridescent images of ice crystals melting on the surface of grass blades as if softness had suddenly been attached to a shell. Using diminutive melodic lines, field recordings and digital processing combined in wonderful kaleidoscopic motifs Orla Wren, aided by tale-teller Paddy Mann who provides vocals and plays acoustic guitar on the track, conjures a world of such graceful and restrained beauty that time seemed suspended as the life of a microscopic ecosystem ebbs and flows in slow-motion. In the middle section of the track nostalgic cello motifs played by Danny Norbury come and gently hover over Orla Wren’s echo garden until they dissolve in the enveloping silence of the folded forest.
Subsequent numbers are neither gentle ambient tracks nor synthetic folk songs. They just follow their path, gently exploring a particular physical, emotional and imaginary space. All the compositions are so open-ended, the main melodic motifs often buried beneath undulating veils of processed field recording and very tactile electronics, that listening to them multiple times leads to vastly different aural experiences. This is one of the main strengths of the album, nothing is clearly explicit, emotions are not forced upon the listener but suggested in the most understated way, so making the experience of this imaginary folded forest is like walking through an always changing landscape where secret voices and ephemeral sounds all breathe in unison below the surface of music and give you the freedom to access new emotional expanses upon each new listen.
In ‘Things you cannot keep’ for instance, as you try to peer through the outer layer of a mournful cello, vivid images appear as if they were refracted through the prism of buried memories. Snippets of child-like echoes, shards of sine waves suspended in space like dispersed sun-light leaking through holes in a log-cabin and processed birds calls are all bound together in such a way they give the main melodic elements an enveloping and warm quality in which to dwell throughout the track. But coming back to the song another time you’ll hear something else altogether, the voices will speak a different language, the light will cast an oblique shadow upon the trees and the birds will fly away, so you’ll now be experiencing the place through an unsettling prism, like coming back to a memory while not being able to grasp what you thought you had known for a very long time. Everything looks familiar and yet slightly alien. In a way, Orla Wren explores here the indecipherable folds and mysteries of memories, how one never comes back to the exact same place twice, only accessing retrieved moments through the changing filter of emotions, in fleeting parts more than in solid blocks of narrative.
In the very last song ‘Ashes from a long fire’, Paddy Mann comes back on vocals and gives a sense of circularity to the whole record. The tone is darker than in the opening track and somehow gives closure to the vast emotional landscapes encountered throughout the album. In a way, it feels like a surprising epilogue more so than a final chapter to the story of the folded forest and as such it will continue to haunt you after the final notes have died away in the receding silence of the listening space.
After a bit more than a month listening to The Book Of The Folded Forest and watching the seven wonderful videos on the accompanying DVD, I still can’t make sense of the mystery and irresistible appeal of this album. It is unsettling as much as it is re-assuring, the soft tones and crystalline atmospheres are always carefully balanced with feelings of solitude and loss. As I spend more time with it I can feel how, upon repeated listens, the music often triggers new fragments of buried memories that feel both disquieting and comforting while they cast oblique and changing shadows on my perception of the record. The album feels nostalgic and mournful on the surface and yet after a while I can see how beneath this veil of sadness and despair run powerful undercurrents of happiness and hope. It’s perhaps what Orla Wren wanted, to make an album simply reflecting the complexity of our nature, to make an album about what it is to be human. If that’s the case then he’s more than succeeded in his endeavours but more importantly he’s done it with such grace and humbleness that it is almost impossible to resist the quiet beauty of his musical world.
Loss unlinked me from you / While friend lit fires for me / On the upward swing, ringing / I found myself alive, breathing – Orla Wren