The Contemplative Life / Sky Image
Forest Management (aka John Daniel of Cleveland) is a fairly new voice in the ambient/ minimal electronic/drone sphere but this past month has seen two releases from him. The first is a full length entitled The Contemplative Life released on the Cathedral Transmissions label. The second is Sky Image, a 20 minute, 4-song EP available as a 3″ CD via the Twice Removed label. One full length and one EP, both are excellent in part because they showcase different approaches to their respective formats to create two works that are distinct from each other but showcase Daniel as a guy to keep an eye on.
First, the EP format. Sky Image is an EP that takes it’s time building momentum. Specifically, it is the EP’s third piece and title track that serves as the climax of the whole affair. In a way, it’s a risky strategy to delay the piece de resistance given the short time span for the EP format, but Sky Image has a breathy confidence in knowing that it’s going somewhere. One of my first introductions to Daniel’s work was video of him playing live and what struck me was his patience – Daniel looks like he is legitimately engaged with every single note. And that’s what Sky Image is – it’s a work of patience for both creator and listener. As for the sound itself, most of the EP feels like it’s infused with two layers of sound: one being driven by melody, the other being an unending electrical hum that varies in degrees of hiss and hum. It’s as if the quaint, barely there sound of some power lines above a city scape have been recorded and cranked in the mix.
For the first two pieces on Sky Image, it’s as though that tension is in an unending dance between these two opposites in tension. It’s a moving but tense affair. The third piece and title track, however, finds the melodies rising above the fray. It feels like this is what all of this has been building to – this specific moment of synthesis. There’s an almost ethereal quality, as if some ascension has occurred. Final piece “Crystallize” returns to the minimal state of the first two pieces. Still, there is some lingering quality, some remained optimism of that previous piece that shines through, as if the atmosphere has changed irrevocably, permanently – no matter how subtly. And, really, that’s why Sky Image works – it may list four tracks, but it feels like a cohesive whole, each part inextricably linked to the next. Sky Image confidently builds toward its climax, never rushing, knowing the rewards await the listener.
As for the longer format, The Contemplative Life works as a journey as well but it’s much easier to disentangle the individual strands that comprise the whole. And the small marvel when looking at the two works side-by-side is that Daniel is able to approach the different formats with a sort of reverence for what each can achieve. As it relates to the longer format, he is able to make ambient music that works both as a series of smaller components and as a whole. One of the things Forest Management does so well is to write ambient songs that have an almost pop sensibility, sometimes even in terms of how they are structured. Despite the short length of the individual pieces, almost every piece builds to or revolves around a central melody that is memorable enough to linger in the listener’s mind after hitting stop. A prime example of this is second song, “Running Stop”, the album’s most instantly memorable melody. Unto itself, it’s evocative, it’s moving and, were this the world of pop music, its what record selling types would deem a first single. It’s also the second song after the opener, so there’s a lot of album left after hearing it. And it’s in keeping those songs in context that proof of Daniel’s skill lies.
As a whole, The Contemplative Life becomes more, well, contemplative. The songs become more immersive and layered as the album unfolds. But what’s impressive is that Daniel can move beyond a song like “Running Stop” to offer a series of songs that, while less ‘instant’, are equally charming when given their proper due. As the whole album unfolds, the works get dronier and more abstract. The three part series of “Stage” songs that comprise the middle of the album have the feel of someone turning the tone dial down as it progresses, giving the songs a more murky quality that feels like a journey toward something darker and more sinister. The album’s final track “Not Merely a Destination” is most similar to “Running Stop” in that the melodies are placed right at the forefront from the opening. But the tone of the album has completely evolved, it has a much more foreboding quality as it all comes to an end.
Both of these releases get better with subsequent listens. It’s not that they aren’t striking from the first listen, it’s just that they keep getting better with repeated listens. There’s a depth, nuance, and confidence to these works that make them quite striking once you spend some real time with them. Taken hand-in-hand, these two releases demonstrate Forest Management is a talent to take serious note of.