After Geography – Forest Robots (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

Music, all too often, sounds very much like the product of the human world. Even when it is trying to express more abstract concepts, talking about the wider world or dealing with intangible ideas such as emotions and feelings, it still generally sounds, without wanting to sound obvious, man-made. How could it not? What has always been appealing about Forest Robots is, well, everything really, but most of all is the fact that not only does the music express something of the natural world, it often feels as if it is woven from the very sounds found in that place.

When you learn a bit more about the man behind the music you begin to understand the connection between the sound and the world it is describing. Fran Dominguez is not only a seasoned mountaineer with over 400 ascents under his belt, he can also add 6000 miles of outdoor exploration across all manner of terrains to his resume. And if that explains where he draws the inspiration, it is the “why?” behind the music which is even more revealing. The music which he makes as Forest Robots is a love letter about nature written to his daughter as a way of expressing his love of the outdoors, and the environmental concerns that go along with that passion, to act as a sonic legacy for her to cherish.

Even before you get to the music you are confronted with a number of striking aspects. Firstly the album artwork, two minute figures in the foreground, dwarfed by the enormity and majesty of nature, which goes some way to setting the tone and scope of what is to follow. Secondly there is the name of the artist, simultaneously conjuring the fairly tale notion of a lost robot living out its quiet life alone, deep in the woodlands, or perhaps suggesting a more sinister vision, one of automated cutting tools and earth moving equipment, hell bent of changing the landscape forever. Perhaps it is the interface between his electronically derived music and the green of the natural world? All are possible. Finally there is the intrigue of the titles, as if a poet had been given the task of writing the chapter headings of an academic book about geo-physics, or perhaps the notes of a geologist working out possible lines for a haiku!

And only then, having soaked up all of that information can you fully understand and appreciate the music. It is wonderfully co-incidental that as I write this a summer storm is brewing in the distance, the air has grown heavy and thunder is starting to rip and growl, a portent of what is coming this way. It reminds me that even in our modern, fabricated urban towers, we still have no control over the natural forces which have shaped this earth and which continue to do so. This feeling of inevitability and insignificance only makes After Geography a more poignant listen.

Forest Robots is a world which celebrates sound over instruments, textures instead of melody, drift rather than groove. A place where the ambient end of avant-garde electronica, synth-wave, contemporary classical and delicate drone music all find common ground. It is music about evocation, outward gazing rather than revelling in its own identity. It is both a signpost towards and a description of, the natural world in all its glory.

A Detailed Cartography rolls the album open, like mists parting as you walk into its realm, an ebbing and flowing drone punctuated only by the sound of bass strings being plucked, though equally likely to be field recordings of cracking ice or shifting sands manipulated into more harmonious sonics. Of Migrating Birds in The Distance is a Xylophonic dance, mimicking perhaps the geometric intricacies of their flight patterns and Over The Drainage Divide is a brooding slice of pure understatement, claustrophobic yet distant, like the storm clouds I mentioned earlier.

If there is a general theme to all of Forest Robots music, there is a more specific one at work here to. Although born out of a Ringo Star pun, that the album that became Revolver should be named After Geography in response to the Stones’ Aftermath…gedit?… it is a phrase which has taken on a more poignant meaning. Any outdoor traveller, cross-country adventurer and mountaineer plans meticulously before striking out into the wilds but you can only plan so much. Much of the thrill of such adventures is being faced with something that you haven’t accounted for, some freak of nature, literally, something that occurs, beyond the scope of your planing and After Geography has been accounted for. It is this feeling which is the heightened factor in the music. Sometimes the drifting ambience is actually a brooding undertone, the delicate sounds and half-heard noises are the portent for something dangerous closing in.

But even these more threatening suggestions are masked in the beauty of the landscape. Glacial Architecture of The Mountain Corridor is an orchestra of cool icicle chimes and the gentle breathe of the mountain wind, Night Sky Over The Face of A Nearby Tarn gives the suggestion of stars blinking on and off across the inky black waters of the mountain lake and All Across the High Plain After The Storm describes the sensations encountered in the wake of a storm; the release of tension, the coolness of the breeze, the heightened smell of the ground and grass and the relief following the passing of danger.

As expected, After Geography is a glorious act of understatement and minimalism, it is also a wonderful expression of abstract communication, one where words aren’t needed, in fact they would only hamper the dialogue, the experience of the natural world is rendered into its sounds.

We can’t all climb mountains or explore the majesty of the natural world, but we can use music like this to bring some of that world into our lives. You can try to relate to it, understand it and listen to its message or you can meditate to it, use it as a soothing soundtrack, take in what it haas to say by osmosis, soaking up its vibe and vibrations. Whatever you do with it, your life will be improved for having such music in it. But more importantly, although the music was created to be an intimate expression of love, life and nature between a father and daughter, it is also a universally relatable idea. An idea which will hopefully make us all think more about the world around us, our relationship with it and hopefully how we react with it as a person, a society, a nation and a species. One which is perhaps just a brief, but possibly devastating, footnote in a story which began billions of years ago.

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