Let’s part the curtain for a moment and acknowledge that most bands that you will hear about and have heard about over the last five years, even at the lowest and most fleeting levels of blog fame, either have a catchy and authenticity-enforcing backstory (Antlers, Bon Iver, Passion Pit), a friend in high places, or the ability to tirelessly email tracks to blogs and talk themselves up in every possible location and at every possible opportunity (or hire people to do so). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (okay, yes, it usually is a bad thing, but a few of these bands are actually great); it just tends to be how the game works. It makes for some funny contradictions, especially when people argue that the internet hype cycle is somehow more artistically pure than the now-faltering independent label system.
Forest Fire, on the other hand, have inverted the entire hype system with what at first seems like a curiously self-negating approach to being an internet-age band. They don’t have a bio or a label (though I’m sure they’ve had plenty of offers in regards to the latter, and Infinite Best has reissued their highly praised debut album Survival on vinyl), and their MySpace url is fuckforestfire. It’s puzzling at first for a journalist who is used to parsing through endless band bios jammed full of unwarranted comparisons and mushroom-cloud sized hyperbole in search of some straight biographical info, and it is terrifying that it took me as long as it did to realize that they do this because it gives writers no choice but to pay attention to the music, music being the thing that bands play if you’ve forgotten, which I pretty much had. And it works because the music is really, really good.
The no-bullshit attitude of the band matches their sound perfectly: their songs are tough and simple and not at all flashy. Mark Thresher’s vocals echo the slurriness of Marc Bolan, only a little more pissed off and less hung up on sex, and the songwriting shares some qualities with electric T. Rex as well, turning unadorned and deliberate (and often deliciously slow) strumming patterns into memorable rock songs, songs which function not as fixed pieces to be mechanically repeated, but as templates for the band to play with live. It really says something wonderful about a band when every version you can find of a particular song sounds different. For instance, an early live video of B-side “Fortune Teller” (which incidentally starts with one of my new favorite first lines: I only wanna seem good in front of the right people.) adds some eighth-note soul piano, electronic drums, punchy alto sax, and swoopy keyboards. Thresher is also laudably unafraid of letting his voice be heard, especially live, where he sometimes backs off from the mic to let out a full-voiced shout that almost makes him sound like a lost member of The Band.
Both of the tracks from this Ampeater single are songs that appear on the band’s aforementioned Survival LP, but these are live-recorded (and even more stripped down) versions that the band did for a Rough Trade bonus EP. Bands often expose their weaknesses in live and stripped down settings, revealing songwriting that turns out to be pallid without fluttery arrangements, guitar solos that reveal that the album’s solo was the best take out of 50 and vocals that would do better buried to the neck in guitars, but Forest Fire’s songs may even sound better when they’re pared down to almost nothing (not that the album’s arrangements are particularly florid, but still). Something about these versions of the songs pulses with a badass energy that tops even the performances on Survival.
A-side “I Make Windows” starts with some simple flute, tambourine and guitars. The chords are a pattern you’ve heard a thousand times before, but they have that mysterious renewable quality unique to all great rock songs where they somehow don’t remind you of any other song, and when the vocals come sliding in with the title phrase, it’s just perfect. Forest Fire are careful not to put anything unnecessary in their songs, and the twangy electric guitar that fills in a few of the empty spaces leaves just as many alone, because that spaciousness is a crucial part of the song, in the exact way that the line that starts the second verse is followed by about 12 seconds of open space. It takes a lot of maturity to let the songs unfold at their own pace, whatever that pace may be. The additional vocals on the chorus are perfectly understated as well, only leaping out of unison and into harmony occasionally, keeping the song tight and tough where, with the wrong choices, it could have been anthemic in the worst way (imagine the hugest production you can, with like 40 people singing that chorus and an orchestra and lots of booming drums). The guitar solos that follow each chorus walk the fine line between melodic lines and spiney, dissonant bursts, and the fact that they do so in the most exposed setting possible makes them even more impressive.
“Fortune Teller” starts with that perfectly incisive first line, which, like much of “I Make Windows” unfolds with a surefooted slowness and let’s you know that there’ll be no wasting words here. The song then then climbs in tension to the line why not kill someone you hate?, which I’m going to maintain is a pretty bold idea to express in a rock song, especially when your band isn’t one that specifically gains cred from being edgy or buries its lyrics in layers of noise. It’s a hair out of context here, but to me it sounds like an expression of the frustration of being forced into all sorts of stupid social niceties. The phrase gatling gun social skills touches on a certain violence and coldness that lies underneath all the phony handshaking and schmoozing required of most of us every day. A slightly out of tune toy piano is sprinkled throughout the song, one of the only arranging touches besides the shakers and tambourine that carry the rhythm, lending the whole thing a slightly creepy air that fits with the sharp darkness of the lyrics. In both songs, Forest Fire pull off the other rock n roll mystery trick of making things that are out of tune sound totally legit and not fishy at all.
Forest Fire deserve your ears not because they don’t have a band bio or because I find thoughtless internet music writing irritating, but because they write fantastic, subtle songs and perform them without holding back. They are one of a dwindling crop of bands finding listeners almost solely on the basis of their music, and that means a lot at a time like this.
I Make Windows
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem084/01 I Make Windows.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem084/02 Fortune Teller.mp3