by Michael Durek
Forest Managements Sharper Focus EP
10 Listens is a music review series where Michael Durek listens to an album at least 10 times, taking notes along the way: the aim is to give a comprehensive picture of an album.
Places listened: NYC subway; NJ PATH train; studio in Jersey City; home stereo system in Colonia, NJ; in the car.
On the fifth listen to Forest Management’s Sharper Focus EP, I had the feeling that I was hearing something very holy.
John Daniel seems to have journeyed through the electro-forest, uncovered some sonic gems, and presented them boldly in this four-track cassette on the Brooklyn-based Perfect Wave label. The music is minimalist, with an emphasis on texture rather than on harmonic development or rhythm.
It’s noteworthy that each track either stays grounded on the tonic or repeats a short progression from start to finish. None of the tracks have any kind of B section, and there are few discernible leads. By contrast, most evocative ambient workstake the listener on a harmonic journey. Forest Management’s own 2012 release, Transparent, employs this structure. The music “leaves home,” undertakes a harmonic adventure, and then returns. But John Daniel isn’t interested in doing that with Sharper Focus. He invites everyone into his home—and nobody is allowed to leave.
My first few times listening to this release, I was surprised by how little each track changes. Slowly building drones or chord changes do add tension to the work, with additional voices joining the din. However, with the exception of “Nuance of Light,” this EP doesn’t make normal use of tension and release. On many of my listens, I was missing that balance. I kept wanting the chords to change or for a melody to develop.
Although harmonically static, there are many interesting sounds to pay attention to—it’s a catalog of gritty and smooth drone sounds, with liberal use of reverb. As the mind quiets down, even the most simple experience becomes rich with detail—a fiery sea of sensation. Sharper Focus is aptly titled for this reason. The listener is invited to attend to very subtle shifts in timbre and tone. When my mind let go of the need for the music to tell a story, it was at times delightful and stimulating to focus on the subtle modulations.
The six-minute opening track “Cathartique” loops the same I-IV progression throughout the piece. Delightful, distant overtones are featured on this track, and on the EP in general. A myriad of synth and string sounds blend together in a wash of reverb, and this creates overtones that dance together like those of a large, well-tuned men’s choir in Notre Dame.
“A Moment Before Exiting” repeats the same bass note every half minute or so over the course of the nearly eight-minute track. With each repeat, something changes—a new voice enters, a slight detuning of an existing note, a change in volume, and so on. Towards the end, there are organ drones that turn into a dominant 7th chord, later adding the 6th—hinting at a mixolydian modality. While there are few clear melodic lines, there are plenty of familiar harmonies. Dissonance is used sparingly, and the chords softly ooze into each other.
“Nuance of Light” is my personal favorite. I could just listen to it forever, and it is the one track that seems truly transcendent. Harmonic development plays a larger role in this track, and it’s carried by a slow major-scale melody. The repeating progression bursts into a wash of beautiful overtones and conveys a blissful mood. On each repeat, it builds and builds, and there is a slow release at the end. The piece makes a soft, gradual landing.
On the whole, Sharper Focus is a unique EP. It carves out a niche between more traditional ambient music and more abstract drone music. It’s a statement, an experiment, and has many fruits for the adventurous listener.
MICHAEL DUREK is a Jersey City-based multi-instrumentalist and producer who performs as theUse, is in Pas Musique, and works with many others. He has contributed to Caliper Music blog, Impose magazine, and Tape Op magazine.