Staring at the X is a statement album, but you might not recognize it as such until about halfway in. Forest Fire were being a perfectly capable, occasionally decadent “weird folk band” (their words, not mine) back on 2009’s Survival – but this is a lurching, scorched, somewhat alienating nine-song suite, with a final third that comes together like a linked, cinematic ascendance.
Despite its lean build, it does not aim to be breezy; it aims to be digested, to be mulled over, to be paid attention to. Regardless of what conclusion you might reach, it’s pretty easy to applaud the band for their provocative chops; if they set out to turn heads and force a thoughtful examination, they’ve done it.
The bulk of the record is simply a build-up to the final, 8-minute, jangling epic ‘Visions in Plastic.’ Guided by Mark Thresher’s lazy-eye croon through a meaty drum-punch, dense guitars, and a distant, pearly organ – its personality cannot be understated. The things he sings are all cryptically confessional, to the point of sounding encoded – the final couple minutes are marked with the fuzz letting up and a waltz towards the sunset, which is a pleasure they righteously earn. Their dedication morphs a deceivingly simple idea into the record’s best song, constructed in the magic of laying everything on the table – you hear the shards of such egalitarianism earlier, but the last act hits the freewheeling-spirit nerves exceptionally. All the teasing before feels thoroughly justified.
Speaking of which, Forest Fire’s other ventures are decidedly closed-in. Staring at the X’s centerpiece is an elongated, post-kraut inversion called ‘They Pray Execution Style.’ It coalesces in shrunken, but tightly-wound percussion, angry slabs of synth buzz, and a delicately robotic cadence from Natalie Stormann. For a track shipped as the lesser cornerstone to ‘Vision in Plastic,’ it couldn’t be much more opposite; cold, synthetic and ominous, with not even a scarce dosage of the band’s sepia-toned Americana. It’s also the last stand for futurism – save for ‘The News,’ the first half of X is defined by a concentrated mix and spaceship vapor trails, as that reaches its final evolution on ‘Execution’ and the title track is introduced, a familiar, sepia jangle takes over.
I’d be lying if I didn’t prefer the arms-wide placidity of the latter, and perhaps the mutation at the top of the record makes me appreciate it more. A lot of the successes go back to Thresher’s voice; it has the strange, suspended power of making you beg for each of his deliberate syllables. The production is almost stupidly pristine; every little sound is disinfected to the point of immaculate clarity, which lowers the barrier of entry a little.
Frankly, Staring at the X’s only weakness might be that there’s not enough of it. Eight songs in 30 minutes is not the best way to leave a mark on the sound-hunter’s instinct, no matter how great the conclusion might be. A lot of these tracks are scarcely longer than two minutes, like little supporting sketches to help prop up their grander statements. I can appreciate Forest Fire’s album-makers tact, and I’m curious to know how many scraps from these sessions crowd the studio’s floor, but that’s also the reason their record feels oddly ajar – truncated, underdeveloped, missing-some-flesh etc.
Something grand and powerful generally comes from a place of indulgence, Forest Fire might be afraid of venturing into such territory despite their adeptness. The world should be ready if they ever make the leap.