Many artists have produced nature-themed albums during the pandemic, but none as elaborate as The Hidden Forest. On this set, Anoice offers a forest experience that can be enjoyed by those who live in the cities and suburbs. The entry point is the thread of field recordings: brooks and breezes and birds. Atop this, the quartet, along with two guests, plays a lovely suite of modern composition, with occasional post-rock peaks. The overall effect is soothing and strengthening, a sonic reflection of forest bathing.
The project also boasts a sumptuous visual presence. Each of the seventeen songs was inspired by a Naoko Okada painting, which can be viewed in conjunction with the music. The paintings possess the magic of a children’s book, featuring a white dog in the forest, watching birds and fish, making friends as the seasons pass, showing curiosity (but not surprise) at the celestial objects that land in the forest. A small Saturn is present, along with a stranded nebula. The dog gazes over the ocean and curls at the foot of a stairway to heaven. Okada writes that the forest is within her, “freeing her heart from pain;” her visual metaphors suggest that not only the forest, but the idea of the forest, can do the same for others. The A4-sized edition is a treasure, not only for the size and majesty of the prints, but for the personal touch of a Polaroid photo taken by the band (mine is of a mushroom) in the very forest where they found rejuvenation.
The album begins with forest birds, an invitation to dream. Soon the piano and strings join in, establishing a mood of steadiness and calm akin to the tall trees. The dog is just setting out, but “long story” in this case refers not to the length of the track or album, but the history of the forest. In like manner, “a perfect day for a funeral” is open to all manner of interpretation; an electronic drone occupies the background like the persistent sadness of the pandemic, but the foreground is uplifting, while a sunbeam descends on dog and pool, lighting a flock of birds. In one sense, the funeral may be literal; in another, it may represent movement past a mindset toward one that is more functional. The piece ends in dark notes, acknowledging pain without giving in to it. The subsequent piece, “a quiet wish,” rests upon an unusual rainbow (violet and pink), spreading its wings in its second half as if the wish has been granted. The guitar and drums lift the piece into the post-rock realm and are sure to satisfy fans of the band’s fullest pieces.
Demonstrating laudable restraint, the band then retreats into drizzle and solitude. The album follows the time-honored pattern of peaks and valleys, albeit with more emphasis on the valleys. Percussion punctuates the drama of emotional struggle; “second coming” features military snare. Trees creak, crickets chirp, rain falls, and we realize that this is part of life, essential for growth. Okada’s specific struggles need not be named; we’ve all had a hard year, and can relate. But we can also relate to hope, and the pairing of painting and sonic illustration prods our imaginations, reminding us that while optimism may seem to land in the field of sci-fi, it is still available to us, even now, even here.
The titles of the closing pieces ~ “twilight,” “waiting for the light,” “depth of sleep,” “the promised day,” “while sleeping” ~ imply yearning, but also trust and belief. The white dog rests in two of the paintings, while his faithful crow companion keeps watch. Looking back, we realize that the crow has been there all along, like a hidden forest, a secret strength, a light that looks like darkness but provides illumination. The trees have survived this long. The forest is still there. The water still flows. To return to the constancy of nature is to realize the wisdom of the wild, who teaches us that the stars may fall from the heavens, but the heavens themselves remain. (Richard Allen)