Review Summary: An artfully conceived, beautifully crafted, and meticulously structured album that lands the audience in a childhood fairytale that they simply can't escape, even if they wanted to.
If there’s something to be said about the merits of packaging, Nate Gruber could talk for days. Gruber, under the pseudonym hitide.lotide, presents his debut album The Forest
in such a way that it becomes nearly impossible to not grow enamored with it. Accompanying The Forest
is a cornucopia of goodies, including adorable drawings of forest creatures, an expansive Hundred Acre Wood-type map, and a masterfully written short story, all inherently vital to The Forest
’s quality. A concept album, The Forest
presents sixteen songs, each sung in the voice of a different forest critter following the path of a disenfranchised Koala Bear who is running away from home after his adopted mother falls ill.
Okay, so it’s a slightly ridiculous concept album.
However, with the right amount of suspended disbelief, The Forest
can consistently deliver on a high emotional level. The Forest
is a wee bit of a stretch as far as concept records go, but Gruber believes in it enough to bring along (and subsequently totally engulf) the listener. His passion for the story translates to his songwriting, making the music almost as sad as its concept. In fact, listening to the album while following along with the story adds immeasurably to the serene power of the record. It’s refreshing to see someone give so much of a shit
about packaging nowadays, and in the case of The Forest
, the album’s presentation serves as a fine representation of the music inside. Even before Gruber plays a single note, the expectation for The Forest
is that it will be an artfully conceived, beautifully crafted, and meticulously structured album, landing the audience in a childhood fairytale that they simply can't escape, even if they wanted to.
To his credit, Gruber pretty much nails it. With all the bells and whistles accompanying The Forest
, a lesser artist could have made an album light on actual music and strong on concepts and artwork. However, as the album progresses, it becomes apparent that Gruber didn’t put any less effort into his music than he did into the awesome packaging of his record. Gruber, a dead ringer for Silversun Pickups’ Brian Aubert, uses his charmingly breathy voice to drive the record through an intimidating sixteen tracks and make what could have been an irritating premise go down smoothly. Having every song supposedly sung from the perspective of a different animal sounds like a schizophrenic hell, yet Gruber uses the concept to forge a new identity with each new track, which is good considering the homogeneity of the actual tunes. Pegged by last.fm as “slow-coustic,” the hitide.lotide sound is more or less Gruber singing a dejected melody that sits comfortably within his range over an assortment of acoustic guitar chords with a different instrument playing a lead part over it all. This lack of variation confines The Forest
to a specific feel, but Gruber makes the best of those confines with remarkable lyrical potency and occasionally beautiful melodies. The former of these two is Gruber’s true gift, and with every new song giving him a new personality to adopt (albeit a usually sad/jaded personality), Gruber’s lyrics shine. For example, on “The Owl,” Gruber adopts and humanizes the persona of the title animal, sighing ”What should I do when she tortures me with her beauty tonight?”
with such a wistful timbre it makes the track an immediate standout. Granted, most owls probably do not have these thoughts, but that kind of personification is what makes Gruber’s admittedly questionable concept work: Gruber paints human feelings onto animal canvases, making practically every track off The Forest
resonate on some emotional level.
For an album with such lofty aspirations, The Forest
ultimately doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of the concept. It’s a little too flat to sustain its life through its hour-long running time, and the second half begins to blend together save for an occasional moment here or there. However, that doesn’t mean The Forest
holds no value. On the contrary, The Forest
is a remarkable debut work that shows enough promise that the expected amount of kinks are ultimately forgivable when considering the grand picture of things. The Forest
creates an atmosphere that sounds naïve in its conception but is strikingly adult in its delivery. Each forest animal comes with his/her own set of problems, such as “The Butterfly” and its fear of a cold winter and “The Beaver” and the inanity of its dam-building life. Above all else, the trek of the Koala Bear gives the album a unifying sense of purpose, and the album culminates in the luminous finale “The Eastern Star,” which serves as a sort of Forest-based symbol for faith. The Koala’s ultimate rejection of the Star proves his demise, opening The Forest
up to various interpretations over whether or not it’s an allegory of some kind or another. However, therein lays the magic of the record. Like a good novel, The Forest
rewards multiple spins because each new listen puts the record in a new light. As Gruber puts it, “The forest comes to life the more time you spend there.” With hitide.lotide as the keeper of The Forest
, the time spent there may make one never want to leave.