Forrest Fang: Scenes from a Ghost Train

With sixteen solo albums in Forrest Fang's discography, it could be hard for a neophyte to choose the optimal entry point into the artist's world. While there are any number of good choices available, his latest collection, Scenes from a Ghost Train, is certainly as good as any, and, in fact, might be ideal for the simple reason that its six compositions—one a four-part suite—cover a number of stylistic bases as opposed to one or two only. Long-form ambient soundscapes and New Age reveries rub shoulders with World Music settings on the seventy-minute release, all of it making a strong argument for Fang as a multi-instrumentalist and composer. On this set, he's credited with synthesizer, electronics, violin, saron, cumbus, kendang, and cantaro, while guest Dave Newhouse contributes soprano saxophones, flarinet, flute, and bass clarinet to two of the suite's pieces. Fang's world is one where acoustic and synthetic sounds reside comfortably, each element enhancing the vividly realized whole.

For inspiration Fang drew from the idea of a phantom train carrying with it the folklore of a given culture that's destined to eventually disappear. In his own words, Fang states, “For me the ghost train is a projection of the human imagination that merges fantastical ideas, thoughts and mental images with the physical environment to create its own alternate space, much like I what try to realize in my own music.” Ultimately, the concept is arguably less important for its specific character than for the way it acts as a creative spur for Fang's imagination and the resultant physical manifestation preserved on disc.

Like a train slowly emerging from mist, “Five-Mile Crater” inaugurates the titular suite with swirling vapours of synthetic clouds and choral breaths. Balancing the ethereal effect are percussion rhythms that lend the material an earthy quality, the part's grounded quality dramatically offset by the New Age atmosphere established by the subsequent part, “Koch's Veil,” when the meditative tinkling of an acoustic piano is heard alongside shimmering string washes. On the deep ambient tip, the ten-minute dive of “Enfolding” offers an oceanic lead-in to “The Great Migration,” an epic twice its length that layers synthesizer, strings, and saron (a Javanese metallophone) textures into a magnificent, ultra-dense micro-cosmos.

If there are standouts on this consistently strong album, to these ears they're the suite's closing tracks, both of them enhanced by Newhouse's contributions but even more by Fang's violin playing and World Music textures. “A Meeting of Totems” is particularly kaleidoscopic in the way it dazzles the ear with exotic woodwinds, percussion, and strings, though “The Pulse of the Stars” matches it in featuring violin to mesmerizing effect. The later stand-alone piece, “Freefall,” also benefits from this World-styled focus, with in this case the gamelan-inflected material's locomotive thrust augmented by the distinctive timbres of the saron. Such pieces help make Scenes from a Ghost Train a solid exemplar of Fang's artistry, one that also succeeds at presenting a comprehensive account of his many stylistic interests.

February 2018