Forrest Fang: The Sleepwalker's Ocean

Forrest Fang's Letters To The Farthest Star impressed mightily upon its 2015 release for a number of reasons, the strength of its compositional writing for one and perhaps even more the distinctiveness of its sonic presentation. Fang's a master of many instruments, and the album's “World Music” presentation was elevated considerably by the presence of violin, guitar, Japanese palm harp, hichiriki, gu-zheng, cumbus, baglama, and bandurria.

As the arrival of The Sleepwalker's Ocean makes clear, Fang has wasted little time in crafting a follow-up to that special 2015 collection, and even more surprisingly the follow-up is not a single- but rather a double-CD set (123 minutes, to be exact). The range of instrumentation is as rich on the new recording as on its predecessor, with Fang this time credited with violin, electric mandolin, electric guitar, keyboards, Marxolin, saron (Javanese gamelan), lavta (Turkish lute), and càntaro (Mexican clay pot). Being a two-CD release, the project afforded Fang the opportunity to expand on the sound character of the 2015 release, and consequently one can hear the first disc as a continuation of Letters To The Farthest Star's approach and the second as a deep plunge into ambient soundscaping.

In the track that's closest in spirit to Letters To The Farthest Star, “Gone to Ground” opens the recording strongly with graceful flourishes of tape-delayed violins rising alongside electronic washes and reverberating lavta plucks. There's a pronounced dream-like character to the setting, to be sure, yet Fang also individualizes the track's lulling flow in according prominence to the violin and lavta. A pronounced Javanese gamelan flavour emerges during the subsequent “Message in the Sand” when a saron-and-cántaro combination complements Robert Rich's bamboo flute textures with a forceful rhythmic thrust.

Though the second disc symbolizes Fang's fullest plunge into ambient waters, a number of tracks on the first disc explore ambient territory, too. While the six-part title track, for example, does, in keeping with the differentiating characters of its individual sections, travel down a number of different paths, it nevertheless registers as a powerfully evocative ambient suite. It's anything but one-dimensional, however, and this luminescent exploration of the interior world associated with sleep states ranges between encounters with fog, mist, nocturnal travel, and Geiger activity.

The first disc also closes with two ambient settings, the becalmed “Driftwood” and “Not Forgotten,” a strategic move in that it provides a smooth segue into Fang's first long-form piece, “An Alternate Ocean (The Salton Sea).” If anything, the fifty-four-minute colossus ups the ante as far as ambient sound design is concerned, with Fang presenting the piece as an extended mass of multi-layered vapour trails that seems more celestial than aquatic (that it does so reminds us that we're not dealing with a literal realm so much as an imaginary, virtual one). Similar to the titular suite, “An Alternate Ocean (The Salton Sea)” isn't static; to cite one example, clarion mellotron-like figures push to the forefront of the ethereal mass near the halfway mark to temporarily turn the material into a synthesizer-heavy prog epic.

On both Letters To The Farthest Star and The Sleepwalker's Ocean, Fang distinguishes himself from his contemporaries by individuating the more generic character of his ambient material with a rich instrumental presentation and by integrating into his work elements associated with gamelan music and other Eastern musical forms. In a perfect world, the new recording would feature a greater amount of violin playing than has been included, but that's about the only thing about it I'd prefer otherwise.

February 2016