There's a scene in the little-known film Forrest Gump where the eponymous protagonist states, and in such a way that you'd think everybody was born with the knowledge, "My mama always said, 'life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get'." The same goes for Forrest James, and while my mama would probably be more turned off by his experimental approach to electronic music, it still has something most people can enjoy.
James styles himself an American Dream-Wave recording artist. Dream-Wave, for those in the don't know, is a genre that channels ‘80s new wave and ‘90s rap sounds through the mind of a modern stoner. It's cooler than what I'm describing. It's also cool because James is a co-founder of the anything-goes group Machine 475, who owes more to Sun City Girls than they do to Section 25. He himself admits his sound is comfortable in genres like ambient electronica, chill wave, experimental dub, and R&B.
Anyway, we have two albums from James to review. We'll start with his debut album Under the Chrome Sea because of chronology. The album features a bunch of instruments used to create blissed-out, sun kissed musical textures, including Moog synthesizers, drum machines, fender amps, but it also has acoustic guitar, tambourines, shakers and bass guitar to give it a bit more of an organic feel. James refers to this as a concept album but I'm guessing the concept is downing a bunch of cough syrup during a Stanley Kubrick marathon.
It's a damn impressive debut though; with some songs so crammed with ideas they risk being paralyzed by James' creativity. "Chrome" excites with its triumphant synth lines that make you think of cruising the coast side highway at sunset. Meanwhile the beats on "Waves" fade in and out far too quickly, like knowing you’re drunk and then realizing you are getting drunker in small but sharp increments. "Floating" does just that and lets flattened drones create a shallow pool of ambience while a ghostly, crystal voice claims, "She didn't know she was ready to fly." The didactic beat structures, thoughtful and meaningful, on "Understand That This Is A Dream" is a far more dynamic cut and forces you to understand otherwise.
Under the Chrome Sea is rarely content to stay in one mood. Whatever atmosphere one song sets, the other slowly deconstructs. The opener "1985" is a weird but fun little synthesized surf number that gives way to the stilted sound of "Waves." It's less confident, less assured than its predecessor, but then the album reasserts itself with "Chrome." It's this discontent that makes Under the Chrome Sea a rewarding listen. Traumatic only to the most delicate ears, the album is a carefully constructed block of smooth rhythms, thoughtful layers of sound and quiet jubilance.
So how does Autopilot, released less than a year later, stack up?
The Nanoloop, a real-time Gameboy sound editor, is to be thanked for the seven tracks on this album. James used recorded, mixed and mastered the entire thing on his laptop during a trip between Salem and Boston, MA with the Nanoloop as his main tool and inspiration. Despite the narrow time frame, the tracks don't feel rushed. They don't even feel lazily put together because there are some interesting beat patterns and song structures going on here given the constricting medium. Just, none of it sounds engaging.
The album has a fair share of cool moments, like the disco throwback of "Record Repeat" and the musical change-ups of "Dub Star", but Autopilot runs into the problem every 8-bit-inspired/styled record runs into: a lack of sonic depth. The songs run into each other. Gone is the adventurous spirit heard in Under the Chrome Sea and instead it's replaced by an almost robotic need to please the listener. The issue here is there is little to be pleased with. The music isn't bad but it doesn't have a lot going on for it.
Those thoughts went through my head until I got to the closer, "Autopilot" – six minutes of Gameboy-processed grace, affecting piano sounds act as the foundation to striking chords and squeaky harmonies gently play in the background. I wish James modeled the entire album after this one song. It reveals a level of creativity not shown in the previous tracks. What's more, it displays an emotional range rarely observed in this sort of music. It is on point with Nobuo Uematsu's early Final Fantasy compositions. I'd be lying if I said I didn't appreciate Autopilot more upon multiple listens, but my ears don't lie either: it's a textbook case of sophomore slump.
So, what's James' next move? He hit a home run on his first release and bunted the second. He can bring home the goods, and both albums of his are enough to pique the interest of all the electro buffs out there. Plus Dreamwave is one of the few offshoot genres I think that deserves a bigger audience. Get on it, bandwagoners!
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