Forest Robots is the musical brainchild of electronic artist and composer Fran Dominguez and this project has an interesting and unusual genesis. It began when he began pictorially documenting his travels to the Sierra Nevada mountain range. When his daughter was born, he started to attach narratives to his collections to teach his daughter about the wonders of nature.
This led to feeling inspired to compose music to go with these narratives and Forest Robots was born. In 2018, I gave glowing reviews to the albums Supermoon Moonlight – Part One and the follow up, Timberline And Mountain Crest. In 2019, he released his third full length album, Times When I Know You’ll Watch The Sky (which you can read here) and 2020 saw the release of his fourth, the critically acclaimed After Geography (read my laudatory review here).
Whereas After Geography was about exploration in nature outside the boundaries of a map, this album takes us beyond the external, physical world into the internal, metaphysical world and artistically explores the relationship between the two. In examining this philosophical relationship, it could be compared to the Transcendentalist philosophy espoused by people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Transcendentalists saw nature as the outward sign of the inward spirit, which is similar to how Fran Dominguez “compares different aspects of nature’s cycles to our own spiritual and philosophical cycles and draws an analogous parallel between our external surroundings and our internal state of being….”
The album consists of ten tracks and opens with The Biggest Soul Searches Require The Widest Forests. It begins with plucked double bass which brings to mind one of the album’s stated influences, Pharoah Sanders’ Thembi. This represents more of a jazz influence than his previous albums and becomes part of the sonic tapestry.
It quickly develops into a vast soundscape of intermingling classical guitar, bass and atmospheric synths that perfectly captures the picture conjured by the title. Gradually other instruments emerge, haunting piano creating a cavernous feel. The crystal clear Nick Drake-style acoustic guitar has an almost harp like quality, exquisitely recorded and performed. You can also hear the influence of another ambient composer Gigi Masin.
This unique blend of ambient, Satie-esque classical and drone continues with the second track Sustenance Comes From The Roots, Not The Height. Beginning with wisps of delicate, spectral sound it is given a more earthy tone through warm organ and mesmeric use of exotic percussion that shows the influence of Jon Hassell, another pioneer who merges world ethnic styles with electronica. This slightly more grounded style again perfectly mirrors the title, musically capturing the philosophical idea.
This focus on the earth provides the metaphor for growth in the third track All Good Things Must Grow Through Dirt First. The theme brought to mind the wise saying of the great psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung: “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell”.
After the first minute, which seems to suspend time with its gentle, almost unearthly momentum we hear the distinctive sound of a distant saxophone. It brings to mind the tranquil moments of John Coltrane’s Classic A Love Supreme and the famous fade out of Van Morrison’s Slim Slow Slider (Astral Weeks), both very spiritual works like this album. The blend of ambient and jazz works to great effect, with the sax providing a rich sonic texture.
The cycle of life we see in all of nature and how this is reflected in how we’re reborn each day is captured by fourth track We Only Die Once, But Can Be Grateful Every New Day. The first thirty seconds are intriguing, seemingly sounds of nature that perhaps depict the start of a day in a natural setting.
This then leads into a hypnotic piece of ambience, with the use of wonderfully rich reverb making a single plucked guitar note sound absolutely vast. The development of gratitude is an essential part of progressing in our spiritual journey and somehow Dominguez manages to convey this musically here.
Some of his more experimental influences such as musique concrete come to the surface in the intro to the sagely titled In The Climb, Not The Summit, Lies The Wisdom. It essentially takes piano and distorts the pitch to create a mesmerising, almost psychedelic effect which then develops into a magical array of drifting textures including xylophone and glockenspiel. One of my personal favourites on the album, achieving a perfect balance between melodic ambience and avant garde experimentation.
The influence of classical comes more strongly to the fore on Even The Tallest Leaves Return To The Roots, with strident staccato strings that merge with a haze of sound behind them. Developing into another intricate tapestry of interweaving melodies and percussive nuance, this track captures another part of nature’s cycle, as all leaves eventually fall back to the ground. In the final minute the percussion dies away, leaving a surge of ambience and swelling synths that create a moment of beautiful transcendence, perhaps depicting this completion of the natural cycle.
Always The Tallest Mountain To Climb Resides Within You starts with echo-immersed piano, once again recalling the simple but highly affecting style of French composer Erik Satie, and the use of other orchestral instrumentation gives this piece a modern classical feel. It again reflects the album’s theme of how nature is somehow a perfect metaphorical outward manifestation of our inner spiritual growth, and there is definitely an organic growth in how the music progresses from start to finish.
A Church Is Religion, A Tree Is Spirituality is another important piece from the perspective of the album’s philosophy. Fran states in the album notes: “The issue of religion versus spirituality as tools to guide my daughter’s moral compass are at the forefront of my own personal journey to becoming a more competent moral guide”. The track is wonderfully tranquil with the beautiful sound of birdsong mingling amidst blissfully peaceful strands of melody, evoking once again the quiet awe one feels amongst nature.
This idea of taking spiritual inspiration and guidance from nature is continued with Mirror Your Patience From Trees, Persistence From Grass which maintains the uplifting mood, augmented by the sound of rushing water. This piece in particular seems to merge all of Fran’s eclectic influences into a congruent whole, from classical to musique concrete.
The album closes with the solemn power of A Weak Mind Will Never Defeat A Strong Soul. It’s a masterclass in how a minimalist style that mirrors the pace and expanse of nature can be so emotionally resonant, almost as if the music is the divine mediator between nature and the human soul itself (indeed, Beethoven said something similar to this). The piece has a brooding intensity so that when the strings swell towards the end it is truly affecting, and a most satisfying and apposite way to close the album’s journey.
Overall, this is another landmark album from a very unique composer and artist. Having made several albums that evoke the majesty of nature, here he explores how nature integrates with our own personal spiritual journey through life. His style has evolved further to incorporate an even wider palette of genres which he blends in a seamless way. Existing fans will be enthralled and many new ones will be gained, along with more critical acclaim.