There are some things you should know about Hidden Lands. Small, chewable bits of cursory information about the process in which this album was written and recorded. Oulipo-like self-made limitations, an ingenious self-sampling technique and a concept driven album whose source material is a novel about forests. I promise I will get to all of that. But please, before you read any further, buy and listen to this album, or if you don’t have the patience or don’t like me telling you what to do, find someway to listen to a song or two so you will approach this like I did. With totally virgin ears.
This is what I knew about Candy Claws before I put on this record. First they are the flagship band of Fort Collin’s Act So Big Forest Collective (whose Ambassador Engine album bowled us over earlier this year). Second, they put out In the Dream of Sea Life last year to some critical praise. About six listens later today, this is all I could know about the FC collective and still have this album in consideration for my best of list (oh! empty threats). Hidden Lands, like the cover art would have you believe, is not a postcard album. Nowhere on this album can I find a discernable post-date or physical location from where this gorgeous audio-stamp is coming from. While neither coming close to something called lo-fi or the intentionally bombed out sound palate of chillwave, Candy Claws work with tones that float very close to the surface. And float they do. Compositions come in on the breeze with wispy, gossamer strands of submerged vocals, overstated synth-lines, buried guitar and banjoes and small exclamations of glockenspiels and electronic soft-noise. None of these tracks are in a hurry to get anywhere, or to sell themselves out in some sort of faux-optimist crescendo wankery. Even the most focused tracks, grounded by a steady canter, feel like ends unto themselves. A majority of this album is perfectly happy with floating (that word again) in the relaxed slipstream of terrestial tones and pine tree sway of a gentle breeze through the forest.
In terms of reference points there are a lot of them. The buzzing soundscapes and childlike melodies of Boards of Canada come to mind. Brian Wilson’s sweeping choral work informs the doo-wop inspired “A Strange Land Discovered”. The galloping drones and breathy vocals of Animal Collective are an obvious jumping off point. But beyond that, field recordings and northern Colorado’s proximal relationship to some of the most breathtaking forest covered mountainsides seem to be most heavy handed influences.
The duo of Ryan Hover and Kathy Bertholf comprise the creative core of Candy Claws although a live show can see the line up expand to something like half the town of Fort Collins on a tiny stage. Hover and Bertholf wrote a majority of the album on the keyboad, an instrument neither knew nothing about. The result are some truly otherworldly synth lines that seem just a half-step behind every melody line as if (surprise!) the musician was trying to feel his/her way through the song. This excuses some of the more heavy handed/downright strange sounds on songs like “Sun Arrow” and “The Breathing Fire”. Hover and Bertholf lyrical and conceptual inspiration was Richard M. Ketchum’s book The Secret Life of the Forest in which they put phrases of into Google translator, translated it into Japanese, then translated it back into English. These would account for some of the most thrilling lines on the album such as “Tree of Life in the sea” (translated from “Trees, like all other forms of life, can trace their life back to the sea). If you are a follower of Engrish.com, this is one of the kinder translations available. Third, each song uses some form of recycled melody from a previous song on the album. That being the case Hidden Lands sounds remarkably familiar after only a few listens.
Without that auxiliary information Hidden Lands is a huge triumph for a small band out of a small college town like Fort Collins. Making its way around the national press circuit and on tour with Magic Kids, Candy Claws have made a timeless album in a sea of musical uncertainity.