Lost in the Trees has long since been a band best known for its grandiose orchestrations – it was the band’s calling card of sorts. When I first happened upon the band, it had more than 10 members in its lineup, but during the years it has gradually trimmed down the roster, yet beefed up its sound. Though the band performed only as a sextet for A Church That Fits Our Needs it produced some of its loftiest, most ambitious work to date. When a band becomes so firmly known for a trademark sound, it can take two directions: settle into that foundation, or strip it all down and start anew.
For Past Life, Lost in the Trees chose the latter and it paid off in bunches. Gone are the swelling chamber arrangements, steeped in rich classical tradition. In return they have delivered dense soundscapes crafted by synths and electric guitars. Though there is a handful of moments where its orchestral backgrounds peep in through the mix, Past Life is prominently built upon this new minimal approach and it works. Instead of emphasizing the pomp and fanfare of the string section, songwriter Ari Picker can concentrate more on the core aspects of these songs.
Though Picker’s previous work was dedicated to his recently deceased mother, Past Life trades in autobiographic musings for more abstract lyrical explorations. Dealing with less emotionally weighted subject matter allows for a more leisurely listening experienced listeners can put away their empathetic heartache and allow the soothing sounds to wash over them. Picker certainly still sings of love and longing, but it’s more firmly rooted in contemporary styling as opposed to the theatrical approach we’re used to receiving from this group.
Past Life finds Lost in the Trees bursting past expectation, album opener “Excos” opens with haunting vocals and a sparse piano arrangement that slowly unfolds to find Picker singing of the “rising water” and an infinite longing for another’s love. The song gradually devolves into a melodic collage of sorts, Emma Nadeau’s wordless chorus meshes with Picker’s verses, beautifully countering the subtle yet piercing horns in the background all washed in faint percussive embellishments.
As the song slowly bleeds into the titular track, we’re tossed into the waters of this new arrangement and it feels insanely gratifying. “Past Life” erupts with a melodic guitar lines and a minimal drum beat that pops and clicks along as Picker croons softly of warm, comforting images. As the driving synth line erupts within the song’s chorus, one can finally feel at home within this new soundscape.
Lost in the Trees always felt like they were in a category of their own musically, while their music felt immediately connectable it could easily be slightly dissociative due to how deeply it was entrenched within the classical and baroque styles.
Past Life finds the band pulling more from its peers, but doesn’t make its music any easier to classify. Although it has stripped down to a quartet, they’re still equally ambitious in their musical goals. Tracks like “Daunting Friend” and “Wake” are perfect examples of how Lost in the Trees has retained much of its initial extravagance, creating lush arrangements from minimal tools.
Shedding away the strings makes Picker’s songwriting the immediate draw-in, which is one of the most fantastic parts of Lost in the Trees anyway. Picker’s lyrical acrobatics are part of what makes this music so easily accessible, he paints vivid pictures and elicits specific emotions through his wordplay to make listening feel therapeutic.
But to only concentrate on what Lost in the Trees has changed for Past Life is doing a disservice to the album. If this were the band’s debut it would still be equally impressive, whether you’re aware of its orchestral background or not Past Life serves as an incredibly middle-ground between string-laden folk music and inventive electronic instrumentation. These songs feel firmly rooted in its contemporary influences like Radiohead and Blonde Redhead. It’s made a bold transition into the art-rock territory and did so flawlessly.
Lost in the Trees have reinvented themselves with Past Life. It has wiped the slate clean and left its future wide-open. One of the most exciting parts of this album is the knowledge that its sound can evolve in seemingly infinite ways now, and as a long-time Lost in the Trees fan, that has me as excited about this band’s frontier as I was the first time I saw it.
WKNC’s Pick of the Week is also published on TechnicianOnline.com