Photo Courtesy of American Dreams Records
To interpret a piece as celebrated as Claude Debussy’s La Mer is a bold undertaking for any musician, even those as accomplished as Tosconini, Bernstein or John Williams. And further, to successfully adapt it into a different style of music comes with its own set of challenges.
But the decision by Forest Management, the Chicago-based music project of John Daniel, to sample and recontextualize the famous symphonic sketches into an ambient double LP feels wholly appropriate. After all, Debussy valued sound and texture over melody and progression much like today’s ambient artists. “There is no theory. You merely have to listen,” Debussy once said. “Pleasure is the law.”
On his latest release, After Dark, Daniel develops expressive, shifting textures that propel its 13 songs through a landscape of night. Whereas his earlier album this year, Passageways, used more pronounced melodies and drastic progressions, After Dark is all the better for its more refined movement. Daniel rarely pulls back the dark curtain draped over these songs. But during the few moments he does, the brightness hiding behind each shadowy chord shines through, offering clarity and a well-deserved refuge from an endless amount of dreary tension.
Although performances of La Mer range from 21 to 33 minutes, After Dark, roughly doubles the runtime of Debussy’s work and, rather than surveying the sea, it explores a moonless world oscillating between romance and hostility. Night, like the sea, is a word loaded with deep imagery, whether bringing to mind a peaceful bedroom, a walk through rainy streets or a period of lonely insomnia. Daniel manages to capture the night at its most frightening on “Patterns In The Carpet” to its most awe-inspiring on “The Grand Lobby.” The majority of tracks are distinct enough to add new angles to the album’s theme, pay different homages to Debussy and expand Forest Management’s sound library.
Despite the mysterious “Magnolia” being the album’s lead single, After Dark’s two most spellbinding songs, “The Grand Hotel” and its second single “The Blue Light Blues,” overshadow the former’s promotional status. Still, “Magnolia” is an important key to what’s going on here because it more clearly represents the goal of this record: foregoing theory in favor of texture. “Magnolia” creates a sense of wonder in the darkness with moments of subtle clarity and microscopic flourishes that masterfully hinted at what was to come with the full release.
“The Grand Lobby,” however, is undoubtedly the most mesmerizing and memorable song on After Dark. A grandiose, reverb-drenched organ repeats a commanding yet calming progression transporting listeners to a dreamy cathedral wedding or, as the title evokes, a lush, glowing lobby in a regal hotel. With the completion of every classical-sounding loop, the song’s rich atmosphere grows more welcoming and immersive.
The album’s other standout track, “The Blue Light Blues,” sounds like a negative print of “The Grand Lobby.” The song whirls icy synths over a tundra of rumbling bass only warmed up by an occasional cello tone, a prominent instrument on La Mer. The sorrowful, shivering drone beams out like light emerging from a deep cave full of cobwebs and conjures the feeling of the song’s namesake musical style.
Elsewhere on After Dark, songs point directly toward the release’s musical inspiration, which is unsurprising since Daniel sampled a vinyl of La Mer during the album’s creation. The quick, upbeat pace of arpeggiated notes on the joyous third track “A Smell So Sweet” mimics the frenzy of La Mer’s second movement and scherzo, “Play of the Waves,” while the brooding nature of tracks such as “In The Building (1999),” “Hollywood Ave.” and “Chances of Surveillance (2019)” point to the hostility and chaos of La Mer’s third and final movement. In particular, the rumbling of “In The Building (1999)” brings to mind a dark body of water like Lake Michigan or acid rain falling over a decaying rust belt town.
In stark contrast to “A Smell So Sweet,” given their proximity on the album, the fourth track, “Patterns In The Carpets,” sounds more like something that could easily have been included in Twin Peaks: The Return rather than the classical music repertoire. Daniel’s windy, Dean Hurley-like composition rumbles and growls and basks in dissociative weirdness, making it one of the bleakest songs on After Dark. It’s the threat of the night world manifested and perfected in under four minutes.
Although there are no traditional drums on the album, echoey pitter-patters, distant crackles and rapid oscillations give many of these tracks rhythmic anchors. Most noticeably, “Chances of Surveillance (2019)” and “Sitting On Rocky Streams” have background noises that sound like millions of marbles rolling down a grand staircase. These percussive features of After Dark are largely absent from earlier Forest Management release and add a new dimension to Daniel’s nuanced artistry.
After Dark is not without its weaker moments, though. Mainly, the final track, “All I Know” closes the album as unremarkably as the airy “Seventh Time’s A Charm” opens it, quietly fading out with a pulsing synthesizer. Had these tracks been shorter, they might have worked better as bookends to more engaging songs in between. “All I Know” also feels like an extension of the previous track, “Walk On Broadway,” which revolves around a stuttering two-note melody that is far more effectively executed. On a separate note, the overpowering fiery crackling of the seventh track, “Fake Rose and 24 Karat,” reduces its potential to sounding like a Boards of Canada b-side.
But despite these missteps, After Dark succeeds in honoring La Mer with its exploration of texture over melody. It parallels of Debussy’s emotional complexity all the while managing to exist as its own standalone collection of songs. As the title implies, it’s a nocturnal record that feels meant to be played in solitude late at night. In its vast and possibly sinister spaces of darkness, moments of unexpected wonder and beauty emerge and illuminate the path to safety.
Debussy, by the time he had reached his mature composing style, adopted many ideas from other composers into his own work, including Modest Mussorgsky, whom he described as making music with “successive minute touches mysteriously linked together by means of an instinctive clairvoyance.” In a nutshell, Debussy is describing what makes modern ambient music so engaging and worthwhile. And, on After Dark, Daniel brings that centuries-old musical pursuit, once again, to its natural fruition.