Larsen has a magnetic quality to his gravelly tone that absolutely demands attention – him saying ‘Behold The Trees’ is not a casual invitation to take a look at a tree; it’s a hypnotic instruction that will get you looking for the nearest tree, totally convinced that there’s something very important you need to observe.
Kim Larsen has had a curious career and with this release it’s getting even more curious! Larsen will be remembered in the Metal community for the several years he spent with Doom/Black Metal act Saturnus, including contributing to their very influential debut album, Paradise Belongs To You. By the turn of the century, he had headed off and created the neofolk project Of The Wand And The Moon. Several albums have been released so far by Of The Wand And The Moon, with the sound becoming gradually more mainstream (to these ears, at least) and culminating in last year’s magnificent Your Love Can’t Hold This Wreath Of Sorrow, in which Larsen cemented his position as something of a Danish version of Leonard Cohen. You could argue that there is only so long you can wallow in misery (although that never seemed to bother Leonard Cohen) and that could be the reason for Larsen not giving us more of the same here and producing what superficially could be described as an atmospheric ambient record. But, does that mean Larsen has shed his darker side and it’s now all about sitting on yoga mats with a peaceful smile on our faces? That’s hard to believe with Larsen so let’s jump in and see, shall we?
Behold The Trees consists of just four tracks, or five if you count the opening two-part track, Behold The Trees Behold The Leaves, as two distinct pieces. It opens nebulously with mixed percussion and a deep almost groaning sound (in the synths, I believe). Larsen’s voice then enters – not sung but spoken as he slowly utters the words ‘Behold The Trees’, gently but authoritatively like some ancient prophet on a mountain. Larsen has a magnetic quality to his gravelly tone that absolutely demands attention – him saying ‘Behold The Trees’ is not a casual invitation to take a look at a tree; it’s a hypnotic instruction that will get you looking for the nearest tree, totally convinced that there’s something very important you need to observe. After describing in great detail the trees, he moves on to obscure references to a mysterious journey into a mountain as the percussion becomes slightly louder and more sinister. Birdsong and a return to a more peaceful tone in the percussion marks the transition into Behold The Leaves. Here, there are fleeting poetic references such as ‘I am there, with the image of you in the summer air; I am there, full of love’ which give you something to chew on lyrically apart from…. well, just the leaves. This is the first part of the album which sounds like it’s time to get the yoga mat out -it’s tranquil and relaxing. Behold The Trees, Behold The Leaves lasts for a tad over ten minutes without dragging, despite having no chorus, no drums, no guitar solo, and not much that resembles a normal piece of rock music. And yet it still works somehow!
Two shorter five-minute pieces then follow. The first is Behold The Rain, which continues in the same meditative vein, and yes, you’ve guessed it, there is lots of imagery about raindrops, here cleverly musically depicted by high synth notes. If by now you’re pleasantly wound down and relaxed, feeling like a Tibetan monk in a mountain monastery, then Behold The Stars might put a frown on your face. Here ominous synths are supported by distorted sounds close to animal grunting (possibly the human voice recorded and played backwards?), and the music is nebulous and uncertain. Even the previously cheerful percussion manages to sound threatening. Normal spoken words do enter but there’s no longer any cheerfulness and it’s become soulless as we get bleak lines such as ‘Behold the stars, as they flicker in empty space, engulfed by night, wrapped in black, in cold space’, and the final mournful line ‘Slowly dying, fading away……. like you and me’. Yes, it’s definitely time to throw that yoga mat out of the window as Larsen takes us down dark familiar paths.
The eighteen minutes of When Nobody Is Looking closes the album. It begins as gloomily as Behold The Rain with anguished synths sounding like ghosts wailing in the wind and when the human voice does enter, it is in layered whispered tones that echo between left and right speaker channels. If you’re easily scared then it’s not a song to listen to on your own late at night, especially when you hear menacing lines like ‘When nobody is looking, there’s something in the shadows, lurking, watching’. There’s then a set of phrases beginning ‘When nobody is listening’ and these two phrases (looking/listening) alternate throughout the track. There are both poetic phrases (‘When nobody is looking, there is no reflection in the heart of the night) and more mundane ones (‘When nobody is looking, the rain falls’), many of which made me wonder whether Larsen was inspired here by the well-known philosophical questions about the nature of unobserved existence: if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is nearby to hear it, does it make a sound? Around the half-way mark there’s a slow and subtle change in the sound as the wailing ghost-like synths gradually fade out and are replaced by a slightly warmer synth sound and touches of distant ethereal choir. For the coda only the choir remains and, while the angst has gone from the music, it ends abruptly after the phrase ‘‘When nobody is looking, we cease to exist’.
One could spend some time wondering what, if any, is the concept behind the album. Is the first part supposed to reflect the glory of the natural world and the second part the human condition? Or maybe the intention was to write a positive ambient album but then it got gradually drawn back into a pessimistic neofolk sound world? Whatever the answer, it remains a fantastic experiment in merging the sounds of the neo-folk and ambient music genres. Behold The Trees doesn’t have the immediacy of Your Love Can’t Hold This Wreath Of Sorrow but it has a haunting quality that will draw you back to it again and again.