Review Summary: don your Victorian gear if you happen to sport any, you're in for a bumpy carriage ride.
Spot of tea, anyone? Take a seat, let us talk about an eccentric band from the UK formed in 1887 (honest) and their new record they only just put out in the humble year of 1892. During these five obviously recent years, they've released three albums of some of the most eccentric black metal composed in recent memory, incorporating Victorian-esque psychedelia (which arguably doesn't exist, or, didn't) with equally as obscure concepts and views on said concepts. The argument of it being a gimmick seems to fade away rather quickly due to the sheer quality that is almost completely unwavering through all of their albums, this one no exception. Though every A Forest of Stars album followed a similar kind of structure or feel - now we come to the exception. Where every A Forest of Stars album up to this point has been rather straight forward to follow, at the very least in terms of sound, A Shadowplay for Yesterdays
plays in a much different manner. Gone are the long-winded flowing sections of the previous two albums, it doesn't leave you any chance to really soak in any atmosphere before it changes. The gradual shifts have been replaced with sporadic stops and starts, and where it sounds crude on the surface you can hear a certain intricacy that was completely absent from earlier works by this band. Many considered their earlier long-winded sections of ambient (or near ambient) to be shameless filler, those listeners can rejoice in the fact that apart from an interlude here and there the black metal is on the forefront throughout the albums entirety - well, almost. There is a lot going on here for it to just be classed as a black metal album, putting great emphasis a lot
, far more than this band have hinted at in the past, and they were already one of the more eccentric bands in the scene still going. These days it's doubtful that there's a soul they can't or won't surprise.
After the brilliantly realized Opportunistic Thieves of Spring
, they only had a couple of options as to where they could go. They could have tried to strike lucky by using the same staples, hoping to strike gold time and time again like they did with that album. Or they could have decided to take a drastic turn, which is what they chose. The Victorian-era aesthetic is still here and in full force (perhaps even fuller force), make no mistake on that front, but many of the key staples of their last two efforts have been warped almost beyond comparison. The quality of composition however, thankfully, has yet to suffer from the stark and sudden change. In turn, everything has become more balanced and intricate, every instrument clearly given just as much thought as the other, making each track both multi-dimensional as well as memorable as opposed to relying on the overall feel of the song complimenting the rather free-flowing sections within it. The shorter tracks are far more condensed and immediate, and it does nothing to depreciate the worth and immersion of the album, which was a main concern when analyzing the tracklist's layout in comparison to previous works. A Shadowplay for Yesterdays
feels infinitely more substantial than anything this band have composed yet as opposed to the constantly repeated riffs and motifs A Forest of Stars put a lot of emphasis on before.
The main unique selling point of this band has been further improved, too. Previously the violins, flutes and similar instruments were left to noodle around in the background behind black metal power chords - seldom is this seen here. In most occasions they now dominate many of the melodies and riffs, not to mention that the amount of instruments has been highly diversified, clearly showing the band has put far more thought into it. The violin melodies in the track "A Prophet for a Pound of Flesh" truly strikes brilliance, not to mention the acoustics in the same track being a wonderfully handled contrast when the metal sections die away. The synths and electronics are subtle and tasteful, only taking prominence on the interlude tracks but adding complimentary textures and dynamics to the busier tracks, a sensible decision due to the sheer density of the sound. Despite the length of the album, the same techniques are rarely re-used in the same manner, the non-metal instrumentation being completely different on other tracks such as "Gatherer of the Pure", equally as well handled though perhaps not as satisfying as the aforementioned track which from start to finish is utter brilliance. Not that the importance of the black metal instrumentation has been in any way forgotten about, the guitarwork and drumwork being as equally as impressive as before, perhaps moreso with the more intricate, interesting riffs and sections. Another welcome change is the higher prominence of the bass, though perhaps not as forward as it could have been, certainly improves upon the previous effort where it was oddly difficult to detect at the best of times. Though it must be said that the vocals do not impress as much as previously, the added diversity of the clean vocals is usually quite pleasing and tastefully done, with perhaps the exception of Part 2 of the closing compositions "Corvus Corona" which show the lack of strength of the vocalists a little past the comfort zone, though nothing too stark to ruin the feel.
The fears of A Forest of Stars being a one-trick pony or a gimmick are seemingly unfounded - or if it is a gimmick, it's a damn good one. In terms of atmosphere and feel there really isn't anything quite like this. It's as infectious as it is interesting, and as captivating as it is well-composed. For such a stark compositional change to happen within 2 years it makes it all the more surprising how consistent this release is. Perhaps the last few tracks don't hold up to the quality of the first half of the album, ending the album rather anti-climactically as opposed to the chillingly brilliant ending to "Delay's Progression", but this is an album to re-visit time and time again and each time yielding new things, not to mention impressing most of its runtime. Previous naysayers may want to at least try a few tracks as the less meandering and more forward approach may strike you a lot more sharply. It certainly doesn't have a counterpart, and A Shadowplay for Yesterdays
is stylistically in a realm of its own, and for that reason alone it's worth giving a try for just about anyone. Don your Victorian gear if you happen to sport any, you're in for a bumpy carriage ride, and here's to many more for one of black metal's most promising and eccentric acts.
Oh, and if the trend of an album every 2 years continues, roll on 1894! :]