Review Summary: For the first time, Paul Ravenwood's vision of backwoods Appalachian black metal comes together the way it was meant to.
I have a lot of respect for Paul Ravenwood’s work ethic, I’ll give him that. Maybe he’s just another one-man black metal act in a sea of one-man black metal acts, but few can pump out releases as quickly as he can. Seven full length albums in five years is mind boggling when you think about it, and that’s not even counting his various EPs and collaborative splits. Hell I’m five days past my intended release date for this very review, so I’ll hand it to anyone that seems to live via his work. The guy has a goal and sets his mind to getting it done every single time.
But when you actually listen to his music . . . things becomes a little less surprising.
Quite literally all of his work leading up to last year’s Fire of the Spirit
was marred similarly by piss poor production, directionless songwriting, and often sloppy instrumentals. I suppose it’s to be expected in retrospect when an artist pushes out material that fast, but one would think that Mr. Ravenwood might’ve gotten the message that he’s moving too quickly by now. While The Year the Stars Fell
is a night and day improvement over any of his past work, I don’t think it’s because he got said message actually. The likelier answer is that he just kept throwing his head against the pavement until his fingers fell into the right places on the fretboard.
One concrete piece of evidence towards the improvement found on The Year the Stars Fell
is the addition of drummer Josh Thieler, marking the first time someone other than Paul Ravenwood has composed for Twilight Fauna. The drumwork still struggles to gel with the music at times, not always pairing the right beat with the mood the guitars try to evoke, but that’s a far cry better than the head-scratchingly clumsy drums found on previous albums. On the other hand, it’s possible that Thieler contributed substantially to the improved compositions, but it’s hard to know without an insider’s eye. When it comes to Paul Ravenwood’s usual contributions, it’s his guitar work that shows the most improvement. While the black metal sections are more or less the same, somewhat difficult to decipher thanks to an excessively fuzzy tone, he’s clearly learned to choose his notes more carefully in the softer moments. Many of the melodies are genuinely memorable and affecting, often drawing on reverberating post-rock esque swells to close out tracks like in “10 Starless Nights”. Ravenwood gleefully demonstrates his affection for natural acoustics as well as his banjo, which comprises the entirety of two tracks. The calm plucking in opener “The Ghosts We Leave Behind” is particularly memorable, though the heavy handed strumming that follows can feel stilted at times. “Across the Blue Ridge Mountain” stands to be the most polarizing track of the lot. The pure folk approach here is fitting in practice, serving to solidify his American folk influences, but his vocals and lyrics leave something to be desired. The remainder of the songs alternate between fuzz laden black metal and mellow cooldowns, but each affects in its own satisfying way at one point or another.
While it’s all something of a mixed bag, what The Year the Stars Fell
really succeeds at doing is completing Ravenwood’s vision of a marriage of atmospheric black metal and his Appalachian folk roots. On past records this combination felt shoehorned or taped together, but here there’s a newfound focus. “Across the Blue Ridge Mountain” isn’t a perfect song by any stretch, but that feeling that he recorded himself sitting by a fire with a banjo and just his voice, then tossed it on the record, lends a naturalistic honesty to the album. It doesn’t hurt that he found a more competent drummer to pair with and figured out how make memorable melodies for once, but some of the flaws that previously appeared on Twilight Fauna albums return without being nearly as damaging in a way. Ravenwood improved on a few things, with a little help of course, and directed the things he either couldn’t or wouldn’t change. It’s an honest approach that creates an honest result . . . and that is one more thing I can now respect Mr. Ravenwood for.