Review Summary: Combining beauty with menace, post-apocalyptic visions with harmonic calm. This is what A Forest of Stars have done since day one, but with their latest album they are one step closer to approaching a bigger, more welcoming audience.
When it comes to live experiences, bands like Leeds' A Forest of Stars will attempt to give you the grandest of impressions. When the band played earlier this year at Bloodstock, grand impressions were certainly cast. Clad in dire, greyish Victorian garb, all seven members seemed fully committed to providing vivid, dramatic soundscapes and consequently amazing the audience. When the music alone is cinematic enough to intrigue passers-by (The only other band playing at this point was either Venom. Inc or Combichrist on Bloodstock's main stage), witnessing the "extras" (I.e. costumes, gloomy light, Gothic make-up on some band members) is simply added icing to an already over-indulgent cake. Effectively, these live performances that A Forest of Stars confidently offer to gig-punters go hand-in-hand with listening to their discography, a selection of albums which has consistently presented a unique fusion of extreme metal influences and (Victorian) folk-inspired melodies.
On the other hand, if you don't like anything overdone when it comes to extreme metal, you'll likely find it hard to get into the band's live performance and
anything from their latest full-length effort, Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes
. Sure, it's not much of an advancement from the band's previous albums, but when first song proper "Precipice Pirouette" seems rife with vocalist Mister Curse's elaborate, wide-eyed and maniacal narrative you know you're in for the long haul. Making this worse is the fact that, as with Norway's Dodheimsgard and most of the 90s Bathory material, the vocals are just about the hardest thing to get used to. Elsewhere, it's lovely to hear the soaring nature of violins, cellos and flutes amidst an otherwise mid-paced black metal slumber, but the fact that all of these aspects have been seemingly squashed together presents quite a task to a listener who may or may not know what is about to unravel. As with every other A Forest of Stars album, most songs here last around 8+ minutes in length, which in itself is something that drags you in. The unfortunate news to go with that is just how clunky and mismatched the songwriting tends to be. The album's first half suffers from this more than the second, but it's not exactly great that an album suffers more from its immediacy than the mere sum of its parts. "Tombward Bound", for example, clearly indulges in its psychedelic flourishes and ambient sonic terror, but most of what you hear is conflicting musical styles trying to work in tandem with each other and instead suffering from clarity. The final quarter of the song is lovely, because it's here where the aforementioned fusion of black metal and classical musicianship ties in neatly, resulting in a beautiful climax.
Because of the point made towards the end of the previous paragraph, Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes
will only seem more tolerant and enjoyable if its listened to in parts, and dare I say it, shorter bursts. "Precipice Pirouette" has numerous moments where the classical elements are pushed to the forefront, and each one is rife with creativity and confidence. Yet when they're plunged into the background behind predictable blastbeats and Mr. Curse's usually provocative vocal delivery, the outcome feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Fortunately, the second half of the album rivals the aforementioned songs, especially in this respect. "Children of the Night Soil" is an immediate listen, throwing the listener straight into a cacophony of swirling, pacey black metal menace but never echoing the mistakes of the album's first 30 minutes. Instead, it seems to embark on frenzied explosions of clearly emotional turmoil, both setting images the darker Victorian era in the listener's mind and presenting a finer, more artful musical side of the band. Similarly, "Scripturally Transmitted Disease" succeeds because it never tries too hard. There's more emphasis on synthesisers and even the odd nod towards to goth-inspired industrial music, but for the most part this song presents A Forest of Stars at their most formulaic. This isn't a bad thing either. For all the obvious experimentation going on in this album, it's actually refreshing to hear the band do business as usual without overreaching their musical goal. Instead, the result is as solid as you'd expect.
The final thing to point out about Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes
is the way in which beauty, melody and harmony is presented. Again, you'll probably find this more obvious in the album's second half than the first, but saying that, this side of A Forest of Stars' musicianship is as fine to hear in short bursts as it is in full songs. The latter is something which clearly drives outstanding album highlight "Taken By the Sea", a dreamy and experimental opus proving to be one of the finest songs the band have ever written. Featuring the strongest use of female lead vocals (courtesy of violinist and flautist Katheryne, apparent "queen of the ghosts") and a clearer set of unique classical melodies, this song doesn't even feel as long as it actually is, such is the general progression of the song's structure. There are indeed elements of pop, utilized in the same way as some of Blackmore's Night's more modern-sounding songs, but this isn't so much a cheap shot at being heard by the mainstream. Rather, it takes a stab at the harmony of all instruments excluding those which make up the main rhythm section (I.e. guitars, drums and bass) and effectively produces fluent melodies from start to finish, with the added aforementioned styles tying neatly into a real grower. It's really not without its rewards, and the fitting climax is all you need to realize that it's with songs like this that A Forest of Stars have made a big name for themselves in the underground.
Whether you see them live or listen to one of their albums, there's absolutely no doubt that A Forest of Stars have their hearts and sights set on including everyone they can into their conceptual and dramatic world. Sure, the composition and songwriting are flawed (as with every other album in the band's discography), but the overall effect is still one that makes the listener wide-eyed and convinces most, if not every audience member that they've just experienced an enthralling sonic journey. Whether or not you'll be driven away as a result is another matter entirely.