A Forest of Stars

(Copyright © 2023 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of Use )
The Corpse of Rebirth (2008), 7/10
Opportunistic Thieves of Spring (2010), 6.5/10
A Shadowplay for Yesterdays (2012), 6/10
Beware the Sword You Cannot See (2015), 6/10
Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes (2018), 7/10

English prog-metal quartet A Forest of Stars, consisting of Dan "Mister Curse" Eyre on psychotic vocals, Richard "The Gentleman" Blakelock on keyboards and percussion, Katie Stone on violin and flute, and Jon "Mr TS Kettleburner" Cumiskey on guitar and bass, concocted lengthy black-metal fantasias on The Corpse of Rebirth (2008). A plaintive violin-driven theme that mixes the feeling of an esoteric Pagan ceremony with decadent classical music dominates the first half of God (16:27) and then a crescendo of distorted riffs, blastbeats and demonic growls leads to an anthemic guitar-driven crescendo. The song feels like a blend of Deathspell Omega's horror symphonies, a sped-up My Dying Bride requiem (Stone's other band) and old-fashioned folk-rockers like Fairport Convention. The slower Female (13:57) is covered in massive guitar noise while violin and vocals (which are now an utter mess of rabid screaming) paint a melancholy atmosphere, but here the method quickly becomes redundant. The whole of Microcosm (10:27) feels a bit improvised, with Katie Stone's hymn and her flute solo hardly integrated in the overall flow and a melodic guitar assault at the end that sounds like a separate (and much better) song. They generally sound like heirs to the elaborate and melodramatic prog-rock suites of the 1970s, but occasionally the ups and downs of their songs evoke a metal version of Godspeed You Black Emperor: Male (13:04) opens with Kraftwerk-ian robotic vocoder and then a noir-jazzy ballad whispered by Katie Stone before a brief black-metal section, and then an intermezzo of acoustic guitar before repetitive trance-like distorted guitar riffs and more orthodox growls; and the piece ends in a chaotic bacchanal. Then again the complexity can be much more than ebbing and flowing: for a few minutes the guitar is anthemic and apocalyptic in Earth and Matter (9:40) but then we are treated to a percussion solo that belongs with ethnic-folk albums and the coda is a Renaissance-style violin solo. Despite the shortcomings, the album marks an important revision of the black-metal tradition.

The same idea of injecting keyboards, violin and flute, and therefore folk and classical elements, into the scaffolding of black metal shapes the lengthy and dynamic song structures of Opportunistic Thieves of Spring (2010). However, the flow is less spontaneous, the ebbing and flowing at times awkward, often leaving the impression of meandering bombast. For better and for worse, Sorrow's Impetus (13:01) is the archetype of these versatile and eclectic monoliths. Raven's Eye View (9:23) is a study in contrast, downshifting from a manic crescendo to a minimalistic flute solo and then soaring again into a gargantuan black-metal orgy. Summertide's Approach (13:27) is a typical example of how piano, violin and flute sometimes cripple the momentum of the song rather than adding to it: the song coalesces to a dense melodic artifact only in the last three minutes. More than half of Thunder's Cannonade (8:01) is taken by impressionist violin-driven soundpainting. Starfire's Memory (11:50) is a better amalgam of contrasts: the slow build-up, the Stone's gentle nursery rhyme, the lengthy pause of gothic noise, and the stately return. Delay's Progression (16:28), the longest piece and the standout, opens with synth ambience, then Stone's whispered elegy, then the martial melody over distorted riffs, then an acoustic repetition of the melody (sung into vocoder), then an instrumental apotheosis that slowly fades away. It could a black-metal band covering a Vangelis soundtrack.

The songs are more consise on A Shadowplay for Yesterdays (2012), their first major change in style. The songs are less bloated but no less eccentric. However, this also means that moments of genius are scattered across the songs: the melodic tremolo in the second half of Prey Tell of the Church Fate, the doom-y dirge-like ending of The Underside of Eden, the pastoral flute solo of Left Behind as Static, and the distorted piano strumming of Corvus Corona Part 2. The songs that work from beginning to end are A Prophet for a Pound of Flesh (10:12), which begins with a folk-mitaristic motif, continues with a swirling violin call-to-arms and ends with a folk chant, and Gatherer of the Pure (8:20), a sort of hybrid of Laibach and Pink Floyd with only a brief section of metal frenzy.

Beware the Sword You Cannot See (2015) is similar to its predecessor, except that it further dilutes the "black metal" element. At the beginning Drawing Down the Rain (9:31) is nothing but a combination of an old-fashioned hard-rock riff and an old-fashioned folk violin riff. After the spoken-word section, we hear Stone's best melodic singing yet. Hive Mindless owes its dramatic overtones to a church organ. A Blaze of Hammers is a concentrate of melodic bombast, like an angry version of Pink Floyd. Some pieces meander aimlessly, and one suspects that they are mere filler for the six-movement 22-minute Pawn on the Universal Chessboard, an ambitious musical narrative that revisits Van Der Graaf Generator and early Genesis in a much more theatrical mode, with a peak of pathos in the third movement (Perdurabo) and a peak of ferocity in the fifth movement (Lowly Worm).

Blakelock's electronic-ambient textures are more prominent on Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes (2018). Precipice Pirouette (10:19) relies on one of Eyre's most effective and unhinged performances, worthy of a campy Broadway musical, an emphatic monologue of horror by Nick Cave's black-metal counterpart. The slow, gloomy opening of Tombward Bound (9:52) is pure gothic atmosphere with cosmic overtones, shrouded in Goblin-esque synth and glam-rock magniloquence (David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust for the metal crowd?), and it ends with a Celtic fanfare. Premature Invocation is a lesson in suspense creation, from the opening jazzy flute solo to the intermezzo of celestial synth from hell. Eyre's werewolf howling and Stone's angelic lament collide in the smoldering inferno of Children of the Night Soil. Eyre is a frothing madman in the first hysterical half of Scripturally Transmitted Disease (10:58) before Stone turns it into a country ballad. Decomposing Deity Dance Hall (8:57) incorporates dance steps of an Irish jig and a neoclassical organ loop over thundering drums before the volcanic eruption of guitar tremolos. Taken by the Sea is not even metal, just a goth-rock ballad. Keyboards, violins, flutes and acoustic guitars dot their path to hell. This is their most elegant album yet, on all three fronts of the theatrical (Tombward Bound) the violent (Children of the Night Soil) and the pastoral (Decomposing Deity Dance Hall).

(Copyright © 2023 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )