The cover of Forest Stream’s new record, The Crown of Winter, is a stunner. In every shade of glacial blue, it depicts a venerable sailing ship frozen aslant in icebound waters, agonizingly close to a pair of monolithic pillars announcing passage to the craft’s apparent destined terminus. Desolate gloom belies the assured calm of the scene’s hues, suggesting that the music contained within is built on contrasts. Indeed, Forest Stream bring from their home in Chernogolovka, Russia, the classic contradictions of light and dark, airy and heavy, beautiful and bleak that define doom-death. All the obvious references here will ring true for the seasoned fan of the genre, including Paradise Lost, Katatonia, Swallow the Sun, and early Anathema. There is also more than a cursory indulgence in Opethian structure and style, as well as some overt bows (and a curtsy) to Dimmu Borgir where the band aims to take an audacious step outside the bounds.
The album’s brief intro, “Feral Magic,” brings the arctic ambiance of the art to life with frosty strings playing a dark and beautiful commencement to the title track. Icy piano plays comfort to the dreariness of heavy guitar on “The Crown of Winter,” while clean vocals alternate with rumbling growls in keeping true to the doom-death formula. (As an aside, the orchestral accompaniment on this track is eerily reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s “Changes.”) This is pretty much the order of the day for the remaining tracks, with the exception of “Bless You to Die” and “The Seventh Symphony of Satan,” each of which is adorned with the Dimmu sort of symphonic black metal preamble before settling back into the album’s established disposition.
Even obviously beholden to the founders of the style, Forest Stream appropriate the pieces into an enjoyable semblance of originality in the beginning. The aforementioned title track, while familiar, escapes mediocrity by virtue of its composition. Regal, haunting melodic leads and some fetching solos hoist “Mired” above banality, despite its pedestrian structure, and “Bless You to Die” manages to stay fresh with a bridge that flings staccato’d keys and orchestral flourishes into a maelstrom of lightly blackened thrash, simple though it may be.
And this is where the pleasantries are cast to the winds, as the remaining tracks on The Crown of Winter range from tried and tired to utterly unpalatable. Beginning with “The Autumn Dancers,” the gloss has become hazed as composition is recycled and melodies command nothing stronger or more descriptive than words like ‘nice’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘sad.’ The Dimmu worship becomes intolerable on “The Seventh Symphony of Satan,” despite the fact it lasts but a few minutes before it decomposes into a flagging rehash of the album’s earlier songs. Three things become dreadfully obvious with this track and especially its successor, “Beautiful Nature”: 1) the best of the melodies on this album are owed without doubt to Opeth and Katatonia, 2) the meandering orchestral breaks do little more than disrupt what the listener might otherwise enjoy in these homages, and 3) the reason that spoken word pieces are kept to a minimum in music is that they are irrefutably pretentious at best and ridiculously silly at worst, as is the case here where they are afforded an obscene amount of time.
The Crown of Winter is an awful lot like that cover art in that, just as the crew of that mighty vessel had their destination in sight, and as surely as their hearts rejoiced at this, something seems to have gone seriously awry in their preparatory strategy, the result being a journey only half-realized.