originally written by Chris McDonald
After years of maintaining an extremely narrow and linear progression from its roots, black metal has finally started to progress; not just sonically, but visually, aesthetically, and lyrically. Outfits like Deathspell Omega have already elevated black metal’s scope from a lyrical and instrumental standpoint, and Wolves In The Throne Room has done wonders to break down the genre’s cultural barriers and open it up to wider appreciation by the general musical populace. But I can’t think of any black metal bands that represent change and progression on every level more than the quirky U.K.collective A Forest Of Stars. I’d love to hear what the Darkthrone dudes think of these guys.
Composed of a group of musicians who dress like they came out of the ancestor portraits in old Victorian mansions and go by names such as “Mister Curse” and “The Gentleman,” A Forest Of Stars has slowly but surely been garnering attention since their self-released debut The Corpse of Rebirth, a swirling mixture of haunting folk atmospherics and bizarre theatrical elements laid over a raw undulating black metal core. The Corpse of Rebirth worked because the band was able to present their unconventional stylistic elements (namely Mister Curses’s garbled vocal ramblings) in a sound that was still rooted in black metal’s basic properties. Opportunistic Thieves Of Spring largely follows in its predecessor’s footsteps in this regard, while somehow becoming even more epic and unpredictable in scope. At the same time, A Forest Of Stars has traded in some of its oddball tendencies for a more straightforward, if less direct, delivery. You won’t find any tea-sipping samples or bizarre vocal tirades like the closing of “God” this time around, and while it’s a bit disappointing to see such a weird band strip down some of its weirdness when it was as entertaining as it was on Corpse, it’s hard to argue with the results on a strictly musical level in this case. The six tracks on Thieves are all mammoth epics that lead the listener through a variety of varying emotions and movements, making for an enthralling, and somewhat exhausting, listening venture.
At the base of A Forest of Stars‘ sound is sweeping black metal somewhat akin to Wolves In The Throne Room or Weakling, but the flute and violin accompaniments provided by Katheryne, Queen of the Ghosts (yeah, I know) and the wide variety of keyboard sounds peppered throughout add an air of haunting beauty and leering tension to even the band’s most aggressive passages. This has been a complaint against the band’s debut—that they constantly straddle the line between soft and extreme without ever really committing to either—but in the end, the depth of the music is engrossing enough to make such distinctions pointless. Mister Curse’s vocals aren’t nearly as strange as they were on the debut (possibly my only real complaint with this album compared with the last), but his loose, seemingly random delivery remains ideal for the band’s elegant, constantly shifting musical backdrops, and his lyrical presence is an engaging treat for those willing to investigate it.
A Forest Of Stars’ music is filled with distinctive individual elements, but it’s the overall tone and feel of their songs that really sets the band apart. Each track on Opportunistic Thieves Of Spring offers a plethora of varying musical ideas that somehow come together into a singular whole, and it honestly feels like these guys could throw in some country hoedowns or free jazz segments and still have it fit in with their vision. The songs tend to lead the listener back and forth between fierce bursts of aggression and stirring ambience; just when you’re getting comfortable with the direction the band are going in, they switch gears. But we’re obviously not talking about tech-death levels of stop-start wankery; the length of the tracks allows the band to fully explore all of the dynamics in their compositions, and when big transitions surface, they feel fluid rather than forced. While the music on Opportunistic Thieves Of Spring is unquestionably experimental, it never quite comes across as such when it’s actually playing, at least not in the “aren’t we so clever” sense that makes so many similarly-minded bands a chore to listen to. Moments like the series of murky blackened melodies and quieter folky build-ups in “Sorrow’s Impetus,” the beautiful female vocals in “Starfire’s Memory,” or the desperate gait of the final minutes of “Delay’s Progression” all feel organic and natural, and they help paint a grander sonic picture with a vivid sense of tone and atmosphere.
Opportunistic Thieves of Spring is certainly one of the more “challenging” releases of the year, and I confess it’s taken me quite some time (and several rewrites of this review) to decide where exactly I stand on it. There’s very little in the way of hooks or catchy riffs, and it’s definitely missing a bit of the loony flair that helped make The Corpse of Rebirth so enticing, but in place of those things is a slightly edgier and more mature sound that feels just as noteworthy. Those who prefer black metal in a purer sense will probably consider A Forest of Stars’ music to be bloated and pretentious, and there’s a certain amount of validity in that statement. But I’m perfectly willing to put up with an hour-and-twenty-minute album of pretentious music when it ultimately pays off like Thieves does. If you think you’re up to that as well, buy this immediately, because this is one of the few bands in metal today that is capable of delivering a one-of-a-kind musical experience to those willing to hear one.