The ingredients for creating black metal suited to assuage all of the miscreants and low-lifes of a particular era during which black metal didn’t actually exist are many. In order to do it right, lest their band be seen as a complete gimmick, one would have to possess enough information about the actual music of the era they wanted to represent. In addition, they would need to have a fairly sturdy grasp on all of black metal’s most modern techniques, so that their music could be versatile enough to adapt to whatever older era the artist wanted to channel in their music.
Even with all of that knowledge and skill, if someone said they were going to create an occult steampunk image and replicate Victorian-era music in the context of modern psychedelic black metal, you’d probably laugh them out of the park, right? RIGHT?! Well, you must be new if you’re laughing, because A Forest of Stars has already proven it’s a force to be reckoned with, and now they’re back with their fifth studio album, Grave Mounds And Grave Mistakes. Funny how some music trends can sound so brilliant and others so ridiculous, and yet all that really matters is the skillfulness of the musicians, not the concept(s) on which their music is based.
After the independently-released debut in 2008, things molded together quite nicely for A Forest of Stars. The group’s sophomore effort, Opportunistic Thieves of Spring, was a step in the right direction as far as the band’s sophistication went when it came to songwriting, and was released through Canada’s Transcendental Creations. Although no hall-of-fame moments stuck out the way “God” did on what preceded it, Thieves contained a much more thorough concept that was just as evident in the music as it was in the band’s imagery, lyrics, and style. A Forest of Stars spring-boarded from this success onto a subsidiary label of Prophecy Productions, Lupus Lounge, and here is where long-time fans of the band will tell you to pay attention, that is if you’re still interested. After all, bands with these levels of thematics do tend to polarize. Hell, a band like this can be polarizing on paper alone. All passengers are urged to stay on this steam-powered locomotive, however, because we are about to arrive at our most important destination.
Album number three, A Shadowplay for Yesterdays, is above all else an album that displays the true power of the riff. Now, we’ve already established that pulling off a ridiculous theme requires mastery of said theme, in addition to whatever artistic medium is being utilized, but it takes more than that to produce a timeless metal album. For that, the almighty riff is required. For virgins to A Forest of Stars, this is unfortunately where you need to exit, as [spoiler alert] A Forest of Stars would never quite top the brilliance of Shadowplay. So, if you don’t already own it, this is the one you need right now. If you need any more convincing, just listen to “A Prophet for a Pound of Flesh.” The song not only opens with a monster of a riff, but the music flows between guitars, violins, flutes, and keyboard engineering so effortlessly, the only thing one can do is close their eyes and pretend the curtains of some late industrial-era dive bar were just pulled back to reveal a magnificently hallucinogenic scene that dazzles all of the senses into pure ecstasy. But I digress. The rest of that story has already been told.
The band went on to release one more album on Lupus Lounge before making the full jump to Prophecy’s main label. Beware the Sword You Cannot See was very well received by A Forest of Stars’ international fan base, but contained many shortened tracks that formed one giant, six-part finale that didn’t quite live up to Shadowplay‘s magnitude. The current album, Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes, returns to the song structure that has always worked in the band’s favor.
Wordplay has always been part of the wild adventures that Kettleburner, Mister Curse, and Katheryne provide, but it’s perhaps at an all-time level of prowess on “Precipice Pirouette,” the thundering first post-intro track on Grave Mounds. Immediately, the fifth album shows more promise that the group is once again capable of the talent displayed on Shadowplay. In fact, A Forest of Stars comes right out of the gates with everything it has: an absolute mastery of all preferred instruments, flawless sound engineering, a clever story line that sucks the listener back into a world only truly familiar to the band itself, and most importantly… RIFFS.
Perhaps now is a good time to also credit the band for something that should have been highlighted much earlier: the strength of the vocal department. There is something oddly soothing about the British accent that, even when chaotically shouting from the black rooftops of Leeds with a throat spitting tar and coal from a mind amped up on amphetamines, sounds totally in control and comforting. As if after screaming about death and destruction and utter chaos, Kettleburner and Curse slide down the chimney to have tea and crumpets after washing their hands and brushing their rotting teeth.
A Forest of Stars hits its listeners with everything it has throughout the entirety of Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes. Of course, the question looming like an elephant-in-the-room remains, why such an adamant stance for those unfamiliar with the band to start with A Shadowplay for Yesterdays? What makes that one so much better? In many ways, Grave Mounds is the best effort A Forest of Stars has ever recorded. Both the musicianship and production are absolutely flawless, and all the weird quirkiness that the members put into the album’s aesthetics are in full-effect, so I suppose the only thing left to critique is the arrangement of the damn thing. That’s precisely the sort of thing that can grow on a listener with lots of time and repeat plays, though.
Where Shadowplay tells a stimulating story from start to finish that’s just as exciting from the first to the fiftieth listen, Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes‘ theatrics fit in slightly less with the giant slabs of black metal that take some time to digest. In other words, the non-metal elements of Shadowplay bridged gaps between two eras, while the clearly Victorian sounds of Grave Mounds come as more of a break. Where the former intertwines seamlessly, the latter has the potential to possess disjointed execution at times, albeit rarely. So please, mistake not this very opinionated writer’s love of one album for disapproval of its strongest successor. The truth is, there’s no modern black metal out there, save for Oranssi Pazuzu, that is this effective at sucking the listener into the psychedelic potential for the genre. The rest of the “innovative” black metal you will probably hear this year will just sound like cheap, dollar store knock-offs of this, so drop the gimmicks and pick up something that can actually transport you to another time. Even if it’s in some weird, steampunk-driven locomotive and everyone on board is absolutely insane.