[Artwork by Duncan Storr]
A lot has happened in the four years that have passed since the late summer 2016 release of Dark Forest’s fourth full-length, Beyond the Veil. More notably, a great number of terrible things have happened, which has since (perhaps?) culminated in a start to 2020 that most every human would agree to designate as “a shitstorm of epic proportions.” What happens after the quarantine walls finally give way and the population is once again cleared to high-five in peace? Alien invasion? Colossal meteor strike? Fire sweeps clean the Earth?
No doubt you’ve heard most every theory from the stupidly preposterous to the irrefutably academic as to why the populace is being hounded by natural disasters, plagues and a general (and seemingly inescapable) malaise, but it’s hard to argue with one overarching root-issue: the world is out of balance. We rely way too much on technology and not enough on the fruitfulness of our environment; we obsess far too much on profit and not enough on selflessness; and we have all but obliterated our harmonious connection to our beloved planet, which—news flash—will not end well for the human race.
Where to even begin righting the ship as individuals in an effort to restore the balance?
YES, TREES. Stop cutting them down, nourish them, sit under them, talk to them, thank them, and plant them.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, humans in the modern age have largely chosen to neglect or even sever ties to the tree, and yet the following remains conclusive: we will always be fundamentally linked to this particular perennial, because without them, we will die. Period. In addition to this crucial role in allowing us to, you know, breathe, trees also represent one of the most enduring symbols of balance and harmony between humankind and the planet we’re lucky enough to inhabit, with cultures across the board explicitly tying the roots, boughs and fruit of trees to life itself—perhaps none more convincingly than the Nords (Yggdrasil) and Celtic druids (Crann Bethadh).
Just what in the blue bonk does this have to do with Dark Forest, apart from the fact that trees are clearly involved in their name and this album title, and they also happen to be featured front-and-center in the incredible artwork for Oak, Ash & Thorn? Everything related to this band—sound, mind and overall appearance—remains eminently linked to the past, and their adherence to celebrating the legends and paths of Once Upon a Time results in a form of triumphant metal that’s as restorative as a visit to the woodlands after months (or maybe even years) spent toiling in the grip of concrete, particle board and plastic. They are, simply put, of the woods, and their music is an accessory for abandoning an age where predilections are determined by instagram influencers in favor of rediscovering adventure beneath leafy canopies.
With Oak, Ash & Thorn, full-length number five, the band continues the previous record’s trajectory, but furthermore offers a perfect bridge to the forthrightness of their past works that gives the overall trip an ideal balance between bright, straightforward jigs—particularly in the front half with “Wayfarers Eve,” “The Midnight Folk” and “Relics”—and the long, winding epics that sound as if Steve Harris popped in for a pint and a pitch during the songwriting.
Vocalist Josh Winnard has always been a high point, as his delivery sounds as much Bruce Dickinson as it does some forgotten troubadour in courtly breeches, but Dark Forest simply wouldn’t be Dark Forest without the gold-plated interplay between guitarists Christian Horton and Patrick Jenkins. A Smith / Murray comparison is inevitable (and extremely fucking reasonable), but the long and short of it is this: there’s enough heart-swelling, dovetailing, melodic guitar work throughout every single song on Oak, Ash & Thorn that even Eeyore himself would eventually need to be strapped to a gurney after merrily out-bouncing Tigger at his own frigging game for an hour straight. Point to any song as proof, but it would be ludicrous to not spotlight the title-cut that stands the album’s centerpiece:
If the sweeping heroics around the 6-minute mark don’t A) cordially invoke perceptions of a great many classic Steve Harris epics, or B) embolden your spirit to the point of detonation, then 1) this ride definitely ain’t for you, and 2) what happened in your life to cause such a dislike for heavy metal gallantry, you poor bastard.
Lyrically, we pull the cart back around to speak of trees. No, these songs do not detail some scholastic examination of oaks, ashes and hawthorns, but the album’s title is in direct reference to the sacred Druidic three, which, when brought together, offer optimal habitation for faery folk and all the undertakings and parables that walk hand-in-hand with such a thing. Specifically, Oak, Ash & Thorn was inspired by a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill owned by Horton, and the album as a whole very much sounds like something Kipling would perhaps appreciate if Bill & Ted could somehow manage to drag him into the 21st century. These songs sing of “history’s hidden folds” and woodland fortunes and cautionings, and the manner in which it’s all delivered gives the album a very suitably natural feel that makes it evident that very little studio trickery was required to tie everything together. In other words, not a lot of difference between what you hear spinning on the platter compared to what comes belting out of the Weeping Friar’s Tavern in a live setting.
Ultimately, the indispensableness of a record such as this depends on a couple key factors. First, if you can’t get enough of the sort of stouthearted, exhilarating trad metal forged with medieval folk and Celtic melodies that’s similarly delivered by the likes of Skyclad and The Lord Weird Slough Feg, this record should be pinging your radar. And second, if you often rely on music for yet another escape from the gloom and hazards of living in an increasingly industrialized modern age, Oak, Ash & Thorn is very prepared to lift the veil and reveal a notably tempting escape to a familiar and mythical wilderness. And really, what better time than the present to take flight into the trees for a vigorous taste of reacquaintance and rebalance?
A blissful triumph with superior replay value.
“Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But—we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
And we bring you news by word of mouth—
Good news for cattle and corn—
Now is the Sun come up from the South,
With Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!”
Rudyard Kipling, “A Tree Song” / Puck of Pook’s Hill
(Happy Belated Earth Day)