Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Forest of Stars - A Shadowplay for Yesterdays

A Forest of Stars are a British group who Metal Archives classify as "psychedelic black metal". I'm not totally sold on that label, but it's pretty close. Anyway, they formed in 2007 and have put out material at a steady clip since then. This summer saw the release of their third full-length, A Shadowplay of Yesterdays.

This is a strange record. The band certainly hold up in terms of creativity and variety, as the songs range from  harsh to mellow, long to short, and groovy to folksy. It keeps the record fresh, and the seemingly disparate elements all flow together smoothly enough that the album never sounds incoherent. Rather, it builds on itself and shifts and moves, constantly moving forward, be it by leaps and bounds or at a slow crawl.

The guitar work definitely plays a big role, as it covers bases ranging from hazy walls of white noise to acoustic Spanish pieces, stopping off on the way to tackle an occasional fuzzy 70s-style lead. The vocals are likewise quite flexible, with clean male and female pieces in addition to the harsher sections which come out in a surprisingly mellow sort of throaty rasp. Percussion includes not just varied drumming but also some splashes of bongo to add some flavor. Other non-metal instruments show up as well, most notably flute, violin, and keyboards. A tambourine makes a few appearances too, as do several other bits and pieces of accenting instrumentation. The bass isn't terribly pronounced, though it does take the lead at times, like on the early portions of "Prey Tell of the Church Fate".

While the shifts don't make the record lose a sense of cohesiveness, there is a definite sliding scale in terms of how well the work in isolation. Generally speaking, the band is at its best in the mellower segments, while the harsh aspects of their sound fall behind. I think this is because even when the band is in full black metal mode they don't really sound terribly powerful or hostile. The smooth, soft parts of their music, though, are interesting and often quite beautiful. Sometimes that beauty is in a spaced-out ambient way, other times it's smooth and jazzy, and still others it comes in the form of haunting folk melodies.

So why do I find this record strange? Well, two reasons come to mind. One is that this group is hard to really pin down. The entire time I was listening to this I kept radically reassessing not just how well I liked this album, but what kind of album it even was. The other reason it's strange is because it's one of those rare metal albums that I feel quite strongly would have been a better record if it completely discarded metal from its sound. As a funky, folk-jazz fusion group these guys would be immensely enjoyable, as those aspects of their music constantly sucked me in and kept me fascinated. It's the black metal segments that don't work well, breaking up the enjoyment of the rest of the record in a totally counter-intuitive way.

Grade: B
I want to like this more, because some of it is stunning. However, in an unusual twist, this is one band that should lose some of its metal-ness instead of adding more.

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