Black Metal has long been a breeding ground for eccentrics. Posing in moonlit graveyards whilst brandishing a vicious looking medieval weapon with a face painted like the saddest of pandas is not how most normal folk choose to spend an evening. After all, metal wouldn’t want to open itself up to accusations of ridicule would it? While this peculiar practice may still go on in forests unknown, the new breed of Necro bad boys need to find ways to distinguish themselves from the pack. It’s a task that Northwest natives A Forest of Stars take to with unfettered glee on their third album “A Shadowplay for Yesterdays”.
Built around a concept of aristocratic Victorian decadence, this gloriously odd outfit have thrown the rulebook out of the window and crafted an album as fiendishly diabolical, freakishly peculiar and intricately multi-layered as the 19th Century that the band members so revere. This fascinating period of history is so rich with social upheaval, civil unrest, narcotic experimentation and ritualistic occult practices that it’s mind boggling so few bands have pillaged it for source material. The only explanation is that the ambition of A Forest of Stars is greater than their competitors, their willingness to plunge headfirst into the realms of magickal entertainment, unconcerned if they emerge from the other side with sanity intact is what sets them apart from the flock.
The rapid tremolo picking of contemporary second-wave black metal puts in frequent appearances but is employed as a facet to the swirling chaos on display, rather than being the bedrock of the bands’ sound. Riffs are just as likely to swirl off into the ether as demonstrated on the melancholic ‘Left Behind as Static’ and often take a backseat to allow the other instruments to breathe and cavort. The splendidly named Katheryne, Queen of the Ghosts delivers the finest performance of a violin on a metal album since ‘Turn Loose the Swans’ by My Dying Bride came out in 1993, her exquisitely tortured melodies giving the music a tragic grandeur. This, juxtaposed with her curiously whimsical flute flourishes creates the impression that nothing is off limits to this collective, that under the surface anything goes.
Vocalist, Mr Curse gives a wonderfully extravagant performance throughout, pronouncing his tales of mischief and woe like an announcer at an exhibition featuring Joseph Merrick and friends, first demonstrated over the seething riff-storms that flair up during ‘Prey Tell of the Church Fate.’ Armed with genuinely interesting lyrics and unafraid to make them legible, Mr Curse is the antithesis of the same old Satan obsessed screeching that still prevails today in black metal, often bringing to mind the solemn spoken word-esque delivery of ‘Serenades’ era Anathema.
The enthralling melodies, driving down-picking and folky acoustic interludes of the ten minute plus ‘A Prophet for a Pound of Flesh’ provide an early high point in the album, but the overall level of excellence remain constant throughout. Brief interlude ‘Man’s Laughter’ offers only dissonant confusion after the Solefald style riffing of ‘The Blight of God’s Acre’ raises the tempo to more Nordic levels. Everything gels perfectly again for ‘The Underside of Eden’ with its chaotic structures being repeatedly twisted into Blut Aus Nord shaped pieces of audio terror.
Attempts to pigeonhole this ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ are impossible; they exist in their own parallel universe of ever shifting textures and bizarre lunacy. One can imagine them sitting down for absinthe and scones with say, The Meads of Asphodel but few others would be worthy of a seat at their table. “A Shadowplay for Yesterdays” is one of the finest albums of the year and one you will visit time and time again, if only you’re willing to join them in their carnival of unearthly delights. The choice is yours.