Ah, the great British eccentric, how we love them. We will accept all manner of outrageous behaviour and entertain all sorts of way-out ideas from the oddballs that we have decided to take to our hearts. I first heard of A Forest of Stars on this very site from James Conway‘s excellent review of their previous album “A Shadowplay for Yesterdays“. I didn’t (and still don’t) get any of the musical references he made there, but I was so intrigued by a group of musicians from Leeds dressing up in Victorian costume and playing concept heavy, psychedelic black metal in which violin is often the lead instrument that I just had to check them out!
Having read a few interviews and visited their strange and fantastically elaborate website it is obvious that A Forest of Stars have more ideas in a week than most bands have in their entire careers. “Beware The Sword You Cannot See” is a concept album about life and death, science and religion, reason, fear and superstition, atoms and ashes, carbon and everlasting life. It’s about man’s repositioning in an age of scientific discovery from a future at God’s side to mere recycled matter blowing in the wind. I got all that from the first two listens. It may very well be the tip of the conceptual ice berg. It may be I’m a bit confused. That won’t be A Forest of Stars‘ fault though as rarely has a band seemed so assured in its intellectual and artistic endeavours. And yet they wear it very lightly, with no shortage of humour – ‘A Blaze of Hammers’ (not actually about facing West Ham’s awesome attacking front line) begins with the line “Fuck you and the worms you rode in on“. It’s a song about existential crisis but the protagonists hand-wringing agony is presented in the band’s typical dark burlesque style.
There is not a weak moment on this entire album so it’s hard to single out highlights, but I have to say I especially enjoy all the songs with vocal contributions from violinist Kathryne, Queen of the Ghosts, whose pure, sad tones raise the quality of the songs and the hairs on the back of my neck in equal measures – ‘Pawn on the Universal Chessboard Part 6: Let There Be No Light’, which closes the album in gorgeously bleak fashion, is my favourite song of the year thus far.
The band’s sound is still rooted in black metal, with Mr Curse‘s theatrical, semi-spoken rasp to the fore, speed-blurred drumming and furiously picked guitars (‘Virtus Sola Invicta’ begins and ends like Behemoth with pastoral folk rock in the middle), but more folk, progressive metal and even occasionally art rock and Tom Waits-style hobo stomp weirdness can be heard.
The aforementioned ‘Pawn on the Universal Chessboard’ is the sweeping six-part epic that closes the album and displays the breadth of the band’s sound, with wintry, ambient synths on ‘Part 1:Mindslide’, Fields of the Nephilim style prog-goth on ‘Part 2: Have You Got a Light, Boy?’ and punishing black metal on ‘Part 5:Lowly Worm’.
It is a shame, then, that all of this fabulous invention is marred by a cramped and slightly flat production (at least on my mp3 versions) which fails to do it justice. No disrespect to the band but I’d love to hear the results of them getting serious studio time with someone like Andy Sneap.
That is a minor quibble, though, when faced with the multitude of riches displayed here. From the opening ascending guitar riffs of ‘Drawing Down the Rain’ you know you are in for an adventure and the band do not disappoint for a moment. A Forest of Stars are approaching national treasure status and “Beware The Sword You Cannot See” is their first masterpiece.