A Forest of Stars have been traveling on an upwards cosmic trajectory since their third full-length, 2012’s A Shadowplay for Yesterdays. For a band who didn’t have plans to record anything after their 2008 debut, or even play live, A Forest of Stars are a great example of what a collective and relentless passion and creativity can do for a band. Their sound is strange — off-putting, melodramatic and messy for some, captivating, wildly creative and hugely powerful for others. Once black-metal, the band has gradually shifted their black metal sound to a less noisy part of their psyche. It’s still there, shimmering and rasping somewhere in the corner, but new sounds have gained prominence, explored thoroughly in Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes, a darker, more sullen trip into the Victorian psyche.
Much of what made the previous two records a success is present in Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes. Nothing is predictable, nothing stable. but the same tropes are here. Mister Curses’ maniacal shouted ramblings are present, supplemented by healthy doses of Katheryne Queen of Ghosts’ violin sections and clean vocals, backed by peculiar ambient textures. What’s different, though, is the balance and tone of sounds presented here. Curses’ vocal intonation dwells even deeper in despair on this record. At times, such as in the phenomenal “Tombward Bound,” he sobs and chokes and snarls. At others, he rips through rhymes like a frothing patient at Bedlam (“Premature Invocation” and “Children of the Night Soil”), rising to a snarling rage, heavier than anything from the previous two records. Katheryne’s violin sections droop with greater sadness, a bereft curvature rings through the sullen “Taken By The Sea,” supported by her reverberating vocals that sing of loss and despair. The Gentleman — keyboards, percussion, and main songwriter — has a much more important role here, too. Electronic movements play a vital role in the movement of songs. John Carpenter, electronic composers, and horror movie soundtracks are an explicit influence; the textured throb of John Carpenter particularly smothers tracks in a lung-burning smog. At other times, such as during the polka-esque closer “Decomposing Deity Dancehall,” a bouncier electronic pulse of an almost synthwave variety acts as the driving force, building to a black metal crescendo.
There is greatness to be found on this record. Strikingly, the best moments come as a result of slow and tender song building. “Tombward Bound” is my song of the year and nothing will knock it off the perch. Glitching electronic sound washes through, bubbling and throbbing with a sadness which strikes right at the core. Mister Curse laments about death and existence — the usual abstract nature of his lyrics is replaced by a sincere and inward glancing elegy. Everything about the middle stretch of this song hits me hard — Curses’ intonation and deterioration into sobs, the keyboard arpeggios that flutter like moths and Katheryrne’s dreamy vocals combine to perfect effect. The guitars emerge during a cathartic explosion of sound at the five-and-a-half minute mark. Curse rages above bouncy folk sounds and black metal heaviness, bringing the song to a hugely satisfying end.1 “Taken By The Sea” is even slower, a mournful movement led by Katheryne Queen of Ghosts’ vocals and violin. Textures of a post-rock variety move through the song with emotive vastness: pianos, cellos and the ominous electronic throb that runs through the album surging towards a bittersweet crescendo.
Unfortunately, the same problems that plagued previous releases rear their head: song length and unsatisfying outros. “Precipice Pirouette” and “Scripturally Transmitted Disease” are guilty of going on for too long. They also fail to reach the aggressive black metal highs and the sullen atmospheric lows that other tracks on the album achieve. A minute or two of needless tremolo picked riffing could easily be cut from both. The length of the album is a problem — twenty minutes could be shaved off. There are too many transitions into new sections, sometimes tacked on. I’ve had this problem with A Forest of Stars in the past — it’s a real shame.
It pains me to score this album as I have, but I can’t be blinded by issues with album length and bloated compositions, especially when I criticised Thou and Firtan for similar issues recently. There are incredibly evocative moments on this record and A Forest of Stars continue to evolve. They’re one of the few bands I’d be fine with if they rid themselves of black metal altogether.