Dark Forest – Oak, Ash & Thorn Review

U.K.’s Dark Forest has been cranking out high quality music since 2009, with a very interesting blend of Euro-power, traditional heavy metal and just enough folk elements to give them a slightly unique sound. Albums like The Awakening and 2016s Beyond the Veil were very good, teetering on the cusp of greatness, borrowing from NWoBHM legends like Iron Maiden while also dipping into the slick songcraft of Avantasia and prime Sonata Arctica. Their compositional and storytelling acumen improved with each release and I just knew they had a truly big release in them dying to burst free. It’s been a long wait for new material, but fifth album, Oak, Ash & Thorn is here and it’s finally the magnum opus I’ve been expecting from these nature loving metalers. The minor issues that held them back in the past have been corrected and you get an entire album’s worth of highly memorable, extra engaging metal with more hooks than an industrial pork processing plant. Ladies and gents, this may well be the best power/traditional album we get in 2020, so sit up straight as we run through the whys and wherefores.

After a moody intro which borrows from the Maiden book of somber noodling and oddly enough, Agalloch’s Pale Folklore as well, the table is set for proper opener “Wayfarer’s Eve” to take flight, which it does with the strange Agalloch-esque notes from the intro leading off. It quickly settles into a traditional NWoBHM stomper with just a bit of folksy jig in the guitar harmonies as Josh Winnard’s crisp, clear vocals guide you along from hook to earworm. It’s very upbeat, energetic and epic in scope and you can’t help but get with the program almost immediately because it’s so damn well executed. From there you get escorted through the forests of olde England for righteous tales of midnight rituals, kingdoms rising and all manner of fantastical goings on. “The Midnight Folk” sounds like a mixture of Maiden and Slough Feg, which I didn’t know I needed until I got it, now I hunger for more. Elsewhere, “Relics” sounds for all the world like Avantasia rewriting Sonata Arctica’s “My Land” to make it more grandiose, and damn if it doesn’t work.

Long-form set pieces were a problem for the band in the past, as bloat would sometimes undermine otherwise good to great songs. That’s no longer an issue, as most songs sit around 5 minutes and the few longer cuts like the 7-plus minute “Avalon Rising” fly by like supersonic jets, never once making you look at your watch. Even the 12-minute title track centerpiece is an absolute joy from beginning to end, loaded with excellent little Maiden-isms and a good deal of the same power and grit heard on Bruce Dickinson’s massive Chemical Wedding solo platter. This is a band that took the years off to meticulously craft songs that feel lean and mean regardless of actual length. Nowhere is there a segment that seems unnecessary or a note that feels superfluous. There are surprises too, as when the rabble rousing “Eadric’s Return” takes on more and more of an Atlantean Kodex vibe as it hurls itself toward increasingly epic soundscapes, and how the album closes with the melancholic instrumental “Heart of the Rose,” which could easily sit on any Insomnium album. At nearly 53 minutes I’m happy to report the album is as easy to spin as a top. Its flow is magical, flying by smoothly and leaving you wanting more.

The individual performances here are stellar. Christian Horton and Patrick Jenkins are excellent guitarists and they dazzle again and again with sharp riffs and gorgeous harmonies. They may borrow a lot from the Maiden School of NWoBHM Noodlery, but so what? By mixing in Euro-power tempos and folkish flavors they end up with a unique style, suavely using the familiar to inform the unexpected. What truly impresses me with their playing is how they impart a folksy feel to the music sometimes reminiscent of Skyclad, without ever playing folk music outright. It’s just there in the material’s bones somehow. Their playing keeps you locked in for the album’s duration and the sheer abundance of excellent guitar-work is amazing. Josh Winnard delivers his best performance to date, commanding and surefooted as the songs sweep from lighthearted tales to epic, mighty vistas. There’s still some Tony Kakko emo-izing in his performance, but more of it feels Dickinsonian, which helps the music feel grander in scope. This is one talented band and now they’ve fully come into their own as writers as well.

I had a sneaking suspicion Dark Forest was an album away from a monsterpiece when I reviewed Beyond the Veil, and Oak, Ash & Thorn is that mystical beast. It’s the near perfect blend of traditional and power metal and every song is a catchy, replay-heavy delight. This will be figuring highly on my year-end list and I expect to get a great deal of mileage out of these forest tales. You will too, so while you should sleep in a forest, don’t sleep on the Forest. Steel ov Approval granted.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Cruz Del Sur
Websites: darkforest-uk.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/darkforestuk
Releases Worldwide: April 24th, 2020

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