Monday, October 8, 2018

album review: 'grave mounds and grave mistakes' by a forest of stars

You know, there was a time when I was starting to get into black metal that I was unsure if I'd be recommended acts I didn't like within the genre. That's the funny thing about extreme music and one reason why critics who don't exclusively specialize in it tend to hand out high scores more often, mostly because it's more organic. The good stuff rises to the top and picks up popularity, the bad or incompetent stuff just... doesn't, and winds up in the pits of obscurity.

Of course, the big exception to this rule is when a band slips into 'avant-garde' territory and is simply so unique that they seem custom-made for a cult following even if the quality isn't there - and on that note, A Forest Of Stars. I'll be very blunt and say that when I checked out their first few albums, I wasn't a fan whatsoever - and given my fondness for fantasy or at the very least Celtic folk tones you'd think they'd be up my alley, but with every listen I found the slapdash blend of black metal, quasi-futuristic psychedelic rock, and pompous neo-classical folk to be a total mess. Yeah, the poetry was okay, but the progressions were underwhelming, the production rarely rose above mediocre and nothing close to consistent, and the less I say about the attempted blend of male and female vocals, the better. I'll admit they got better with each passing album, but up until this release I'd only call them okay for some good violin work and some passable black metal segments, and I've never been a fan of the vocals across any of their projects. They reminded me a lot of Diablo Swing Orchestra, who at their best were able to balance the ridiculous camp with some genuine menace and chops but at their worst could come across as oversold and gimmicky, which is just as true about A Forest of Stars down to their fake origin story! And when I heard that this album was going to be revisiting sounds from their 2012 release A Shadowplay for Yesterdays - which is arguably where their theatricality picked up the most flop-sweat - I was steeling myself for a rough listen. How did it turn out?

Okay, here's the thing: the more listens I gave to Grave Mounds And Grave Mistakes, I understand the broad appeal of A Forest Of Stars: they are the very definition of a cult band relying on their concept and a mostly unique genre combination to attract attention and if you can get into their style and sound, you won't hear many other acts like this. But for me... not only can I not take this seriously as I would reckon the band is at least trying, but I'd actually consider this project something of a backslide for the band, away from tones and direction that at least had some promise. In short, if you're looking for a black metal project that absolutely turned me off, it was this one, only spared from being an outright disaster by a few scant moments that even here cannot save this album from being pretty bad in its own right.

So let's focus on those moments, shall we? Now I'll have a lot more to say about the vocals in a bit, but when it comes to the female singing, it's passable - rarely layered in a way to have presence or firepower within the mix or really more than a symphonic backdrop, but the one song where she takes lead on 'Taken By The Sea' is the highlight of the album, hands down. And I'll admit that while the violin playing is rarely exceptional - an issue of arrangement and composition, and again, we'll get to it - I would argue that it's mostly layered in a way that can compliment the main melody, especially on the back half of the album - it's more for the added twinges of Celtic folk that promise a more textured album than this is, but it's hard to complain about it or the acoustic moments than accompany it. Finally, while the integration of synthesizers and more futuristic elements has always felt weird for this band on songs like 'Tombward Bound' and 'Scripturally Transmitted Disease' - it doesn't fit really with any of the instrumental elements and the production seems to treat them as an afterthought - I did like the organ on 'Decomposing Deity Dance Hall'. Again, most of what it adds are arpeggiated chords, but at least the vague texture works with what A Forest Of Stars is trying.

And that's about the limit with what I can say positive about this band, so let's start with those arpeggiated chords and one of the most fundamental issues with A Forest Of Stars: when you break down the compositions, by black metal standards these are painfully basic and in no way justify songs running into the nine and ten minute mark, especially with no significant solos to recommend. Drawing a quick comparison to an act like Vallendusk where the guitarwork really is the biggest draw in terms of sheer melodic construction, A Forest Of Stars typically stick with basic patterns that rarely show any degree of progressive edge or knack for transitions or crescendos. Or to put it another way, the melodies get really damn boring really fast, and when you pair it with a bass guitar that's mixed into nonexistence and drumwork that can feel painfully average in terms of delivering blast beats, it leads to compositions that don't have much in the way of climax or striking hooks. And none of this is helped by the production, and I'm immediately left with the question where A Forest Of Stars wants to take the sound and texture of this album. The band has been quoted as wanting to get a little more atmospheric on this release, which the producer seems to have completely misinterpreted as 'strip out any interesting dynamics or emphasis within the mix', which makes the oddball turns to violins or acoustic guitar or keyboards not so much feel avant-garde or challenging but to momentarily jolt the audience into paying attention - and given that the compositional dynamics aren't really present in those passages either, they rarely succeed.

And unfortunately, this takes us to the vocals, and I'm going to be as blunt as possible: these are some of the worst male vocals I've heard in 2018, on par with what Future was doing on 'King's Dead' in terms of a 'what were they thinking' response. And this is where the question of what A Forest Of Stars wants to be really rears to the forefront, because it certainly isn't playing to the strengths of their frontman, who at his best produces some serviceable growling barks that aren't exceptional but they work. What he seems a lot more interested in is a low-rent Nick Cave wannabe circa 1982 with production that doesn't give him the theatrical presence and placement he so desperately needs to sound imposing or potent. Not for lack of trying on his part, unfortunately, as the hamminness of his delivery approaches not so much knowing camp but a spookhouse villain from a Hanna Barbara cartoon trying way too hard to be taken seriously, which reaches its apex when he tries to push his growls into a higher register and only winds up sounding wheezy, strained, and at some points damn near laughable. And again, this could work if the album had a sense of humor or was willing to lean into the garish camp, but the frontman seems to playing this with the flop-sweat earnestness of the theater kid going all in at karaoke, unaware of how cringeworthy his performance is becoming and not helped by production or compositions to elevate or save him. That's the genuinely frustrating thing: given how formless so many of these arrangements feel the male vocals wind up standing out the most... which is about the last thing they need!

And I can't tell you how much this does a disservice to the songwriting and lyrics and again, let me try to give this band some vestige of credit as it's clear they're leaning into a style of heightened theatricality, caught between the puritanism and an world sliding into debasement with all the manic pomp on the verge of madness they can muster. Given the right frontman and a producer who could give this project some guts and genuine firepower, that's not a terrible premise... but it's significantly undercut by how flat out ridiculous the writing can feel! This ties back into the integration of more modern elements in trying to preserve the veneer in that maybe the band should not feel so ready to swear with a distinctly modern style for emphasis, especially with this delivery. Nothing against cursing in principle, but it feels like a lazy crutch for a group where the writing can otherwise feel so overwritten. And when start picking out some of the more ridiculous lines, even with the cheap excuse that they're not supposed to make much sense in the throes of madness, it's hard to not consider parts damn near parody, which seems to be the last thing the band wants, especially when we get more serious cuts like on 'Taken By The Sea'. And if the band is trying to make a thematic point surrounding how Victorian decadence and nihilism mirrors our own... well, it's slapdash for one, especially in comparison with previous albums, but more to the point, the thematic ambition just underscores how badly the execution serves it. 

So as a whole... look, I get that there's an audience for A Forest Of Stars who are more appreciative of the theatrical folk/black metal combination, but forget the bands who do this sound better with a greater sense of cohesion, I can't even say this rises to the best of their discography. The production is flat, the compositions are overlong and underwhelming, and for as much as the lyrics want to inspire investment, the vocals flat out kill it. For me, it's a 4/10, no recommendation... but if anything I described sounds interesting and you have an hour to kill, give it a shot - can't promise you won't have a migraine afterwards, though.

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