A Forest of Stars- “Beware the Sword You Cannot See”

A Forest of Stars- BTSYCS

Metal is something that inherently caters to extremes. Whether it’s bands specializing in either fifteen-second songs or hour-long epics, artists tend to have a hard time finding a middle ground. While many groups featured on this site lean towards a stark minimalist nature, there’s something to be said for bands that manage to lay it on thick without coming across like a complete garbled mess. A shining example of a band reveling in dense, meandering compositions that never grow tiresome or needlessly dull is A Forest of Stars, who have just released Beware the Sword You Cannot See.

A Forest of Stars, with their “steam-powered” black metal from 120 years in the past, has been more successful than I’d have imagined when first presented with their 2008 (or was it 1888?) debut, The Corpse of Rebirth. Their sound has grown progressively more ambitious over time (as have their production values), causing a steady rise in profile. I found their most recent full-length, A Shadowplay for Yesterdays to be primarily brilliant yet occasionally cumbersome, perhaps a sign of a band with too many ideas crammed into too small of a space. While overall enjoyable, it could have easily been the final stroke of genius before the band crumbled beneath its own indulgent weight.

Earlier this year, a teaser for Beware the Sword You Cannot See went up. I listened and quickly forgot about it. While A Forest of Stars’ early works stood quite nicely as single tracks, to gain an understanding of a new album from this bold outfit through just one song is clearly insufficient. Whatever issue I may have had with the song has clearly vanished, as a listen to the full span of Beware the Sword You Cannot See has me relieved and content about the present, and hopefully the future, of an act I’ve been following for quite some time. With six unique compositions, one of which is a lengthy piece spread over six distinctive suites, A Forest of Stars has offered up an album that is ambitious and sprawling yet undeniably cohesive.

From the opening moments of single and album opener “Drawing Down the Rain,” there is a clarity and a melodic form that has taken a stronger hold over the band’s music than ever before, allowing the lyrics to not just come to the front, but to be carried and aided by the musical direction the band has taken. While I’ll always have a soft spot for the sparseness and unpredictability of early A Forest of Stars material, the fixation on madness and mortality presented here works quite well with the density and constant nature of this current sound. Whether it’s the eerie flutes and light percussion that cut across the middle of “Hive Mindless” or the Current 93 gone psychedelic black metal of the album’s meandering highlight “Virtus Sola Invicta,” A Forest of Stars still has its share of space and subtlety on Beware the Sword You Cannot See, but the aim and effect is slightly more focused and concise here. If anything, despite the band’s sound becoming larger, it has also become more refined and potent in the process.

Dub reggae-influenced bass that was hinted at in the band’s oddly appropriate 2012 cover of Bauhaus’s “She’s In Parties” now shows up in full form during the first few minutes of “Proboscis Master Versus the Powdered Seraphs” and the band’s fearlessness pays off in a big way. Instead of sounding forced or awkward, it fuses eerily into the background, adding depth and variety. Guitars may still be the primary instruments for A Forest of Stars’ massive black metal approach, but the presence of violin is stronger than in the past and the vocal play between primary narrator Mister Curse and violinist Katheryne, Queen of the Ghosts is more dynamic without becoming overblown or wholly “folky.” For a seven-piece band, A Forest of Stars sounds every bit as large as they should without the cumbersome blaring excess that could so easily occur with so many contributors.

A Forest of Stars

While the twenty-ish minutes of six-part closer “Pawn on the Universal Chessboard” are designed as one complete song, it’s probably the only piece of the album that doesn’t feel completely seamless and formed. Each section within itself makes sense as a part of the greater whole, but the gaps between them sometimes feel spotty. Are these movements lacking in quality? Not in the slightest, but there are points where the cracks between each piece don’t meld as well as they could have. Still, on an album that spans the course of nearly an hour and visits with so many different elements in said time, a few instances of the band being hard to keep up with are understandable.

A Forest of Stars is releasing their latest through Lupus Lounge, an imprint of Prophecy Productions. Vinyl enthusiasts can obtain one of 500 gatefold double LPs, while other fans can purchase either the digipak CD or a limited edition boxed CD set which includes a second disc containing three extra tracks. All three editions can be found here.