Black metal has reached a critical point in development and rapid expansion through the past decade that introduced interesting sonic experiments to an otherwise insular and esoteric genre. Artistic waves came and went, and what was once avant-garde became commonplace in the genre. For instance, Deathspell Omega‘s dark and twisted approach was once novel but is now the common aesthetic of modern black metal. Post-black metal’s wash of reverb and echo drowned out just about everything else and, running parallel to djent’s movement elsewhere, can no longer be considered progressive in its own right; folk influences were present from the beginning, and dwellings in the realm of folk and extreme metal continue to be constructed. How can one of the most extreme genres continue to push the envelope? If you’re British act A Forest of Stars, it’s all about looking in the past, rather than looking forward.

Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes, the act’s fifth full length, is the next logical step in the act’s over-the-top cinematic experience and sees the band further indulging in bizarre anachronisms and genre experimentation. Classical music, industrial, ambient, and folk intertwine with black metal in a way that can draw comparisons to acts such as Negura Bunget and Dodheimsgard alike. Grave Mounds often captures the spirit of epic fantasy, sounding like a black metal take on Ramin Djawadi‘s Game of Thrones score, and the fact that it is a conceptual and narrative piece with incredible, dynamic flow and sense of songwriting certainly helps.

The band’s theatrical vocal style is as present on Grave Mounds as on previous outings, with the affected apocalyptic barking of the enigmatic frontman “Mister Curse” carrying an air of Victorian grandiosity that elevates the music to heights of avant-garde quirkiness heretofore unmatched. Somewhere between a howl and spoken word, the bellowing narration across the album is initially a difficult and acquired listen, but contribute greatly to the aesthetic. More traditional extreme metal vocal styles do creep in and out of the playbook. “Children of the Night Soil,” for instance, gets quite the varied vocal performance that borders on death growls as the song builds in intensity through its first half.

It’s followed up by “Taken By The Sea,” which turns into somber folk with sparse synths and violin accompanying violinist Katheryne’s vocals, which would return again on the climactic “Scripturally Transmitted Diseases.”  The twists and turns from industrial to folk and extreme genres on tracks like “Tombward Bound,” for instance, feel seamless and natural, which is where lesser avant-garde acts lost the plot for the sake of being eccentric. A Forest of Stars are by no means not eccentric (they certainly foster weirdo-vibes that are inherent to the genre) but the air of psychedelia and a deep appreciation for quality songwriting, particularly in the context of the whole record and the personality it develops, elevates Grave Mounds above many comparable “epic” albums that have been released in the past few years.

Technical, experimental, and progressive tendencies can only carry a record so far, and what it comes down to is that Grave Mounds is not only a proficient work in serious art, heady and conceptual, it’s also incredibly fun and has a sense of humor about itself. A Forest of Stars have cultivated a unique sound and personality that strikes this delicate balance without undermining the music, which makes Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes an essential record for the year in the fringes of extreme metal.

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Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes is out September 28, 2018 through Prophecy Productions. Pre-orders are available via Bandcamp above and Prophecy Productions


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