I remember back in 2012 reading some excellent reviews of A Forest of Stars previous album A Shadow for Yesterdays. I somehow never got around to listening to it, so I jumped on the opportunity this time around to get their newest release Beware the Sword You Cannot See.
If you’re like me, something jumps out at you before the first listen. That title is in iambic tetrameter, the verse of classical Greek poetry. I had to know if their lyrics would follow suit, so I opened them up first. Sadly, I couldn’t find the meter anywhere else (missed opportunity guys!).
Before we start with the review, it is important to understand the band a bit better. They are part band, part theatrical act. Part of the shtick is that they are a Gentlemen’s club from Victorian England of 120 years ago. The music is an artistic expression of this group. I’ll ignore the fact that the instruments the music is played on didn’t exist back then.
They don’t fit neatly into a genre. There is a lot of black metal influence in guitar and drum technique/sound, but they also rely a lot on frenetic spoken word (this reminds me of Sikth), clean vocals, and fiddle. They also have psychedelic, prog, and drone influences in lesser amounts.
I hate to keep nit-picking before I say anything of substance, but the spoken word parts make up a large part of the vocals and they drive me crazy. I think this type of thing can be done successfully, but this delivery doesn’t work.
In an attempt to emote, the delivery is so melodramatic and over-the-top that it pulls me out of what is happening around it. Also, you can hear the vocalist sucking in air at every breath (in a hugely distracting manner).
It is quite difficult vocal technique, but you can breath in almost silently and still get the intense spoken word delivery. It just takes a lot of practice. As a wind instrument player in bands and orchestras, I spent hours working on this myself throughout my childhood. I’ll get off this side rant for now.
I get that the violin is supposed to introduce folk music elements, but I don’t hear it. I’ve played a lot of English folk music, and this doesn’t have the right characteristic at all. It sounds more like a motif or ornament that gets repeated as texture to the band sound.
While I’m on the topic of things I didn’t like, the levels sound off. First, I don’t like overly present drums, but the drumming is almost inaudible on most of the album. The consistency makes me think this was a choice made for artistic purposes.
My guess is they wanted a pulsing feel from the drums without them interfering with melodic, harmonic, and spoken material. The strange thing is that the band relies a lot on big climaxes, and intense drumming can add a lot to these climaxes, so pushing it to the back hinders their goal.
Overall, this album suffers a bit from patchwork syndrome. They have tons of ideas, many of which are good, but they slam them all together to create a jumbled album in which too much happens and yet at the same time too little exploration of the good ideas happen.
So, is there anything I did like? Good question … The second half of the album is supposedly one long song/theatrical-poetry broken into 6 parts. I think they do a lot better on consistency and development of ideas on it. The harmonic structure moves from being drone-like to some interesting chromaticism.
I’m actually curious what this review would be if the album instead was an EP which consisted only of this second half. It almost sounds like they spent all the work on this and then threw some songs at the front to make a whole album.
For example, Part 3 does a lot better at the folk influences. Each song also sounds like it is a composed song rather than a random conglomerate of too many ideas.
Let me end with a disclaimer. An album like this is made for a certain type of audience. It is a bit unfair for me to pick it apart like this. You’re supposed to buy into the act, put the album on, and lose yourself for an hour in a different world.
If you think too carefully about it, you’ve missed the point. It isn’t an intellectual exercise. It is a bit like going to a Renaissance Festival and not enjoying any part of the experience because you pick apart every little thing. The point is to go in with the right mentality and play along even when things don’t go perfectly.
So I tried this with the album and got some enjoyment out of it. But I still have to go with a 5/10. Here’s a sample: