Redeeming a legacy: A Forest of Stars and Old Corpse Road

How do you redeem a legacy like Cradle of Filth’s? Do you concede that their approach to black metal was misguided from the start? Taking it as an agreed fact that post ‘Midian’ CoF was not just awful but pretty scarring for extreme metal, with UKBM’s standing at the centre of this whirlwind, what lessons can we learn from this episode? How do we salvage their melodic goth ethos whilst looking forward without paralysing resentment? Well, one way – and the route that UKBM on the whole ended up taking – was to look the other way and pretend it didn’t happen. And so a whole wave of bands rejected black metal’s inherent theatrics, drama, campness, and flamboyance, and created a dumbed down and tearfully boring wave of atmospheric black metal. But around the same time in the late 2000s, there was a small clutch of bands looking directly into the sun so to speak, and risked embracing these things and more, to redeem them from the carnival that CoF became. They created legitimate, exciting, well-crafted black metal that also managed to incorporate the eccentricities of British humour and wit into the mix along the way.

The trajectory of A Forest of Stars is an interesting one. From a kind of eccentric take on depressive black metal on their debut ‘The Corpse of Rebirth’ (2008), to the subtly epic ‘Opportunistic Thieves of Spring’ (2010), which built on the debut whilst utilising the same aesthetic groundwork, things finally shifted in 2012 on ‘A Shadowplay for Yesterdays’. If OTOS was a long, patiently unfolding opera with a dark, swelling, meditative atmosphere, then ASFY is a ray of sunlight. The dark melodrama is still there, as are many depressive inflections, but the song length has been reeled in, and there are more of them, making for a fast paced, upbeat, vibrant experience. If there were hints of prog and British folk influences on the first two albums, they are now front and centre alongside existentially wary black metal. It’s that perfect combination of rich instrumentation, with each member of this seven-piece band being given a chance to shine, alongside a focused, longform approach to compositions that make for a diverse but fully homogenous work.

The guitar tone is still thin, in line with black metal orthodoxy, but complimented by creative bass work rooted in prog rock. Rich and diverse keyboards perform multiple roles over the course of the album, from lead instrument, to building rich atmospheres, to rhythm (for instance on the opening segment of ‘Gatherer of the Pure’). Vocals also do a lot of leg work here in terms of defining the character and mood of each track as it unfolds. From passionate black metal vocalisations, to unbridled histrionics, to poetic spoken word, and plenty of haunting clean passages curtesy of violinist Katie Stone. Drums also provide a flawless underpinning of rhythm and creativity. The approach is to blend the more fluid leanings of jazz with the traditional demands of black metal as a simple metronome. It works perfectly for A Forest of Stars’ multi-layered calling cards, sometimes shifting into lead instrument, sometimes shuffling the tempo along, other times all out blast-beats.

But we have sadly not yet addressed the elephant in the room. A big, 19th century shaped elephant as far as A Forest of Stars are concerned. Their lyrics, image, and much of their music, draws heavy inspiration from Victoriana. But their approach is such that when applied to the progressive black metal framework it moves from novelty into something more compelling. More than that, it gives it a distinctively British flavour, actively stepping on the same territory as Cradle of Filth but avoiding all of the latter artist’s later pitfalls. By drawing on the Victorian era, a time of great discovery and great anxiety, it adds a degree of philosophy to ‘A Shadowplay for Yesterdays’. This isn’t just metal that draws on gothic horrors and melodrama, inviting us to observe how kooky it is. It actively engages with the dispositions of the era. A time when the urban populations had swelled, disease spread faster than ever, Britain was the most powerful nation in the world yet fraught with poverty and insecurity. Science had made unimaginable advances, the authority of monarchy and church was dwindling, but these threw up a whole new set of complexes and uncertainties for intellectuals to agonise over. Art, music, literature, and philosophy all struggled to keep up with advances in science, technology, and economics. And all these conflicting emotions of triumph and despair are unpacked and explored on ‘A Shadowplay for Yesterdays’. The very human level is set against the profundity of the music as it attempts to derive something more eternal from this world now rendered unrecognisable. Modernity battles to raise its ahead above the shackles of the arcane. A broad spectrum of moods and emotions find their feet on this complex and many-sided progressive metal masterpiece.

If A Forest of Stars are evocative of urban environments during the Victorian era, then Old Corpse Road are certainly more of a rural beast. Drawing on folklore and tales from the English countryside, they combine this with overtly folky black metal. This is not so much operating on the same turf as Cradle of Filth as it is playing the exact same style of gothic black metal and just doing it better. Their first album ‘Tis the Witching Hour…As Spectres we Haunt This Kingdom’ comes across as a fully accomplished example of what Old Corpse Road are going for. A combination of melodic black metal with no small degree of thrash influences informing the bulk of the guitar riffs, combined with soothing folk interludes of acoustic guitars bolstered by thin but atmospheric keyboards, enriched with creative melodies. Vocals are a many headed beast. Shifting from spoken word, to high pitched screeching, to clean singing, and guttural death metal growls.

More so than A Forest of Stars this is program music, with the lyrics clearly making up the backbone of the moods and themes of each track. They tell the story, and the music must provide a suitable accompaniment to each chapter. Whilst very common within metal – a genre currently nurturing its addiction to concept albums – it is particularly apparent here simply because the vocals make up such a prominent part of each track, guiding the listener on their journey, as the music paints out the landscapes and scenery which we will inhabit as the tale unfolds. This in turn tempers the more excessive traits usually found in this gothic infused black metal, where the listener is bombarded by a confusing and disjointed array of twinkly keyboards, knockoff Iron Maiden riffs, and poor operatic vocals. Not so on ‘Tis the Witching Hour…As Spectres we Haunt This Kingdom’, (aside from the name) there is an impressive degree of restraint that – in this context – can really go a long way to elevating this music above the rest of the pack. Old Corpse Road are not afraid of extended interludes of ambience or minimal melodies that work as a perfect contrast to the frantic yet rich melodies that make up the periods of full-on metal assault.

The thing I love about this album is how it redeems the legacy of unabashed theatrics within black metal with a distinctive British flavour. You can have all these twinkly (and sometimes silly) flourishes and absorbing story telling without it devolving into a shameless Disney film. Old Corpse Road have their own character that shines through on each track, one born of musicians clearly enjoying playing off each other, with each being given a chance to shine without becoming a detriment to the engrossing stories being told. They are emotionally broad, they work by introducing a series of contrasting segments, usually an interchange of metal and clean passages, before these are gradually worked towards a finale; the longer pieces usually reach this via an ambient or spoken word interlude. Through this method what can at first feel a little disjointed gradually solidifies around a unified theme, and the drama of the music reveals itself.

Both these albums are fearless in redeeming the patchy legacy of UKBM. Rather than conceding the argument of bland black metal and the light of what Cradle of filth did to the genre, they have attempted to tread the exact same territory as the latter and do it better. Further, they have done so in an unmistakably British way, wry sense of humour and all. The style is still bombastic, and may be too much for some to swallow, but one cannot deny the rich compositions that underpin it all. They both transcend their own novelty and manage to place entertainment value next to a substantive artistic statement. The pick of the week then, is based on personal preference, which would be A Forest of Stars (cos we biased here in Leeds). An argument could be made for the fact that ‘A Shadowplay for Yesterdays’ is a more coherent and less disjointed work than Old Corpse Road’s debut, but these things seem to be part of their approach to composition, born of segments strung together by a story as opposed to an overarching theme knitting the whole together. So both come highly recommended for those interested in black metal’s camp excesses, how to do it right, and of course for those with any stake in the UK’s patchy contribution to the black metal form.

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