Idiosyncrasy has been A Forest of Stars’ mandate since their formation, an event this unrelentingly curious clan situate in the year of 1890 Anno Domini, or 2007 to us non-time travelling folk. Through merging rancorous, psychopathic black metal with cosmic psychedelia and mournful folk meanderings, the Leeds, UK-based collective has acquired an enigmatic status within extreme metal, not least because of the historical gaze of their aesthetic and their steam-powered penchant for ‘Victoriana’.
Although taking their time to produce a debut record (the tentatively experimental and haunting ‘The Corpse of Rebirth’ emerged in 2008, just 128 years after their foundation), A Forest of Stars’ discography soon began to expand, with the sound of their debut being further developed on 2010’s ‘Opportunistic Thieves of Spring’. The band truly began to make waves with 2012’s magnificent ‘A Shadowplay for Yesterdays’ however, demonstrating their abundant talent in combining the most disparate of musical elements into an evocative and truly unique sound and A Forest of Stars’ solidified creative identity.
The passage of time and an ever-revolving line-up has only seen this trajectory continue, and subsequently the band’s newest release ‘Beware the Sword You Cannot See’ proves undoubtedly to be their most accomplished, adventurous, and entrancing record yet. Exploring the horrors of madness and decay through the Jekyll-and-Hyde-like presence of vocalist Mr. Curse and the hypnotic and eclectic soundscapes produced by his cohorts, the record builds on AFoS’ past even as it looks to their future, with increasingly prevalent folk elements and a refined song-writing approach. Unholy Noise got in touch with founding members, the multi-instrumentalist/percussionist The Gentleman and the aforementioned vocalist Mr. Curse to discuss ‘Beware the Sword…’, being buried alive, and why their music is fundamentally linked with England’s North….
Congratulations on the release of ‘Beware the Sword You Cannot See’! How are you currently feeling about the record, and how do you interpret its place within A Forest of Stars’ burgeoning discography?
The Gentleman: Well, it’s trite to repeat it, because there isn’t a band in the world who wouldn’t say the following, but of course we think this is the best album yet, the one we’re most proud of, etc., etc. and all that sort of thing. It’s a natural progression from where we last left off, and it is most certainly the best distillation of what we are in terms of an identity for the band, I suppose. In real and practical terms, to be truthful we just bow our heads down and write songs, trying to refine them and getting (hopefully) better at it each time. How long will that last before it becomes stale, I have no idea, but it’s about the only compass we have, so we’ll cling to it for dear life and hope for the best. As long as we’re happy with the results (genuinely and not just fooling ourselves), then that’s all we can rely on with some degree of accuracy.
Curse: Personally speaking, I am very proud of this album. It feels very complete and for once I am content with the lyrics and wouldn’t change anything. This is somewhat unusual, as with pretty much every other album we have released there has always been at least a few sections, whether lyrically or vocally that I would have altered with hindsight. Not this time though; it is as complete as I could wish for, and says all that I wanted and needed to say at this particular juncture. Bearing in mind that this album has been somewhat delayed in terms of actual physical release, I am most pleased that it has not withered with age in my eyes. As for where it stands amongst our recordings I think that we have made the album we should have made at the time and that it is fully indicative of where we are as a band. I am more than happy with it and the whole thing is a matter of serious pride for me personally. I would change nothing as regards content.
Can you give us a brief introduction to the band’s background, style and thematic, for our readers unfamiliar with AFoS?
The Gentleman: Brief would be a very good idea otherwise I’ll never shut up. We’re essentially a British black metal band, but we add lots of other things in there and give it a good shake, then throw it against the wall and see what sticks; that sort of thing. We’ve made a concerted effort to refine the process over the years, oh, and we like to steep ourselves in a sort of occult Victorian mythology, because, well, it sounds cool and awfully mysterious and that sort of business. So that explains the look and the feel; the glue that binds the book.
Curse: Myself and The Gentleman had been talking about forming a band since 1994ev. It took us a little while(!) to find the right people to begin the endeavour, but once we did there was no looking back. This band is a release valve for me to pour out all of the grave-dirt in my head that would have most likely landed me in one form of institution or other had I not had such an outlet.
Despite many line-up changes with the band, including the departure of two guitarists, AFoS have not only retained their core sound, but developed it with each release. How have you achieved this musical trajectory, considering the challenges presented by changing line-ups, and how has the writing process for the band altered as the personnel involved has changed?
The Gentleman: It’s been a bit up and down of recent hasn’t it? We realised early on that you can’t have seven people trying to write a song all at once, because it just ends up being a mess. So, we tend to write songs in pairs or individuals, work them up to a certain standard and then let the rest of the group in to polish them off. So there’s an overall blending feel/process that each song goes through, and I think that is what ultimately gives them the AFOS “identity”. However, the other school of thought says we are hyper critical of what we write and reject swathes of stuff either because it isn’t up to scratch or simply because it doesn’t fit the “feel” of what we are going for. After the first few songs are written for each album, we tend to get a feel for how it should sound as whole, and then try to use that as a template. As to continuity over albums and changes, well, I guess we’re just very lucky to always have multiple song writers in the band, and three of the core members (who all happen to write) have been there all the way through. So that might be it? No idea…
Curse: I don’t know, I just make the fungal tea!
AFoS have increased the use of the folk and psychedelic elements of your sound with each record, with the band’s two newest albums demonstrating a far more confident and experimental use of these elements than the early releases. Would you agree with this observation, and if so, how has it occurred? Has there been a natural expansion of sound as the band has expanded?
The Gentleman: I think a lot of that has to do with learning the craft of writing, and learning from what worked (and more importantly what didn’t) and then revising the process for the next album. We’re extremely critical, as I’ve noted already (repetition, repetition…) In terms of elements of different styles of music I would honestly argue that there isn’t anything we’ve done that didn’t have the seed implanted in that first album – the folk, the middle eastern, the space rock, the progressive, the psychedelic stuff, it’s all there in some form or another right from the start, whether it be overt or embryonic. That first album was a labour of pure love done for fun, but in hindsight it also became a guide, outlining the boundaries we had set up for ourselves (or not as the case may be), and perhaps the reason it feels like a genuine progression (as opposed to just randomly hopping about) through the four albums is because that first album allowed us to go in whatever direction we wanted. But it takes time, and a lot of baby steps of learning to get from one to four and a lot, I mean A LOT of failure and rejection, mostly by ourselves and our self-imposed standards.
Can you give us some insight into the themes and ideas that ‘Beware the Sword’ deals with, and how these relate to the AFoS’ overall musical and lyrical thrust?
Curse: Thematically, this album is mostly concerned with decay, whether that be mental, physical internal or external. Physical changes leading to mental changes and vice versa. Death is never far away throughout all of this, his being a rampant bedfellow of madness and decay. During the writing process I was experiencing lucid dreams of being buried alive, so a lot of that has found its way into the lyrics; enclosed spaces, night crawlers, panic, oxygen deprivation. Maintaining the Will to fight in the face of utmost adversity. Refusing to give up despite the battle being invariably lost. My writing always revolves around the same core of thoughts and ideas, I am like a stuck record in that respect, but seeing as my own life and thoughts is at the core of my writing there are so-called developments as time invariably marches (or staggers!) on.
The visual element of AFoS clearly is something that has an important role within the band, with your artwork, music videos, and (now) live performance seeming to be a crucial method of completing your aesthetic. How do you perceive this visual element of the band; is it an essential component of your work as artists?
The Gentleman: The single rule we hold above all others is that the music comes first. That is the only thing of importance to us to get right. It’s no good having pretty pictures if you’re only papering over the cracks of a bland vacuum. But, once that is in place, anything goes. We are great lovers of art and blending mediums (artwork, photography, film, live performances) to reflect and interact with the music; it all builds into one overall aesthetic, something that we all work very hard to obtain and project. But it would all be for nothing without the music, and we always ask that we be judged by that alone. You should be able to enjoy our music without any additional accompaniments or accoutrements and it needs to stand on its own. Of course, the non-music side of AFOS is something we take great exacting pride, care and attention over; it should always match the music in terms of both quality and theme but it should never eclipse the primary source.
Curse: For me the words and music are the most important thing by a country mile, though we are the sum of our parts and because of this others surrounding the band bring their own boundless creativity into what we do. I think that we are incredibly lucky to have so many creative folks in our midst.
AFoS walk the odd line of being a band concerned and defined by the past, but that have gained popularity and exposure through the modern medium of the internet and the advantages that brings in discovering and distributing music. How do you perceive this dualistic element of the band’s continued growth and existence?
The Gentleman: We have always, always said that without the internet we would be nothing. We would have released that initial hand-made run of the album, sold a few to friends and that would probably have been it. In fact, that was the extent of our ambition; we didn’t even think we’d get rid of the copies we had. The internet just sort of blew us away; it took a long time to get our heads around how everything happened – how quickly it spread and took off and we are forever and eternally grateful for the support we have gained from our amazing fans both old and new. Though we have this Victorian aesthetic and are great lovers of old things (vinyl, even CDS are now fast becoming of the past), we are no fools, the future is with that epoch defining all seeing internet thing that has changed everyone’s lives permanently. And it certainly was 100% responsible for the band being where we are today and we would be fools not to realise and embrace that. So we see no conflict, more that we can bring our old ways into the new, dip our toes in the pool and see what happens. We’re old and we love physical media, and apparently some other people do too, which is nice to know, and the internet is a great intermediary for something like that. And people can consume our music in whatever format they desire; we’re not picky and certainly not dictating taste, I love that music is so easily accessible now, that everyone can enjoy it with relative ease.
Curse: Indeed, I can’t help but agree with the above, though I am indeed an old fart and have little time personally for music that isn’t part of an all-consuming whole (I’m also a contradictory old shite). We have certainly gained far more recognition due to the existence of the web and it’s multiple wobbling portals, and I cannot not deny or decry this. I do sincerely hope that music as an art-form including physical artworks and printed sleeves continues to make a resurgence though. To my mind it is simply not the same when distilled to simple (!) noughts and ones. I have always been anally obsessive about all component parts of a musical performance – if an artist chooses to print their lyrics then I will always take the time to study what is being said. To me they are just as important as the music itself. Part of an all-important whole that would not be complete otherwise. Perhaps I am only justifying my own piss begotten input to this particular band….
Do you believe your Northern location has at all influenced your style, or the band’s aesthetic, and how if so? The industrial nature of Victorian England is something that still plays a huge part in the region, which could perhaps provide a stronger connection with that period of the country’s past than you find elsewhere…
The Gentleman: Here’s the thing: We’re northern and we’re kind of very proud of that, he says sheepishly. It’s a tradition isn’t it? It’s all silly and fun, but yes, we are northern and that includes a range of things: astounding natural scenery and dismal industrial cities chief among them, along with a healthy dose of alarmingly varied precipitation, often on a daily basis. If you think about it, it’s sort of a perfectly fertile (febrile?) basis for creating black metal. And so, while not done deliberately, I think we would be utter fools to deny that subconsciously it hasn’t had a large effect on us and our way of thinking; it’s practically unavoidable. In terms of Victoriana, you’re absolutely right too – it’s all around us – I live in a Victorian house in a traditional spa town, we rehearse on the moors in the Dales, the cities we work in (in the real world) still bear the architecture of the age, and so on. So it all seeps in there, one way or another, and then is regurgitated eventually. I could be talking crap of course (and most certainly usually am).
Curse: Unequivocally yes. I was not born in the North, though have lived here since I was ten years old (I am now thirty seven), and so have become one with my surroundings. Friends have called me a born-again Northerner, which I love. I feel at home here, and whilst being something of a mongrel (something all Britons are, regardless) I can think of no better place in this country for me to be, barring perhaps Devon. Getting back to the actual question, yes, I do very much see us as a Northern English band. This is where we all reside, and where our hearts belong. I think it is only natural that our music should reflect this..
Considering AFoS began with no intentions of playing live, how does this element now play into the existence of the band? Does playing live allow you to express and experience the music you produce in the band in a different way, and do you intend to increase your live appearances to support the new album?
The Gentleman: Ah, we love playing live, because it’s such a barely held together glorious mess for us. As soon as we seriously considered starting actually gigging it became immediately apparent that we couldn’t recreate the album literally, so we might as well re-jig the songs while we’re at it. And that has become the formula we’ve managed to stick to: We write and record the album first, then worry about having to learn and play it later. It’s ridiculously backwards, but it somehow gets us through. In reinterpreting the songs, it gives us the chance to change something we weren’t happy about (retroactively) and enhance the stuff we love. Some songs take more of a butchering than others and there’s no massive, wholesale changes, everything’s still very recognisable, just tweaked. We aim, instead of slavish accuracy to the material, to make it up with the raw energy of playing in a live environment, and the aforementioned mess comes from the nervous energy that fuels it; we really wouldn’t have it any other way, and besides, as we always say, there’s no point recreating the album with pinpoint dedication live, as people can could get the same from sitting at home listening to the albums on random. At least that’s our excuse and we’re sticking to it. We do aim to get out more often this year in support of the album (we are stacking up dates for an EU tour in the autumn as I type), but nowhere near as much as we’d truly love to for prosaic, people-have-their-own-busy-lives reasons rather than anything exciting, like we’re too busy enacting rituals to bring ancient gods through from other dimensions or something like that. Damn, I should’ve gone for that instead. Ah well, too late now.
Curse: I think I may well have been the one that most hated the idea of playing live initially. I am a long way from being an exhibitionist, and the very idea of standing on a stage bearing my soul was completely anathema. Once the decision was made to perform live, I struggled with the transition into doing it, but would not change it now. In all honesty it is a release for me; a means of outpouring my inner conflict without physically harming others (unless you count their poor ears!). Live performance is catharsis for me. I leave my so-called normal day to day self behind and vent my spleen without concern for the thoughts of others. Once the music starts, I am another man. One I wouldn’t like to meet on a dark night or at any other time, to be fair.
Lastly, what does the sword that we cannot see represent? Or would that be telling…?
Curse: The Sword You Cannot See is a curse. It is the very real danger that is not necessarily perceived to be immediate, but is very much there nevertheless. It is the danger that may well and certainly should be far more of a threat than the traditional physical beating. As many people have said before, a properly thrown curse can work wonders, especially if the recipient attempts to bluster their way around it by pretending that they fear no ill. Don’t fuck with that which isn’t immediately obvious. Once it becomes obvious it will certainly be too late.
Thank you all for your time and answers! Do you have any concluding comments?
The Gentleman: Nothing other than to thank you for taking the time to interview us and indeed taking an interest in our sordid little band of weirdos. It was an absolute pleasure!
Curse: Thank you for your questions!