Gig Review: A Forest of Stars, Black Heart, Camden, 18/10/2015

The Black Heart’s upstairs venue isn’t as full as it could have been tonight: the Sisters of Mercy are playing down the road. While some of the Sisters’ ultra-loyal fanbase might have otherwise stayed – caught between A Rock And A Hard Place no doubt – they chose to Walk Away from the ‘Heart’s downstairs bar before Flooding the Roundhouse.

There’s No Time To Cry, however, as British/Polish blackened death metal band Praesepe kick off this evening in a fine display of brutal power and progressive tendencies. Unfortunately, their vocalist/bass player manages to break his most essential string (the low ‘B’ on a five-string, no less) about two-thirds of the way through and he can’t find a replacement. While – as a bass player myself – it pains me to admit it, they still sound great without the low-end and we can now further distinguish the intricacies of the band’s two, really quite innovative, guitarists. (I’m also sure it’s secretly quite liberating for him to have his hands free to gesticulate whilst growling.)

Unfortunately, there’s another slight technical mishap during their set, when one guitar feeds back annoyingly every few seconds, and the player fiddles with his pedals looking pretty miffed. Praesepe really come into their own on their final song, which is reminiscent of Emperor at their most melodic/symphonic, and I walk away with two of their CDs.

While Harikiri For The Sky have their live sound configured to a fine art, and effortlessly whip up the crowd throughout their hour-long set, their Deafheaven-esque blackgaze doesn’t excite me a great deal. I’ve no doubt, though, that they’ll carry on smashing their way up to the bigger venues, and good luck to them.

A Forest of Stars are one of the most exciting, innovative and ambitious bands around. Blending black metal and psychedelia with elements of folk music and even musical theatre, their music is as grandiose and startling as the neo-Victorian aesthetic that permeates every aspect of their art. While I get seriously absorbed in their show tonight, I can’t help but think that they’ve some way to go before achieving a live experience that is commensurate with their magnificent vision. They would benefit from the increased space – sonic and physical – of a larger venue (ideally a disused factory, ballroom or church somewhere to fit the vibe).

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The Black Heart is without a doubt my favourite bar and gig venue in London, but when I saw AFOS here last year I wasn’t convinced that it did them justice. As a seven-piece band (technically eight if you include the guy that does the live visuals) – complete with two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, extra percussion, female and male vocals, and violin – there’s a lot going on. On record it’s amazing, but it doesn’t take much in the live environment for a mix to get muddy, and details to be lost.

Fortunately, this largely isn’t the case tonight – the sound is pretty clear and balanced all in all, and they’ve arranged themselves more comfortably on the intimate stage. With sings rarely lasting under seven minutes, AFOS play only five or six songs but they span all four of the band’s albums to date. The band’s use of violin always adds a melancholy edge to their sound, and Katie Stone’s (also of My Dying Bride, no less) mournful slurs that regularly punctuate their songs cut through the mix effectively. I wish her vocals had done the same, however, as they get a bit swamped amidst the complexity.

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For me, the song to date in which all these elements come together is ‘Gatherer of the Pure’ from AFOS’s third album, A Shadowplay for Yesterdays (2012), which is played tonight in all of its eight-minute glory. Firstly, it’s got one of the most powerful and beautiful music videos I’ve ever seen, so I’m very happy that it’s projected behind the band tonight. Eerily creaking its way into an accordion intro in waltz-time, ‘Gatherer of the Pure’ brings out the best in the band’s frontman Mister Curse, who is glorious to watch on stage – poised somewhere between Shakespearian thespian and the Childcatcher. He delivers his lines in rasping cries, full of melodrama and menace, yet also pregnant with sorrow and grief; he stares out over, beyond the crowd as if brooding on past trauma.
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The best part of that song, as well as the band’s performance tonight, coincides with a brutal stabbing in the narrative of the accompanying video (3:48 if you want to know): the track’s been building up with an intense tremolo/double-kick/high guitar melody section, when all turns suddenly nasty in a twist perfectly timed for its shock value. Mister Curse turns suitably nasty here – all gnashing of teeth and bulging eyes.

Weird frisson indeed.

A Forest of Stars are an excellent band on the rise, and I’ll be following them for a long while, hoping that they are allowed to further develop into the truly magical artists they promise to be. Please someone book these guys at the Islington Assembly Hall…

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