Dark Forest - s/t 4/5

Reviewed: 3-27-09





Tracklist:

1. The battle of Badon Hill
2. Pipes of pan
3. The wizard of Alderley Edge
4. Dyed in crimson
5. Excalibur
6. Hollow hills
7. Fear dearg
8. The wrekin giant
9. Fight for metal
10. Dark Forest


With a name like Dark Forest, you’d perhaps expect to hear the work of a teenager in Wisconsin screeching the glories of the Scandinavian wilderness from his mum’s garage on a pirated copy of Cubase. What you actually get is a CD unrelentingly traditional at heart, the debut of a young band of purists from the birthplace of heavy metal in the Midlands, and in environment where anything with a solo lasting more than 10 seconds or a set of lyrics relating to Vikings is being described as ‘old-school’, it is deeply welcome and reassuring to hear something so genuinely and intentionally old-fashioned.

Not quite a full-blown retro act like Swedish adrenaline junkies Enforcer, Dark Forest nevertheless draw their greatest body of influence from 1985 and before, filtering out the hard rock influence that permeated the work of most bands of the time to create a streamlined, razor-sharp interpretation of traditional power metal. Site overlord Clint made a comparison to Wolf in a recent conversation we had about the band, and it is a valid one as Dark Forest put a similar, slightly dark twist on the usual catalogue of influences and their songs bristle with the same modern technical prowess.

In this regard, the lead guitar playing is quite superb, effortlessly flashy without being overly extravagant and is a real selling point for the CD as a whole. The instrumental track “Hollow hills” is a real feast for the ears, a series of exquisite lead parts culminating in a joyous outburst of a solo. As if used as a point of contrast to this, the solos on “Pipes of pan” are played by Witchfinder General guitarist Phil Cope. It makes for slightly unusual listening as the veteran’s usual scuzzy Iommitations sound a little out of place in the midst of the galloping rhythms, but it offers an alternative to the more clinical playing found on the rest of the songs, and in any case after the 2nd solo the song really kicks it up a gear and finishes on an exhilarating high.

Through nothing more than the fleeting use of acoustic guitars and some neatly crafted melodies, the CD is also shrouded in a subtly medieval vibe that fits the oh-so-very-English lyrical themes like a steel glove. It is something I can’t remember hearing executed so cannily in traditional metal anywhere but on Tredegar’s 1986 debut, which has similar themes of wizardry, historical battles and myths wrapped in an ethereal days-of-yore atmosphere that just hovers on the edge of perceptibility.

Just as things are drawing to a close though, they throw the listener for a loop with a jump into Manowar lyrical territory on the last 2 songs. “Fight for metal” does exactly what it says on the tin, while “Dark Forest” is the obligatory tongue-in-cheek “we’re the best” title song that finishes the CD on a mischievous note.

The only possible sticking points for some listeners that I could foresee are the recording quality and the vocals of Christian Horton. Not to do a disservice to either, which are more than acceptable, but audiophiles must be warned that if they don’t settle for less than pitch-perfect then this is not going to be the CD for them. The compressed production is understandable – one of only a few releases to date by the indie label Eyes Like Snow, the recording was presumably self-financed – and in reality the only thing to suffer badly are the drums, which are plagued by that irritating tinny sound on the bass drums and cymbals.

Horton’s performance is a little more puzzling, given that at times he sounds commanding and completely confident in his abilities – not least the banshee screams on the opening track – while at others it sounds as though he is holding back and the verses become ever so slightly muddled. But then again, how many NWOBHM bands can be said to have had perfect vocalists? Horton’s voice has the same raw charisma to it as the likes of Angel Witch’s Kevin Heybourne, and adds a certain charm to the music. He is also assisted by some strong backing vocals from drummer Adam Sidaway (who also puts in a terrific shift behind the kit) which help him through some of the tougher moments, and overall his performance should be solid enough to convince all but the most pernickety.

For all the history involved in being the original home of heavy metal, the U.K. has a real dearth of quality traditional metal bands these days, with a lack of interest in anything but varying passing trends (both good and bad) forcing even the most promising bands into years of hard struggle to make any sort of breakthrough. Dark Forest have got their chance now a few years into their career with a this CD, and while it’s not going to have EMI knocking down their door, it would be nice to see a band of their quality from round these parts finally getting a shot at the big stage. Warts and all, this is a superb debut, and it definitely merits your attention.



CREAG




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