Thursday, September 8, 2016

Album Review: Dark Forest - "Beyond the Veil"

We’re all adults here (or at least resemble something reasonably similar.)  It’s time to have an honest, mature talk about the genre of ‘traditional’ metal.  This is a genre that’s spinning in circles, and not only is it spinning in circles, but nearly every band in it is spinning in the same damn circles.  Traditional metal is out of ideas, and has been for quite a while now.  Which is why, even though I personally prefer the early era of Iron Maiden, I totally understand why they felt the need to re-invent themselves as a borderline prog-metal band in order to stay relevant.  Perhaps worst of all, the traditional metal genre is stocked deep with personages who will not adapt, and not move one iota in any direction away from the formula that hit its peak some thirty years ago.

So that all sounds like there’s no hope for the new Dark Forest record, right?  No, and that’s why we’re talking about it in the first place.  The one factor that can easily overcome genre sterility and the foreboding feeling of repeating the past is talent, and Dark Forest’s “Beyond the Veil” keeps the torch flickering because the band has an ear for the creative and a bevy of accomplished talent.

“Beyond the Veil” works so well because Dark Forest isn’t just stamping out another mass-produced, predictable power metal record.  This is a band that’s delved into the depths of medieval themes and studied the music of the past to create something novel.  The end result is almost like a metal-come-lately exhibition by minstrels (and no, not THOSE minstrels.)

Which takes us to a larger point.  If “Beyond the Veil” can be viewed as a representation of lessons learned throughout the history of the genre, than this album best reflects those greatest of teachers, Iron Maiden (there’s that name again,) and to a lesser extent, pillars like Judas Priest and originators like Cirith Ungol.  Dark Forest has a firm hold on the idea that metal of this type shouldn’t simply regurgitate the idea of ‘being metal’ or simply hold high an ale mug for the base justification of doing so.  The songs must tell a story, even if a touch fanciful, and must possess a strong sense of adventure.  This is how they come to write “Where the Arrow Falls,” a song that uses a fantastic gallop and a simple hook riff to retain the listener’s attention for the duration of the peace.  The percussion, often overlooked in cases of traditional metal is deployed with aplomb here, as the drums must set the pace and don’t simply carry it.

The same ideas work well in multiple places on the record, bringing robust tracks like “The Undying Flame” and the title track to life, so to speak.  These songs dance and spin and run and fight with all the expected pomp and circumstance, which is fine in and of itself.  Dark Forest, though, also laces all their efforts with a certain humor…maybe that’s the wrong word, but I think you see what I’m going for.  There’s an air of optimism and carousing ambition here, which colors the music just enough to be effective, but not so much as to tumble over the edge into corniness.

Here’s the trick, and this is where I feel awful as a music journalist, because it feels like I’m punting and taking an editorial shortcut.  What is it that separates “Beyond the Veil” from so many similar records from contemporary bands?  Hard to say, it just ‘feels’ different.  Sometimes as a music fan you just know, and this is one of those case where you know.  And that’s a horrible, lazy cop-out, but that’s the most accurate description.

It is worth noting that the album dogs it in the middle a little.  It’s understandable – Dark Forest has a lot of grand musical ideas and they clearly want to explore them all to the fullest, but right in the middle of the record, there are four songs that go for seven minutes, seven, six and six, which doesn’t make them bad songs, but makes the album’s snappy start grind down to a trot.

Don’t let that stop you, though.  “Beyond the Veil’ is a really fun record, and the kind of record that will make you look at the other traditional metal records on your shelf and say ‘why can’t you do that?’

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