Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many – they are few”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Masque of Anarchy”
So goes the sampled quotation that opens “The Awakening,” the third outing of English traditional metallers Dark Forest, and everything that ensues over the subsequent 53 minutes does justice to the earnest heroic-romantic sentiment enshrined therein. Lead by turns by luxuriant harmonised lead guitars and jubilant vocal melodies, it plays like a vibrant hybrid of “Piece of Mind”-era Iron Maiden (echoes of “Flight of Icarus” and “The Trooper” reverberate throughout) and American label-mates Twisted Tower Dire, with perhaps a twist of Pagan Altar’s “Mythical and Magical”. Much like their main points of reference, Dark Forest derive their strength from their infectiously upbeat spirit and their tasteful, thoughtful songwriting that privileges melody over browbeating extremity and organic, flowing progression over heedless indulgence. It’s the first metal record of 2014 that’s successfully wormed its way into the back of my head and taken root there.
As is so often the case with songs working within age-old genre conventions, it can be difficult to specify what makes them special or exemplary. One must be careful to avoid circular “it’s good because it’s good” assertions when something about a track simply clicks, when all the pieces seem to fall into place without apparent difficulty – that’s too much of a cop-out. Much like Blood & Iron’s superb “Voices of Eternity” last year, I think the key here is simply careful and thorough construction. Dark Forest have likely gone through each of the songs on “The Awakening” with a fine-tooth comb, tweaking and re-tweaking, massaging each passage to the point where it leads smoothly and elegantly into the next. At its highest points, the album hits the precise sweet spot where it sounds familiar and conventional while still being fresh and surprising.
Look, for instance, at “Turning of the Tide,” which opens with a cascade of double-kick drums and terse, thrashy riffs which abruptly resolve themselves into a gorgeous melodic lead – the effect is like that of the sun cresting over a hill, or time-lapse footage of a flower opening. Though the constituent generic elements are immediately recognisable, they proceed in a way that is engaging and invigorating to the aesthetic sense. Or how about the way the spare, hungry verse of “Rise like Lions” invisibly bleeds into its lavish, anthemic chorus? Or how “Sacred Signs” sets up a tremendously memorable and catchy riff in its intro, and then reconstitutes it as a means to lead into its bridge after the second chorus, giving symmetry to the first half of the song? These are things one only notices when picking the tracks apart, but their effect is palpable, making for a listening experience orders of magnitude more engrossing than if Dark Forest had hewed slavishly to cookie-cutter song templates.
The performances, on the whole, match the care that has been taken with the songwriting. “Organic” is the word that comes to mind to describe the guitar work of Christian Horton and Patrick Jenkins – partly on account of the wholesome, no-added-sugar production that sounds like it hasn’t been needlessly tampered with by computers. Nuances and details beyond the robotic regurgitation of tablature make themselves known. More than that though, every lick and every riff has shape and texture, is characteristic and identifiable beyond being just another string of sixteenth-notes. Items like the aforementioned intro to “Sacred Signs,” the Maiden-esque gallop of “The Last Season,” and particularly the verse of “Sons of England” have the potential to be iconic if they were to meet with a large enough audience. The bass work of Paul Thompson, easy to pick out in the mix, does a sterling job adding thickness and heft to the record’s sound.
My one gripe, and it’s a minor one, is with the vocal stylings of Josh Winnard. This is his first outing with Dark Forest, replacing prior singer Will Lowry-Scott, and while his voice is pleasantly melodious, the songs sometimes call for a stronger pair of lungs. The chorus of “Rise like Lions” especially springs to mind – despite being double-tracked, Winnard doesn’t deliver the anthemic impact it demands, and I find myself wondering how much more successful the song might have been with a voice like, say, Tony Taylor’s at the helm. Still, he carries the lovely vocal melodies he’s got to work with capably and absolutely nails the album’s mellower sections, such as the verse of “Turning of the Tide,” so it’s not a damning deficiency.
Otherwise, “The Awakening” is a triumph, a great work of traditional heavy metal that realises its mission with skill and with love. Dark Forest eschew pomp and circumstance in favour of the time-honoured technique of good songs well played, and they reap considerable dividends for it. Like a fine wine, their pleasures are subtle and reveal themselves with time, and are all the more pleasurable for it. I could bemoan the fact that this style of metal isn’t currently in vogue, but I’d rather not spoil my good mood. I’d prefer to be grateful that a time-tested and time-honoured sound is being kept alive: so, thank you Dark Forest.
01) The Awakening
02) Sacred Signs
03) Penda’s Fen
04) Turning of the Tide
05) Rise like Lions
06) Immortal Remains
07) Secret Commonwealth
08) The Last Season
09) Sons of England