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  • Review by Sarah Stubbs

A Forest of Stars and Necronautical @ Nambucca, London

Friendly and intimate, with uncommonly cheerful security and upbeat bar staff, Nambucca is a welcome refuge for outcasts from the mainstream. With the canny use of social media and lots of sheer enthusiasm for the alternative scene, this wacky little venue has carved a place for itself amidst the major live music dens of North London and managed to attract some high-calibre underground bands. Last Saturday it played host to the ever-popular Retribution Alive monthly metal extravaganza, featuring an eclectic collection of bands including the eccentric Void, frost-encrusted adventurers Necronautical and the wildly beautiful A Forest of Stars.

Fashionably late as always (would you have us any other way…?), we missed the start of the show but, by all accounts, early birds ATVM and Emasculated Christ put on decent, if a little unpractised, performances. Void have yet to unleash their true potential and it’s all a bit cacophonous, but their onstage energy - particularly that of their spirited lead vocalist - is positively infectious. A diverse and deliciously curious blend of atmospheric black metal, thrash and grind, the band soon have the intrigued audience sufficiently warmed-up for the main sets to follow.

You may have heard of Necronautical. The UK-based trio have recently been gaining much recognition through their willingness to get themselves out on the road to reach live audiences and their thoughtful, innovative approach to composition and themes. The term ‘Necronaut’, formulated by the band, is derived from the Greek nekros, meaning ‘corpse’ or ‘dead’ and nautes, meaning ‘explorer’ and refers to somebody who experiments with near death experiences in order to explore the underworld. As Necronautical fire up their instruments on the Nambucca stage, surrounded by the flickering flames of black candles on elaborate Gothic stands, we are quickly plunged into fresh territories of morbid madness with tracks from their acclaimed 2018 album, 'Apotheosis'. This is epic stuff, combining all the renegade malevolent majesty and shattering distortions of the second wave with the progressive approach that characterises much black metal released nowadays.

Moving away from the traditionally satanic pre-occupations of the genre and using ‘extreme blackened metal to explore the greater questions of life, death and beyond’, these principles are reflected in the screeching riffs that rise and fall with dramatic, cinematic intensity and the raging waterfalls of sound emanating from the furious dissonance, stretched melodic pauses and abrupt changes in pace. As eerie green lighting creates an effect onstage reminiscent of an undiscovered grotto, it’s even more evident that we’ve wandered off the edges of the known world as Necronautical harken back to their 2016 debut, 'The Endurance at Night'. Combining dusky, diving chords, rasping, raw-throated vocals and heartfelt strings to engineer something rich and strange, Necronautical, like the dangerous kelpies of legend, drag us deeper into the untapped dark waters of black metal than we could have ever imagined.

An unaccustomed silence, the likes of which are rarely experienced at metal shows, falls over Nambucca’s shadowed interior as the audience wait in hushed anticipation for A Forest of Stars to begin. As the plaintive, creaking strings of a classical violin penetrate the expectant air in an airy melody that meanders along like an opium-induced dream, it’s clear this is going to be something entirely different to what’s gone before. When the rock beats and heavy, blistering riffs come crashing in, accompanied by gruff, raging vocals that rise like desperate cries in the night, every enraptured watcher finds their heartbeat quicken in time with the rising tempos. Although seven performers grace the stage, all of them crackling with their own stormy whirlwind of creativity, each one perfectly complements the whole in pure harmonious bedlam.

As A Forest build yet more layers of mood and complexity, adding blood-curdling extremities of sound while the vocalist contorts about the stage like a puppet on the strings of his own tautened anguish, these more brutalised metal elements work in synthesis with the classical undertones and dark overall folksiness. Swaying in time to the twilit tunes, the assembled audience couldn’t be any more transfixed. It is as if, by happy accident, a troupe of vagabond minstrels have wandered into a crowd of hairy leather-clad head-bangers and entranced them under a potent gypsy spell.

Like their fellow Northerners Necronautical, A Forest of Stars have rich veins of carefully considered philosophy running through their music. The group’s aim is to recapture the spirit of the Victorian age; rejecting any of its associated puritanical stuffiness and focusing on the more decadent aspects of the time, from lavish, sensual indulgence to the unhinged excesses of occult spiritualism and the absinthe-drenched deliria of the era’s artists and poets. But this no cheap gimmick; these are accomplished and experienced musicians with an exquisite mastery over their art and several successful albums to their credit, who undoubtedly spend many a sleepless night honing their craft, researching genres and styles, and tracking down the most unusual of instrumental techniques to add to the mix. Conjuring hints of the bohemian and teetering on the very cliff edge of the avant-garde, the talented collaboration that are A Forest of Stars daringly test the boundaries of black metal as we know it with a bewitchery of skill and panache. Breathtakingly original, these untamed spirits of the imagination inhabit a world entirely their own.

Although tucked away in a desolate corner of North London, on one of the most godforsaken and lonely stretches of Holloway road, don’t be fooled by Nambucca’s unassuming pub-fronted façade. As this very special evening proved, there are often wonders to be found within.

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