By Laura Wiebe Taylor
Six years ago, Russia’s Forest Stream released their doom metal debut, a moody flow and surge of gloom called Tears of Mortal Solitude. Like their labelmates on Elitist Records, Forest Stream leaned toward the artistically complex, and seemed poised on the edge of something particularly special. What they ending up stumbling into was a lengthy near-silence when Elitist shut its doors. Now Forest Stream is back with a second full-length creative endeavour, The Crown of Winter. The new record still evokes the same atmospheres – brooding melancholy, a harsh kind of masochistic joy – but the band’s influences have become harder to pin down. More textured, with greater exploration of the shades between aggression and restraint, The Crown of Winter is both a continuation and a step onto fresh ground.
Berserk (guitars): “Much time has passed since the release of Tears… and it’s natural that we became older and more sophisticated in music. We make what’s interesting for us – to listen and to play. Those songs reflect our inner world, feelings, thoughts and emotions. So, I think that the increased complexity of the music is caused by our view of the world. The longer you live, the more complexity you notice and understand. And you enjoy this complexity; the straightforward world of black and white, good and evil would be extremely boring. And the same is in music. We tried to make it many-sided and not limit ourselves by any genres. It’s the music that we love. That’s why pure black passages are mixed-up with doom parts and symphonic pieces. As for musical tastes, we still love Emperor, My Dying Bride, Opeth, and I think their art influenced our songs in some way.”
Sonm (vocals) has a similar but slightly different take on the differences and continuities between the two records. “Tears… was a bit more… tangible, I’d say. It was giving me a clear feeling of fallen leaves of red, orange and brown colors. I almost could smell their scent. The Crown is cold, alien in some way. I know it may sound strange but I have to get acquainted with it. Its ghostly nature isn’t really clear for me cuz I was thinking of a different result. My calculations were okay, but the experiment has shown that I don’t know anything about the nature of this phenomenon, literally speaking. And that is a huge part of me at the same time. I close my eyes and listen to it inside me.
“You know, I hate the word ‘album,” Somn continues. “I started hating it quite some time ago because it was over flooding. ‘This album, that album, second album, debut album, their album… billions of albums and heaps of bands around, people from which start introducing themselves like ‘We’ve got a new album!’ instead of ‘Hi guys, how’s life? … So The Crown… isn’t an alllllllbuuuum. I’d rather call it some sort of a book. In the booklet we’ve written more than I’d sung. The songs are conceptually linked to each other and entwined with the ones from Tears. Basically it’s a novel in eight chapters. That all wasn’t the case with Tears….”
One of the most striking changes in Forest Stream’s sound involves the vocals. Somn explains why he decided to include more melodic singing on the new record: “Well, some things have to be expressed via clean vocals. That wasn’t like ‘lezdoo more singing cuz it’s kinda cool stuff, yeah.’ When I write lyrics certain moments actually do prompt me how to perform. I am not entirely sure I am aware of how it works, but I can clearly sense those hints. The roots of this work have penetrated really deep into my soul, so to speak. Each moment is related to a certain event that had occurred some time ago or a particular thought, which became either an idea or even a sort of a belief. Every move is resonant with my consciousness, with my point of view on things happening around, in the world and in our country in particular. So I really felt this need to add more clean vocals.”
As the motivations and background behind the ‘non-album’ emerge, it becomes clear that the ideological and stylistic aspects of Forest Stream’s music are closely linked. Facets of musical performance come to evoke Russian social conditions and represent the people living in the midst of it all.
Somn: “See, The Crown of Winter has this very tender first part. It’s a vision of the past, when the world was different, thoughts of what had happened to us before the war was started. Here I have to make a clarification. Unfortunately, we have a very morbid situation here in Russia. The society is split into three or four parts. The first is those who are in power. Then the ones who want changes, big changes to make our country free and basically normal from the point of view of human rights. The third part – the indifferent. And the fourth part – assholes. I am not aware of the quantitative ratio between these branches. This CD is 80 percent about the war between the first ones and the second ones, yet the third and the fourth parts influence heavily as well. We took the black colour, yet our words and wishes are bright. Using clean vocals was really necessary to stress our NORMALITY, the normality of the second branch – the people with ordinary human wishes and desires, who want adequate freedom and simple rules for society, which is built according to the laws, which, in their turn, are written on the basis of fulfilling basic human rights.
“Russia is a very good country in many ways, but that is also the country I, personally, hate many things about. The main issue causing this glaringly negative feeling is human indifference. Sometimes it reaches the top level of some sort of cold desperation, and it starts being felt like absolutely nobody cares about anything. Whatever happens they don’t care. Quite often this indifference is shared with another treasure – an ultimate stupidity and even complete assholicism as I tend to call it. I am very tired of it… Really. I’ve been through numerous positive feelings like madness, anger, fury and stuff, but now am just very tired and don’t know what to do. Honestly. Today I’ve lost my driving license for driving my car… Cops stopped me and told me I crossed the line I was not allowed to cross. I was pretty sure I didn’t do that but… Today was a final decision in court – four months I am not allowed to drive. Why four? Because they didn’t have a single evidence. Cool laws, aren’t they? You are guilty a priori! And if you cannot prove you weren’t doing that – you are damn guilty. You have to provide evidence, not them! And so it goes… That’s just a tiny example. This, all together with some worldwide plagues, is the focus of our songs. I feel the world’s becoming a huge mire with a terrific vortex in the middle where a single life means absolutely nothing. People get used, squeezed and wasted with no chance to show they are persons… I dunno what the heck’s goin’ on, but things became really morbid. I was singing of my scares too…
“All of the songs are entwined with the songs from previous work. All of them are chapters of a single novel including two short essays in the booklet. I think I will write that down one day and upload that to our web page. Actually I’d like people to think about the idea themselves. Listening to the tracks is just a part of the whole story. To have it complete you have to have the CD, the booklet and some time to think, if you are interested of course. I am sure many will be having our stuff as a background. Well, I don’t mind, honestly.”
Though it’s still early for the new songs, promos and a few live performances offered a preview glimpse of The Crown of Winter and now, with the official release date already past, a broader range of fans have access to the new material. Berserk is pleased and intrigued by the responses.
Berserk: “It’s very exciting to read the reviews and see what others say about our work. We’ve noticed a tendency that many reviewers just compare the music to someone well known and stop there, not saying anything about the essence of the songs. Another thing that we like is that there are totally opposite reviews – from ‘total boring crap’ to ‘candidate to classic’. We think it’s good and that it shows that we’ve managed to make a complicated album that needs some efforts to get into.
“We have already played some of the new songs live and saw the reaction of the audience. It was quite uncommon for metal shows – people just stood and listened, and as the song ended the audience applauded, as if at a classical concert. It was a real pleasure for us; we saw that people came here really to listen to the music and not just to drink beer and headbang. I don’t say that’s bad, but the music of Forest Stream is not designed for that. I think most of our constant audience will like the CD, because there we continue the stories that were started on Tears….”
Like many doom bands, Forest Stream doesn’t write the most concert-friendly material. As Berserk points out, long songs, slow tempos, and layers of instrumentation don’t really translate into a high-energy metal show. So instead of riling up the crowd, Forest Stream focuses on atmosphere and mood when playing live, which isn’t as easy as it may sound.
Berserk: “Our music is built on atmospheric keys and heavy guitars, so it’s important to keep the proper balance between them on stage. There are two main problems during our live performances. The first is high requirements in the venue’s sound equipment that we need in order to uncover the multi-layered palette of the sound; the second is having enough time for sound check to fine-tune the balance. These two factors, in my opinion, may be crucial for the perception of our music. Needless to say that we do our best to overcome those technical difficulties and try pass on to our audience the true feelings of our songs.”
Berserk finds it hard to identify Forest Stream’s best show so far. “For me personally it’s hard to choose. It was great playing with Katatonia, when we performed the cover version of ‘Without God’ and Renkse with Blakkheim came onto the stage and sang. The show in Sevastopol, Ukraine, was also great: there we had excellent feedback from the audience. But honestly, I think our best shows are yet to come….”
In the years since Elitist shut its doors the members of Forest Stream – Sonm, Berserk, Omin (guitar), Kir (drums), Elhella (keys) and Moloch (bass) – remained active, dealing with life, writing music, and establishing themselves as a ‘live’ metal band. And, despite living in different regions around Moscow, they meet and communicate often, sometimes rehearsing twice a week, or at the least making frequent internet contact – “so we all know what to play,” Omin jokes.
Berserk: “These years were full of hard work. We were working on the new songs and focused special attention on preparing and polishing our live performance. It was the time of technical and musical development for the band. Along with that, we were playing live and gained a lot of live and touring experience while playing shows in Russia and Ukraine. And after all, we’re all humans and some of band members used this break to put in order their personal lives.”
Elitist’s demise was more of a “turn” than a stumbling block, Omin adds – a chance to reevaluate priorities and gain some perspective. “Of course, we were disappointed with that news, but, at the same time, we got the chance to feel free to work on the new stuff deeper. We never yearned to make a new CD every year, but never wanted to delay our work either. This pause simply became the time for realizing some important things, and it was the time to introduce qualitative changes in the band’s life. Maybe this work took us too long, but finally we’ve got what we can listen to now and feel that the CD sounds completely finished. So this point in our history is not so bad.” Somn also credits Elitist’s Lee Barrett with promoting Forest Stream’s newer material to their current label, Candlelight Records.
Label tribulations may not have thrown the band off course, but the recording process has come closer to tripping Forest Stream up. Recording Tears of Mortal Solitude was already a rather traumatic ordeal, and The Crown of Winter had its own complications, including Somn’s other life as a physicist studying and working in Western Europe and a slew of technical trip-ups.
Somn: “I have no clue why it happens all the time, but after a certain moment, me, a scientist, who was taught to find evidence for natural flows of events and nothing but the natural and consequent flow, started thinking there is some Old Deuce in this world. And this asshole knows of us and bloody loves to have fun with us.
“Tears… was recorded at our home studio… Unforgettable experience. ‘Recording guitar part three, ready? There we go, “one, two, three, four… fukking five why da hukk does this neighbor’s baby want to cry right damn now?! Half an hour break… Tea and sukhari… Now clear?! Oki-doki lezdoozaragain… one-two-three-four… “bow-wow, wow-woooow!”’ and then drills and hammers and anything a mind full of morbidity would ever be able to imagine including a couple of flies banging hard on a microphone. There was also a very exciting issue of smoke! A couple of weeks we were about to buy gas masks since the peat-bogs near our city were, you know, arduously and depressingly emitting a mournful acrid smoke. Guess in the beginning of WHAT part of the recording was that? Damn right! Recording vocals… There were some sad things too. Some morons stole our stuff from the garage, etc.
“Now, The Crown… story was slightly different cuz we decided not to relive those horrors again. Booked a studio for doing drums (yet the rest of it was recorded at home) and… what? A hurricane? No! Earthquake? Spare me… an ordinary fire. Cheers all! Another thing was pretty comic as well. They were busy doing guitars with Berserk at Omin’s place so I wasn’t really inclined to interfere, yet in the evening decided to pay a short visit and share a cup of tea. The first ‘Fukkk’ from Omin, after I pushed the doorbell button and he opened the door, reminded me very much of the one Begbie produced (in Trainspotting) when he discovered he was kissing a guy; hope you remember that scene. So it appeared to be that some brand-new sound card got blown away after a tiny voltage drop in the power line. ‘I can’t take it any more…help,’ moaned Omin… ‘Every time my fridge turns on or even some… some Landermas two floors lower turns on his soldering iron the card gets high!’ I probably could write a novel about all that. Maybe I will some day.”
Omin’s explanation is a little more straightforward. “The main difference is that we recorded drums at the studio this time. We did it really fast and were very pleased, but then we returned to our forever curse, which is always chasing us during the record session. Everything’s suddenly going wrong. First of all, Sonm had to go to France for his physics work for two or three months, then we had to purchase some equipment – it took a long time, because the stuff was not so cheap and we had to find some resources to buy it. And last but not the least, we had to learn modern technologies of recording that we didn’t use before. Great thanks to our sound master, Brett Caldas-Lima, for his support and patience answering our endless ‘how’ and ‘what’. Anyway, despite all the problems, it was a huge experience for us and we hope to use it in the future.”
In the past Forest Stream has mentioned several obstacles they’ve had to deal with and overcome as a black/doom metal band in Russia, including the scarcity of decent equipment. Some of these problems have changed, but they explain that it’s still not easy being an underground metal band on their home turf.
Omin: “Times are changing and now in Russia you can purchase whatever equipment you want. You just need to have money to do it. Playing metal doesn’t bring any riches. Actually, we don’t want to earn our living by music. We all have professions and jobs, which allows us to buy equipment separately. Yet sometimes it’s necessary to use our modest band’s budget. So, as you can see, the problem for bands like us in Russia is not the scarcity of something. The problem is in the low demand for this kind of music in our country, especially in regions distant from Moscow. Only a few well-publicized, more often rock, rock-n-pop, modern punk, etc. or famous foreign bands may expect to be well supported there. What can we say then about underground bands? Even to make a little tour, to five or six cities, you need to get together several bands to keep your money safe, but, as it very often happens, you must be ready to lose it. I really doubt that the Russian bands, permanently taking part in European festivals, can make a successful tour in their own country.”
Wrapping up, I asked the band members if they think there’s anything particularly Russian about Forest Stream. Berserk, Omin and Somn provided a variety of responses.
Berserk: “Nature. Even the band’s title shows that our music is strongly inspired by Russian nature – the deep forests, wide fields, golden autumns and beautiful snowy winters. We love nature and try to express this love in our music – ‘The Crown of Winter’, ‘Autumn Dancers’, ‘Last Season Purity’, ‘Snowfall’. And the climax of it all is ‘The Beautiful Nature’, where Sonm clearly expressed that in lyrics.”
Omin: “If we wanted to show some national colour, we should play a sort of folk music. But we love metal and, maybe, FS music is close to European metal standards, but this is only the way to show the essence to general public. Something Russian in our music is our special state of mind and spirit when we compose our songs. We think in Russian, we discuss everything in Russian. I mean it’s like if you’re listening [to a] Swedish band, you know that they are Swedes, the same is about the others. I don’t know if it is heard clearly in FS music, but I am really interested in what kind of reviews we could read if journalists didn’t know where we are from.”
Sonm: “Mmmmm… musicians? Low recording budgets? Accent? No, no, no… I have to think carefully. You know I sat for a while thinking of this question while listening to the lovely cricket outside and watching bright stars… We try to make our country better, to introduce it abroad the way it is and not the way it is known because of oligarchs and mafia with our music. We try to push political boundaries with it as well. But I’m not sure if we’re successful in that at all. But I think it’s a decent striving.”