Push away the tags, move past the labels and niches of “Appalachian metal” and “black/neofolk” that have been used to describe Twilight Fauna and artist Paul Ravenwood over the years. The concept of music recalling and communicating a sense of place, of community and time is well and good and entirely accurate, but there’s another layer to what Ravenwood is unraveling for the listener in Twilight Fauna’s latest, The Year the Stars Fell. By weaving his musical heritage into his own personal history Ravenwood exposes a raw nerve of grief and tragedy, a painful narrative buried deep under a foundation of feedback waiting for someone to take the time to dig.
This isn’t something new. Since 2013 Twilight Fauna have steadily carved out a unique place in metal, starting with the Grief demo which immediately demonstrates over the course of its five tracks a clear command of traditional black metal structure and sound while stretching those aspects into something unique. Deeply buried vocals and barrages of guitar drone over quieter acoustic passages. Field recordings of the rivers and woods that are a primal component of Ravenwood’s identity entangle within the mix. This idea of incorporating not the just the music of a region, but the region itself has always been central to Ravenwood’s music, whether it’s in the storm of Twilight Fauna or the quieter, introspective moments of his Green Elder project. Last year’s excellent Fire of the Spirit captured this marriage of place and self beautifully, and is something I still turn to: each listen pierces another veil, finds another nuance not noticed before. So news of another album coming so soon on the heels of that achievement, and further one featuring Josh Thieler of Slaves BC (and Nine Circles) on drums ratcheted expectations up exponentially.
The Year the Stars Fell is at once both more exposed and more protective of its secrets. Opener “The Ghosts We Leave Behind” introduces tentative plucks of a banjo as distant thunder sounds over the calling of birds. When Ravenwood’s voice enters it’s a quiet lament over the harsh strumming and is mixed low so as to implore the listener to focus, to come inside the sounds and sit in the dirt where you can see valley and the loss. As “Falling Portraits” begins there’s the faintest of tones echoing off each other before Thieler’s drums kick in and lend a desperate forward rush to the guitars and roars of loss and memory. Ravenwood has always had a touch of the poet in his lyrics no matter how impenetrable they may be in the mix, but on “Falling Portraits” it’s astounding how lines seemingly so personal strike deep in the common consciousness: “This is my home where everyone says goodbye / Faded memories and tombstones / How do I judge my worth when everyone is gone?”
This is the trick of The Year the Stars Fell: by exposing something so personal Twilight Fauna sheds light on how these experiences are collectively shared. This is emphasized with the field recordings – the snap of a fire in “Light Over Mountains” acts as its own percussion until Thieler enters with the drums. If there’s a surprise on the album it’s how good the drumming works with the Twilight Fauna sound. By incorporating Thieler’s aggressive style so upfront in the mix it gives the rest of the music a propulsion and vitality you can feel, particularly when it drops away in quieter moments. “Across the Blueridge” is nothing but the quieter moment, an uplifting bluegrass number that provides a sense of hope and relief even as Ravenwood asks how he can keep from crying as he drinks from his golden, bitter tears. “A Thinning Veil” rages in anguish until roughly halfway through its 11 minute run time when it shifts into a gauzy ambient drone, the vocals awash in reverb to slowly thrum through the air. By the time the album closes on the remaining minutes of “10 Starless Nights” you’re exhausted, having invested not only your focus and attention but a part of yourself to the story The Year the Stars Fell is trying to tell.
The world loves to label and categorize. Put things into boxes and we can better grasp the things that make up our world. Hear an acoustic guitar and call it folk. Hear a banjo and blast beats and call it “Appalachian metal.” All those things have their place, but by boxing and labeling things we sometimes miss the subtle shades of what is being expressed, the deeper cry from the bottom of the well, or the heart of the forest. Finding expression in so personal a place is something Twilight Fauna have always striven for, and in The Year the Stars Fell Paul Ravenwood again shows how a singular experience can transcend.
Push away. Dig deeper.