The opening minutes of the album continue Anstam's evisceration of the UK hardcore continuum, but in increments rather than leaps. "Morning Shiver Down the Black Wood River" has some of his usual Steve Reich-meets-Clive Barker motifs: the brittle Arctic textures of its creeping synths, welded to percussion that sounds like a grandfather clock on a gallop, gives way to a tumbling marimba arpeggio.
But even with an influence like Reich presiding over it, Stones and Woods is beleaguered by problems that undermine its goal of self-reflection. The downbeat seance of "The Herald and the Lamb" drifts along pleasantly enough, until the arrival of a leaden snare that smacks it out of focus—it's both irritating and unnecessary. On "Me and Them," a clatter of live drums and 909 kicks, allied with an insipid, jarring vocal (there is mention of being "in a room full of salted pork") feels abrasive for its own sake; a tacked-on outro melody, which also seems to be a regular feature of Stöwe's compositions here, is another non-sequitur. Save for a few genuinely interesting stylistic digressions, such as the funk guitar (!) on "Hope's Soliloquy," there are precious few moments that improve upon Anstam's existing formula. Also, his partial abandonment of the polyrhythmic, dubstep-indebted momentum of Dispel Dances suggests a lack of good ideas outside these frames of reference.
"Handsome Dances the Dance" demonstrates Stones and Woods inferiority to its predecessor more directly. "Handsome Talks the Talk" had an extravagant gothic quality that was part of what made Dispel Dances so intriguing, but "Handsome Dances the Dance" feels like the aural equivalent of a bad Tim Burton movie: its sonic flourishes fidgeting this way and that, like costume design and special effects that take precedence over anything resembling a narrative. Stones and Woods is a frustrating body of work, with good ideas poorly realised and arresting moments interrupted by annoying ones. It's hard not to think that a journey into Anstam's heart is a whole lot more interesting than the destination itself—the diary entries here suggest as much.