Monday, April 10, 2017

album review: 'winter' by fen

You know, at some point I'm going to just admit I'm not sure where to look when it comes to finding consistent black metal recommendations. I mean, I try to keep my ear to the ground, but for multiple years in a row now I feel like whenever I find a record that's more on the atmospheric side of the genre it's damn near a miracle, and thus wind up covering a lot less than I'd otherwise like. 

But in this case it looks like I'm not quite as behind as expected - and I was a little stunned how many Patreon votes this got once I added it - so let's talk about Fen. They're an English black metal act that started in the mid-2000s, straddling the line with progressive metal and post-rock and drawing more than a few comparisons to Wolves In The Throne Room and Agalloch. They play on the more nakedly melancholic side of the spectrum in comparison with the soaring power of acts like Saor or Panopticon, more moody and bleak, but there's different shades of that, some that get into thicker, muddier textures that seethe off of subtle rumblings of bass, while later cuts on records like Carrion Skies get a little more ethereal and spacious, looking to pull the listener deeper into the seething darkness. That's not saying they're all atmospherics - Fen is certainly capable of ramping up the riffs - but in revisiting their back catalog I did find myself wishing a little that they would crank up the texture or intensity a bit to match their frontman's distinctive howl, maybe push the dynamics a little harder. Still, that's nitpicking across four pretty distinct records, taking an established compositional structure and refining and expanding it with each release. And considering their production has only gotten sharper and I was in the mood for some black metal comfortable pushing into new territory, I decided to check out their newest record Winter - how is it?

Well, it looks like we're starting early this year with absolutely killer black metal records, because Fen delivered again with Winter. In fact, I'll go further - while this album does mostly stick with the established atmospheric black metal sound that Fen brings forward, the more listens I gave this shows a record that's more diverse, more furious, more textured, and more progressive than I think they've ever delivered, likely on par with their best and certainly one of the best albums I've heard thus far in 2017. And what I find thrilling is that of the black metal records I've loved since I started my exploration of the genre, they all have showcased a different sound and progression. Panopticon was transcendent and meditative in its epic sweep; Saor fused its soaring power with tremendous Celtic melodies; and Fen... well, if you're looking for a record that still seethes with the best of them while bringing in elements of post-rock, progressive metal, and even thrash and doom, they definitely deliver.

And I want to start talking about the production and instrumentation - with this album we have six songs, each comfortably over ten minutes to give us Fen's longest album to date, and to keep each of these songs diverse and interesting enough, with well-executed transitions and swell, that's almost a Herculean task. And for a bit, I was worried that Fen would default to a comfortable formula on the opening track 'Pathway' - I dug the buildup to the thicker groove in the drums against the rattling tremolo picking in the distance, especially courtesy of a thicker, grimy bass groove, but as the song ebbed back, I was thinking that this album would default to Fen's typical ebb and flow... and then the groove switched and locked into a much heavier, thicker fuzz, I realized I was in for a much more diverse ride than I expected. And that's one of the things I love about this album - you're going to get your blastbeats and furious tremolo riffs at all manners of depth and hollowness, but then the band will switch things up with remarkable precision and timing. The syncopated progression of the drums and bass that breaks up the guitar melody on 'Penance' before the frankly ridiculous bass solos and twisted interlocking riffs, how the guitars and drums blur against 'Fear' before a major chord shift for the final solo, the heavier weight and thicker chop of the groove on 'Internment' that feels part doom metal, part thrash that ends on a tremendous melancholic solo, the phenomenal balance of the post-rock melody and pummeling riff on 'Death', and then on 'Sight', before the flattened roar of the blast-beats explode back especially in the furious kickdrums, the opening post-rock segment is borderline ambient with what sound like hints a guitar tone blurred to sound like a saxophone, it really is beautiful. I'm almost a little at a loss to describe issues with this production - the layers are so well-balanced, the grooves have such grimy, wiry muscle, the transitions are so well-handled, and across its runtime it never feels like it's wasting the audience's time - it's black metal that feels as grim and gruesome and heavy as its content and writing, but also knows enough to explode and soar, especially for its finale moments.

And the writing... by the Nine Hells, I don't often comment much on black metal lyrics, but I need to give props to the poetry on display here. For one, there's a story that's being told - a mysterious protagonist struggles through a wasteland fen filled with corpses to confront a desiccated stone cathedral, where a single statue that remains undefiled sears into his soul the waste and failures of his life. And thus, after leaving he falls to die in agonizingly slow fashion, returning to the frozen earth from whence he came in order to set his soul free from corrupted, ruined flesh so it might soar beyond human comprehension. So yeah, if you want to boil it down to basics its very much the story of someone - or something - dying in slow motion in a corpse-filled swamp in the shadow of an abandoned church, but it's the details that give it weight and power. The poetry is rife with details of flesh and blood, macabre in its detail but always seeming to highlight how the rotting consumption of time will be transcended, mortal bodies returning to be consumed and give back to the earth for renewal. Death is always inevitable on this record, it's making peace with what it means for this condemned soul that's what matters, acceptance of that endpoint as the consciousness departs. And again, I'm not doing justice to the language used here - it's visceral and plenty graphic on some songs, but never to directly shock, clinical in its twisted detail but with a flow and precision that captures something primal without being base, it really is stunning.

So what about this record doesn't work? Well, honestly I'm struggling to pick out a weak track outside of slightly weaker moments, but there are a few. Both 'Interment' and 'Death' could probably serve to switch up their more frenetic black metal segments a little more, add a little more melody to the upper end, as some of the lead guitar lines can feel a bit underserved. And for as much as I like the vocals from our frontman and his impressive ability to switch from guttural growls to full-fledged screaming to even more progressive clean singing, I do think there could afford to be a little more consistency in the vocal arrangements - sometimes there can be transitions from one style to the other without warning, and it doesn't always flatter the flow of the song. And while, unsurprisingly, I'm a little more forgiving of clean vocals than most, I do think they could have been sung in a slightly lower register, in order to better match the grinding snarl of the grooves and riffs on this record.

But beyond that... again, this is one hell of a black metal project. Fearlessly diverse and progressive without losing organic swell and power, amazingly well-produced in its layering and transitions, and writing that really does showcase a level of beauty in decay I haven't heard on a metal project in years, this is getting a 9/10 from me and the highest of my recommendations. Folks, I know black metal isn't for everyone - and this more than most, given how thunderously visceral it can get - but if you're a fan, you definitely need to hear this record yesterday, it's definitely a blizzard maelstrom worth braving.

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