Of all the grandchildren of heavy metal subgenres, one of the most precocious and still burgeoning is atmospheric black metal. As my colleague Richie HR noted in his recent new column for Ghost Cult, it seems that even the most mainstream bands are reaching for opportunities to expand their sonic palettes to include the more unconventional, and extreme styles. However, time and time again we return to the underground to seek greatness, from those who follow their own path, and eschew typical glory. One of those bands is Fen.
Hailing from the UK and putting out high-quality, truly epic music for over a decade, over four full-lengths and several splits, and EPs Fen has wrapped their music in antiquity and nature. Following up 2014’s excellent Carrion Skies (Code 666) was going to be a tall order. On Winter (Aural Music/Code 666) the band has outdone themselves yet again, with an emotional tour de force.
Not content to hug the periphery of atmo-black metal, trace elements in Winter that seem to draw mana from old-school kvlt bands like early Enslaved and Ulver, modern classic bands like Agalloch and WITTR, and Fen’s countrymen in Winterfylleth. There are even some progressive metal moments that just stir something deep in me. ‘I (Pathway)’ runs the gamut of feels from lighter inner chanting moments, to bleak heaviness. The riffs are just exquisite, and just when you think they can’t get any more interesting, the band pulls another “how did they think of that” progression out of their pockets. Over 17 plus minutes to open the album, the band takes the listener on a journey to a seedy place, where the heart knows no solace, and there is no respite from grief.
‘II (Penance)’ opens with a shimmering guitars before the army of anthemic beats and howling vocals rush in. The real gift of Fen as artists is the ability to be heavy without sacrificing melodies and interesting tonal voicings, something few bands really do well. ‘III (Fear)’ also has these traits, but also downshifts the tempo and lulls the listener into a false calm, before blasting away again. There seems to be a theme of birth, faith, suffering, and death on nearly every track, expressed either lyrically, or sonically. ‘III (Fear)’ is my favorite track on this album and maybe the best black metal musical anything in 2017 so far.
As the final 40 odd minutes of remaining music careens into the recesses of your psyche, there are many twists and turns to be enjoyed. All the tracks go from light to shade, bitter, to peaceful, and back again. The album doesn’t really have a weak moment, consistent all the way through to the final notes of closing track ‘VI (sight)’.
If you are listening to any part of Winter and not stirred on a primal level, you must not be breathing. Definitely a contender for one of the best releases of 2017.