There are two things I want to get out of the way before I get into this. The first is that I’ve never really seen the appeal of the whole Atmospheric Pine Forest BM thing – even ignoring the uncomfortable nationalist overtones, Winterfylleth, Wodensthrone and Drudkh et al leave me cold, and A Forest Of Stars seem like a band who had a great idea for an image, but rushed into the studio before they’d written any songs. It’s not a style I’m inclined towards, despite its current popularity, so when an album in that style does click with me it’s something to pay attention to.
The second thing is that Fen have made me rewrite my End Of Year List just over a week before the deadline, and for that I am not happy with them.
On paper Fen are very much part of the aforementioned Black Metal subgenre, and their previous albums have all passed me by much like their peers, but despite no obvious shifts in style Carrion Skies (Code 666) manages to transcend the limitations of its chosen style. A big part of the problem with this music for me is that “atmospheric” is frequently an excuse for nothing to happen – big, heart-rending riffs take their own sweet time to float majestically past, and everything is filled with a sense of mounting tension that never goes anywhere – but Carrion Skies is dynamic. Songs are long but eventful, striding purposefully from huge riffs and tormented shrieks to more contemplative passages as if THERE’S ACTUALLY A GOOD REASON FOR THEM TO DO THAT, rather than it simply being lazy musical short-hand for “we are interesting”. There are suggestions of latter-day Enslaved at several points, but without the sense of lazy back-slapping and tedious “maturity” that plagues their recent albums.
Another thing that’s frequently absent from the more “atmospheric” or “progressive” Black Metal bands is passion. Indeed, it’s a concept that Black Metal bands frequently struggle with balancing effectively, either overloading on it to the point that they’re constantly spitting fury anger and nothing else, or they’ve traded in all their feeling for vague “atmosphere” and ripping off a bunch of second-hand Pink Floyd references (hello again, Enslaved). Carrion Skies is a passionate album, charged with fist-waving bravado, teary-eyed loss, bits that go Duh-Nuh! Duh-duh-nuh! and all the other ridiculous stuff that makes Metal great, but it balances that passion with a thoughtful, contemplative approach to song-writing which strengthens rather than detracts from it.
What really makes Carrion Skies stand out not just in its own subgenre but in Extreme Metal in genre is the depth and range of expression. Extreme Metal is by nature monolithic – that’s frequently one of its selling points – and it’s rare to hear an album that spends much time exploring more than one mood. We can have Angry, Sad, Majestic or Bat-shit Insane, but having more than one of them across an album is ambitious, and blending several together in a rich, unfolding tapestry of more than one feeling? Is that even legal?
Carrion Skies is certainly one of the Metal albums of the year in any sub-genre, and a genuinely impressive achievement for a band who until now have usually been mentioned in reference to other, similar bands. It ranks alongside new releases by Pyrrhon and Tombs (with whom they share some similarities, but Fen are the rawer, rockier, more achingly human cousin to Tombs’ Neurosis-driven thunder) as the richest and most emotionally expressive Metal albums of 2014, and should have something to offer even to people who haven’t previously found Fen and their peers terribly interesting.