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.Continue reading
With their last proclamation Carrion Skies (Code666), British band Fen let the Black Metal flood back into their sound, releasing their strongest album to date and ultimately featuring in the Ghost Cult Magazine Top 40 Albums of 2014. In celebration of opening the sluice gates, front man The Watcher revealed the depth of his Black Metal love by unveiling his Top 5 unsung oft overlooked underground treasures
Setherial – Nord (Napalm Records – 1996)
Cold. That’s the one overriding word to sum up this furious blast of mid-nineties Swedish black metal – cold. Freezing, even. Taking its cues fairly heavily from Emperor’s seminal In the Nightside Eclipse (Candlelight) album, Nord strips backs the keyboards whilst simultaneously cranking up the intensity levels considerably. Riff after riff of freezing melody pours forth across thundering percussion, lengthy songs (the opener alone is nearly 12 minutes long) buoyed by relentless twists and turns. An exhilarating, windswept listen and serious contender for black metal’s finest hour.
Diabolical Masquerade – Nightwork (Avantgarde Music – 1998)
Anders Nystrom may be much better known for his “day job” in Katatonia but back in the mid-90s, as the mysterious Blakkheim he released four records of haunting, horror-themed black metal under the banner of Diabolical Masquerade. The pick is undoubtedly the third full-length Nightwork, a peak-laden brace of songs replete with infections fretwork, searing melody and an underlying sense of humour. This isn’t at all to detract from the ‘abandoned mansion’ atmospherics of the album and Nightwork simply oozes a convincing crepuscular ambience in amongst the riffage.
Armagedda – Ond Spiritism (Agonia – 2004)
From pure early Darkthrone worship on their debut to ‘fist-in-the face’ muscular black metal on ‘Only True Believers’ to occult-themed dungeonesque roamings, Sweden’s Armagedda explored a gamut of expressions within their short, three-album career. Swansong ‘Ond Spiritism’ is the peak – a lengthy, sprawling opus with an undeniable cloak of darkness wafting across the whole thing. Graav’s guttural croak spits venom in his native Swedish whilst the guitars and bass swirl like a thick fog. Absorbing and unsettling work from the young Swedes.
Tenebrae in Perpetuum – Antico Misticismo (Debemur Morti – 2006)
Yet another band who are no longer with us, Tenebrae in Perpetuum specialised in a particularly brittle, shrill form of frozen melodic black metal – made particularly surprising by the fact that they were actually Italian! Mainman Atratus’ guitar sound is one of the most distinctive you’ll hear – a treble-heavy, reverb soaked saw that nonetheless manages to convey the band’s excellently-developed sense of melody and song structure. All three of their full-length releases are worth tracking down so consistent is their quality but Antico Misticismo probably edges it thanks to a couple of genuinely spine-tingling moments.
Obsidian Tongue – A Nest of Ravens in the Throat of Time (Hypnotic Dirge – 2013)
The most recent release on this list and hopefully a band who won’t remain ‘hidden’ for too much longer, this US-based duo ply their trade with a particularly punishing brand of “Post” black metal. Building on the template laid down by the so-called ‘Cascadian’ sound (Agalloch, Wolves in the Throne Room et al), Brendan Hayter and Greg Murphy lay down a serious challenge on their sophomore effort here. Winding passaged of considered guitar, inventive percussion and a darker atmosphere than many of their peers render them a real one to watch. That they can pull it off live is just the icing on the cake.
The Watcher was speaking to STEVE TOVEY
To celebrate the release of their stunning 9/10 album Carrion Skies (Code666 – review here) The Watcher, guitarist and vocalist of England’s atmospheric post-Black Metal band Fen spoke to Ghost Cult on a range of subjects. In the last of our four part feature, with a further feature to follow in the next Ghost Cult digimag, he opened up about the lyrical concepts and themes prevalent on the new release, and the folly and failures of mankind…
There seems to have been a change in your lyrical themes and style. Would you say you’ve changed the emphasis and topics as you’ve gone on?
“We have. The last couple of albums Dustwalker and Epoch were quite personal, it was internal thoughts being expressed via metaphors of the external – the inner landscape being presented as an outer landscape. We really ploughed that furrow extensively on Dustwalker, in particular, and that led to a lot of the lyrical themes being quite spiritual and transient discussions. This album is going back to The Malediction Fields (all releases on Code666) and is a lot more of an external reflection on mankind, the follies of the human spirit, and how we engage in endless repeating cycles tending towards self-destruction, failure and misery.
“People have said how lyrically it speaks of ancient times, but we’re trying to draw that line, because we are here in 2014 and we exist in a really technocratic age and society but, really the same failings that have plagued humanity since the birth of civilisation still occur and continue to haunt us, and that’s where a lot of the thought processes have gone on this album.”
It’s worrying that in 2014 and we’re still witnessing people being executed due to beliefs, a high degree of exclusion and negativity towards diversity and in the UK, with the rise of UKIP, we’re seeing a worrying trend in terms of what is becoming popular in people’s politics.
“It’s worrying. I was talking to Gunnar (Sauermann) and he was saying there’s similar themes on the new Winterfylleth and was asking ‘Is there something going on in England? Is there a problem, and is it serving as an inspiration?’ The answer is, not consciously. We’re not a political band, I have no interest in discussing politics, and in fact I’m sick to the back teeth of this whole English Heritage Act concept that keeps getting thrown at us, but I suppose, subliminally, the entire discourse of society at the moment, and I don’t want to sound dramatic, but day by day there’s more negative news stories, and there’s the whole rise of UKIP…”
That’s a big part of what worries me, thousands of years down the line and a right wing party with an exclusive agenda can still be popular and on the rise…
“People don’t learn. Everyone that lives in the present day thinks we’re more civilized and advanced than in the past, and it’s not true. It’s a lie. Just because we’re more technologically progressed than we were 50 years ago, 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, well, human mentality and physiology doesn’t evolve that quickly. Every person is 3 good meals away from a riot, we haven’t advanced. It’s just a Western perspective, too, as there’s vast tracts of this planet that still live in medieval conditions.
“In the last 6 to 12 months there’s been some very unpleasant discourse that is becoming increasingly mobilized, and that is the first step to badness. I went to the Holocaust Exhibition the other day, now, a visit to that is always going to be sobering but looking at it through the prism of where our political discourse is going at the moment, it sent a chill down my spine. The holocaust isn’t some evil entity that happened in biblical times, or distant past – it was only 70 years ago. It’s within living memory, and it started with rabble-rousing discourse about “others”. That’s how it starts; a charismatic demagogue talking about “others”, gradually normalizing demonization through political discourse.
We’re also in a society that’s awash with Middle Class apathy…
“I don’t want to get too bogged down in this, because my band isn’t about this, but if you’re ruminating on human failure, you’re ruminating on human tendencies towards conflict, and violence and aggression, this is happening now. There’s a lot of misplaced anger, saying ‘look at the different, look at the others’ and it’s always about ‘blame the foreigners’, because that’s an easy one. But look at where the real problem is, and it’s in the paymasters of this country, they’re playing people like puppets.
“But what is quite interesting, though, is that a lot of the lyrics for the album were written over a year ago, and this wasn’t happening, and it’s since I’ve written them, now I’m even more heightened to what’s going on. The first two tracks, ‘Our Names Written In Embers’ [which comes in two parts – ST], it’s human beings are just this endless cycle of conflict, of war, and then the obligatory introspection and “we can’t let that happen again” and then ten years later the same thing happens again. It’s a propensity for, a lust for slaughter, yet nobody ever “wins”, nobody gets anything out of it, it doesn’t have to be that loads of normal human beings get killed or wounded and then that’s it.
“As a species it hasn’t stopped. We are so-called evolved in 2014 with our ipads and iphones and all that bollocks, and yet people are still being massacred on a daily basis. Is it ever going to stop? And that’s the over-arching theme for the album. You look at the title, you know, Carrion Skies, and that’s the future, that’s the future of man, it’s just a blood-drenched. carcass-strewn horizon. Throughout it, I don’t think nihilism is the right word, I think there’s a sense of furious despair.
“‘Menhir – Supplicant’ is about sacrifice, because you’ve also got this propensity towards sacrifice and subjugation. You talk about a middle class apathy to our political environment, and this is people just giving up and surrendering, surrendering their responsibility. Why are people so keen to throw away their responsibility and tether themselves to some abstract yoke? Why? Why sacrifice themselves towards ideals and values that only do harm? It beggars belief.
“The lyrics, they’re addressing those concepts. You do have to consider what’s going on around you because it’s all well and good to mull over these things on a higher-level abstract point of view, but when things are happening at a slightly lower level, more local point of view, you do look at it with a sharpened perspective. It’s happening now, it’s happening around us as we speak. Society is built on foundations of sand, the illusion of freedom, and easy comfort and distraction and that’s the only thing keeping people from marching into the streets and burning things.”
Fen on Facebook
Order Carrion Skies here
Words by STEVE TOVEY
To celebrate the release of their stunning 9/10 album Carrion Skies (Code666 – review here) The Watcher, guitarist and vocalist of England’s atmospheric post-Black Metal band Fen spoke to Ghost Cult on a range of subjects. In the third of four parts, with a further feature to follow in the next Ghost Cult digimag, talk turned to the role of the audience in the development of a band…
When it comes to writing music, and developments and changes in Fen’s sound, do you care what your fans think, or is writing music for Fen purely for the band members?
First and foremost you have to write music that satisfies yourself; that is an absolute underlying fundament of being in a band, but I do care, yes. I think a band takes on a life of its own after a point. We’re on our fourth album, we seem to have quite a few people out there who support us, and I think it’d be disingenuous to say that your audience, or the buyer, isn’t in mind when you’re putting together material. If people are willing to take the time and effort, and potentially money, to invest in your art, then there has to be an element of reciprocation there. We are conscious of the fact we have listeners; it’s not like we’re a global phenomenon but we are aware, and if we put out a record and our established fans didn’t like it, I’d be really interested to know why.
By not being a band that is overtly a touring artist, does that audience becomes more distant, and contact with the people that buy your product is reduced? It’s not like you are a 5fDP with 18 month tours…
“It isn’t, but that’s not to say we wouldn’t like it to be [on tour that long – not that they want to be Five Finger Death Punch – ST]. I enjoy doing this, I enjoy doing shows, we enjoy getting opportunities, and if you’re in a band and you have an audience, you look to grow that audience, and it’s important. I think there are bands that are disingenuous, and they say ‘We just write for ourselves, and it’s a bonus if people choose to listen to us’, but if you’re just doing it for yourself, then just play your music loudly in the rehearsal room.”
To Misquote Al Jourgensen, as soon as you play music to other people you’re selling out…
“I think it’s a dishonest thing to say ‘We just in it for ourselves’. When you pick up a guitar when you’re 13 or 14 years old, you just want to rock the fuck out. You want to be the man! No matter how many permutations your musical endeavours go down, or whatever prisms you view yourself through, as an artist the minute you’re going onto a stage and plugging into an amp that’s cranked up, there’s an element of that original instinct that kicks in, of wanting to just rock out in front of a crowd. I’m not going to lie about that just to make myself look a little bit cooler or more detached, or more intellectual.
“OK, we have signifiers and caveats to it – we’re playing “Atmospheric post-Black Metal…” Well, ultimately, we’re playing loud rock music. That’s an underlying fact. And a part of that is an audience. It’s an important part of being in a band. No one in a band can look me in the eye and tell me they enjoy playing in front of fuck all people. That’s not true. You can lie to yourself with your ‘There were only 2 people there, but those 2 people really loved it’.
“I remember in my old band, in Skaldic Curse, we started working on a 25 minute long progressive black metal epic, and we were ‘Oh, this is really going to piss people off’… Hang on a minute, where’s this thinking leading? Are we getting so wrapped up in trying to do what people don’t expect of us? But then you are still thinking about what the audience think, you’re just looking at it through a different end of the telescope. It’s an un-ignorable part of the artistic process, unless you are going to record music on your own at home and only listen to it alone. The minute anyone else enters the picture, even band mates, you’re sharing, and there’s consideration for the listener, and I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t see why that has to somehow compromise the purity of the art.”
I guess it’s always been something that’s intrinsic within the Black Metal / Kvlt Metal mentality or mindset…
“Yes, there’s always the isolationist thing, but if you look at the second wave of black metal, Euronymous still wanted to shift records. He ran a record label. He wanted to sell records from a shop. It was under the guise of spreading the message of the horned lord, or whatever, but he wanted an audience.”
And let’s not pretend De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (Deathlike Silence) is shit…
“It’s a brilliant record, and Euronymous wanted an audience for it. He’d do tours; Mayhem were touring around Eastern Europe in 1990, 1991, and they were one of the first second wave Black Metal bands out there doing it. And there are some real headbanging moments on De Mysteriis… take the riff on ‘Pagan Fears’, that’s a proper fists in the air riff. The mid-section of ‘Freezing Moon’… that’s a head-banging classic, and that’s why I don’t think considering your audience has to be a compromise at all. I think there’s some dishonesty in that level of thinking because you can be inspired, you can write with integrity and you can still consider your audience.
“If you’ve got to a point where your band has a fanbase, then your band has overtaken you. It’s no longer yours and yours alone. And I know John from Agalloch gets really upset with this, he gets upset with fans having a sense of entitlement, and that’s fair enough, but these people are buying and consuming your music, and it’s a sense that’s born from them enjoying your music. While that can be annoying, in a sense, you can listen to them and take some stuff on board. There is a line, but if they’re genuine fans, buying physical releases and merchandise, and they’re investing in your band and your music, then you owe it to them to take them into consideration.”
Order Carrion Skies here
Words by STEVE TOVEY
The countdown to the Official Ghost Cult Magazine Album of the Year for 2014 continues. Please consume and enjoy the results of our 2014 Writers’ Poll. We hope it will introduce you to some of the incredible works of art you may have missed that we have had the immense pleasure of listening to and writing about this year.
In our second installment we bring you albums 40 through to 31
“Evolution from deathcore to a more compact, yet technical, death metal… complex and melodic structures accompany a diversified approach” DIOGO FERREIRA 7/10 Full review here
39. AGELESS OBLIVION – Pethos (Siege of Amida / Century Media)
Marrying both technical and atmospheric forms of Death Metal, Ageless Oblivion create their own brand of chilling yet punishing aggression, presented in a show of impressive progression.
“Cavalera, Puciato, Sanders, and Elitch put their stamp on this recording, making a memorable, political-flavored, heavy album that certainly lives up to the hype” KEITH ‘KEEFY’ CHACHKES 8.5/10 Full review here
37. AEVANGELIST – Writhes In The Murk (Debemur Morti)
“If you’re able to get past the initial disorientation and look inside, you’ll find an album that follows its own perverse ambition flawlessly, with not a shred of compromise, dilution or failure” RICHIE HR 10/10 Full review here
36. FEN – Carrion Skies (Code666)
“Fen are the rawer, rockier, more achingly human cousin to Tombs’ Neurosis-driven thunder, and among the richest and most emotionally expressive Metal albums of 2014” RICHIE HR 9/10 Full review here
35. JUDAS PRIEST – Redeemer of Souls (Epic/Columbia)
“Judas Priest has released a retrospective that nods to their career, recalling everything that has made them genuine legends of our metal world, Redeemer Of Souls has a beautifully warm and classic Priest feel”. STEVE TOVEY 8.5/10 Full review here
The phrase “Doom” doesn’t do justice to the ugly, polluted, measured sludgy bludgeon of IV.I.VIII; a beautifully horrible record of nihilistic malevolence, that dissolves doom, death, black and sludge in its fetid path.
“My advice? If you have never listened to Trap Them, get on this bandwagon before these guys run you over with it”. TIM LEDIN 8/10 Full review here
The hardest of hardcore punk fused with the blackest of Darkthrone’s black metal offspring, creating a crusty hell in aural format.
The gutsy pop-punk outfit release a cathartic biographical concept album of frontwoman Laura Jane Grace’s experiences for their sixth album.
Ghost Cult ‘Albums Of The Year’ 50-41 here
Compiled by Steve Tovey
To celebrate the release of their stunning 9/10 album Carrion Skies (Code666 – review here) The Watcher, guitarist and vocalist of England’s atmospheric post-Black Metal band Fen spoke to Ghost Cult on a range of subjects. In the second of four parts, with a further feature to follow in the next Ghost Cult digimag, the discussion turned to changes in the consumption of music…
The music of Fen inspires a sense of other, and your music is something where, as a listener, you become immersed in the music – it serves to take you away…
“Immersion and escapism… I don’t they are dirty words. People listen to music for a variety of reasons and one of those is to take yourself away from the day to day for a little bit, you can take yourself to another world. And if you’re writing 12 minute long songs with lots of guitar textures, it’s something you’d hope the music would do for the listener. I don’t want to be writing background, I don’t want to be writing backgrounds to somebody’s trip to the shops.”
But isn’t that how a lot of music is consumed now? Listened to ipod shuffle. It’s become the death of the “album”, the rise of youtube, Spotify and playlists, and of flicking from one band to another. I saw the other day Skid Row saying that they are no longer going to do albums, because no one listens to albums, (though maybe that’s because no one listens to their albums any more…)
I still listen to the first the two Skid Row albums quite regularly…!
Absolutely, the first two albums are awesome! But bearing in mind what they’re saying, and you get acts like TRC too, who say they just do EPs or singles… As Fen is an album band, does it concern you that “the album” may become an obsolete format?
“It depends, and it’s all quite subjective, because you can get a band like Moonsorrow that do an EP that’s 58 minutes long, and then you get Slayer do an album that’s 28 minutes long. The digital issue blurs the lines a little bit, but it’s just an expression of music. Album… EP… Single… It’s just a self-contained unit of music and it depends on what your style is and how long it takes you tell that story. I don’t think the album is going to die, in effect that “the album” doesn’t have a defined existence.
“People are still going to release music in a discrete unit of how long it needs to be to tell their story. We all have our personal definition of what an album is, be it 6 or 7 songs, 60 minutes, or however long it’s going to be, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. What you’ll see as the digital age gathers pace is that people might start releasing collections of EPs, and have more regular release cycle of shorter pieces of music, whether to keep interest sustained, or because it’s now easier to record things yourself.
“Equally there are certain bands and genres where the album is a necessary vehicle to deliver what they want to deliver, and certainly for a band like Fen where we write long songs, we want people to become immersed in our songs and an album for us is an important way of actually spreading atmosphere. If anything we might in danger of the opposite; [with Carrion Skies] we actually recorded too much music for a single CD and one of the tracks had to come out.
“I think the boundaries of what might make an album will dissipate. If we’re not tied to the limits of a CD, then a 90 minute album is fine. If that’s what is needed to fully to tell a story, or evoke the atmosphere trying to be evoked, then so be it. All the boundaries can crumble.”
That’s a fair point, Contradiction by Schammasch (Prosthetic) and AEvangelist’s Omen Ex Simulacra (Debemur Morti) both chip in around the 85 minute mark…
“And you have the last Dødsengel album, Imperator (Terratur), that is two and a half hours long and it’s really, really good, and that really underlines the creative power of some bands. If you have a band that says they’re going to do a two hour album, and they pull it off, fair play to them. I think bands will feel less beholden to the album cycle, and rather than ‘Here are 10 songs, 45 minutes, bang, here we go’, maybe you think ‘Do you know what, I feel really inspired this year, so we could put together a good hour and half of an album here’. Or, another band might think, we’re the sort of band that thrives on short, sharp shock, so let’s do a series of 4 track EP’s.
“It should be liberating. With digital, downloading, it’s changed the way music is presented and digested, and consumed, and I think it’s pointless to rail against it. Bands should see it for the liberating creating force it could be.”
Order Carrion Skies here
Words by STEVE TOVEY
To celebrate the release of their stunning 9/10 album Carrion Skies (Code666 – review here) The Watcher, guitarist and vocalist of England’s atmospheric post-Black Metal band Fen spoke to Ghost Cult on a range of subjects. In the first of four parts, with a further feature to follow in the next Ghost Cult digimag, he enthuses on the conscious injection of metal back into their sound that facilitated the statement album that should propel them to the head table…
“You look at a band like Paradise Lost. When they started out, they couldn’t be more Heavy Metal. Then they get to 24, 25 years old and then it’s ‘Heavy Metal is for losers. I’ve been listening to this for 10 years, it’s old hat. I’ve heard all there is to hear of this, it’s for bozos. I like Depeche Mode, let’s do that and let’s be all grown up’. But then it goes full circle, and when they hit their late 30’s they’re ‘God, I think I was a pretentious little twat back then! I actually do like Heavy Metal and I wasn’t anywhere near as clever as I thought I was when I went all experimental’.
“You see it a bit with the Norwegian scene, too, that all went ludicrously avant-garde in the late 90’s. It’s like they all went to university and thought ‘Ooh, I want to be clever now. What’s clever? Well, heavy metal definitely isn’t, so…’
“The thing is, I like Heavy Metal. I want to play Heavy Metal. It sounds a bit Bad News, but I love Heavy Metal. I listen to Heavy Metal. Heavy Metal.”
Once people stray away from the metal part of their sound they’re moving into a shallower pool of influences, and have a shortfall in their depth of knowledge. The problem is, bands not understanding these additional elements of their sound as much as they do the metal… I’m not saying don’t utilise these additional, non-metal influences, but make sure you understand what you’re doing…
“Exactly. It is dabbling. It’s going ‘I’ve been listening to a load of synthy 80s new wave bands recently, we can do something with that’. And there’s a danger for bands to get really carried away, and I think this is what was happening with us.
“At the start of last year, the end of the year before, we’d done Dustwalker (the band’s third album, also on Code666) and me and our drummer, Derwydd, had been listening to loads of Sad Lovers and Giants, The Chameleons and Snake Corps, all these guitarwave bands. Then, in rehearsal I thought I’d turn the distortion off, put a bit chorus and delay on it and, oh, we can sound like that… and it’s easy to carried away with it when you’re playing one style so much. But to your ears it’s a really fresh sound, and you’re like ‘Yes! We can do this!’ At points we were even talking about doing a whole album like that, a whole album with clean guitars.
“It was only when we got back from touring with Agalloch that we realised that we’d got completely over-excited about the fact that we do listen to some non-metal stuff and we can do a passable version of it. But it’s not really enough, and we did have to put the brakes on and take a look at it, and say ‘Are we just playing a slightly rubbish version of The Chameleons with some guy shouting over it?’ And in all honesty, we were.
“We took a really objective step back and looked at it, and a lot of the stuff that was originally pencilled in to be on the album was binned off. We had gotten carried away and were disappearing up our own arses.”
An integral part of the Fen sound has always been that it comes from black metal and the inherent extremity of black metal first, despite the fact that you are often compared with bands like Agalloch and Alcest, who are much lighter, much “nicer”…
“I like Agalloch and I like some of the early Alcest, but it’s a bit of a lazy comparison I think. Particularly with this new album, we’ve set ourselves apart from that. I mean, touring with Agalloch for a month… they do that stuff really well, but we don’t want to sound like that. They’ve got that sound nailed. We sat down and said we needed to define ourselves, we needed to really underline what we’re about.
“Unfortunately there are bands out there who don’t take that step back until it’s too late, until it’s ‘Oh shit, we’re not as clever as we think we are’, but I can see it from the other side of the fence, that it’s easy to get swept up in it. Everyone gets whipped up into a fervour, and gets all ‘We can do it! This is so different! Look at how versatile we are!’ , but any competent musician can turn their hand to doing a vague version of another style, but doing it well is a different thing.”
“Dustwalker is a metal album, but we did go down a certain route. There’s a lot of atmospheric stuff on there, there’s a whole song on there that’s got no distorted guitars whatsoever. With this one, we thought ‘We’re in the mood for metal, we want to do some metal!’ We’re an extreme metal band and it’s almost become a cliché for bands that are in the post-black metal scene to shed the trappings of black metal, and that’s not a game I’m interested in playing.
“I want to reassert our credentials as a metal band.”
Carrion Skies can be purchased here
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.