Album Title: Winter
Date Of Release: 10 March 2017
If ever there was an album title that fitted the music of the band perfectly, it is this. ‘Winter’ is the name of the latest album from UK progressively-laced black metal band Fen and, as someone very wise pointed out to me on social media recently, Fen are the ideal band to listen to when you find yourself in the cold and dark.
The trio of Fen that’s comprised of drummer Havenless, bassist/vocalist Grungyn and guitarist/vocalist The Watcher, have been around for a surprisingly long time. And, in their eleven-year year existence, they have released no fewer than three full-length albums of high quality dark, atmospheric and organic-sounding black metal. From this vantage point, they have always skirted with the possibility of ascending into the extreme metal mainstream if such a thing exists, without ever fully breaking through. That said, theirs is a brand of heavy metal that has garnered something of a cult following, where the hardcore believers await new music with feverish anticipation. I’d not have previously placed myself squarely within this relatively small but perfectly-formed core. However, I have more than admired Fen for a number of years and am familiar with all of their output to date.
However, ‘Winter’, the band’s fourth studio recording might change my position because it sees Fen further honing and refining their impressive sound with first class results. Whilst raw and harsh-sounding black metal sits at the heart of the band’s sound, the dark, cloying atmospheric elements remain ever-present, as do the progressive leanings and the quieter, more introspective ambient sections. Melody also plays an increasingly important part in the overall Fen approach, adding yet another important ingredient in the already refined multi-layered and richly-textured music.
And whilst ‘Winter’ is most definitely another important step forward in the evolution of Fen, it also hints at the earlier days of the band. As such, there feels to me like there’s a re-invigoration of those extreme metal roots; the harsh vocals make quite an impact, as do the sections that feature cold and sharp staccato-style riffing atop savage blast beats. These aspects of the Fen soundscape have never gone away but here, it all suggests a renewed vigour, an apparent hunger and a desire to re-state the core principles of the band.
The Watcher has gone on record to state that ‘Winter’ is ‘lengthy and self-indulgent for which we make no apology’ and that’s as true a statement as you’re likely to hear all year. ‘Winter’ is certainly both self-indulgent and lengthy, clocking in as it does at over 70 minutes in length, divided into six tracks where all bar one extend into double figures. I have absolutely no problem with this in principle so long as the compositions have something worthwhile to say and are well-executed. And that’s where Fen have succeeded by and large, because when I listen to ‘Winter’, I don’t get the sense that it drags or outstays its welcome. Yes there are parts that might benefit from a little editing here and there, but to do so might jeopardise the overall flow and feel of the record.
‘Winter’ kicks off with ‘Winter I (Pathway)’ the longest track on the album. And, throughout its 17-minute length, it creates a significant and grandiose soundscape that takes in plenty of intelligent highs and lows and peaks and troughs, leaving the listener with much to think about and digest. The first three minutes are quiet, contemplative and atmospheric before something altogether more extreme jumps out of the murky shadows to ramp up the aggression and intensity. Harsh and raspy growls replace the early clean delivery but what remains is the sense of melody and brittleness despite the more extreme sheen. Frequent and marked shifts in tempo add to the drama whilst sections of all-out ambience are juxtaposed with hard-hitting riffs. Add to this some beautifully cold and icy guitar melodies that create something approximating a crescendo towards the end as well as an extended atmospheric outro, and ‘I’ becomes a hugely impactful and intelligent opening to the album.
In contrast, the mere ten-minute-long ‘Winter II (Penance)’ is slightly more direct and generally more of an up-tempo highly charged affair, littered more heavily with blast beats, fast riffing and urgent ear-catching bass work rumbling just below the surface. I also really like the more muscular, almost groovy guitar work that segues into something much more atmospheric towards the end.
The theme continues with the cunningly titled ‘Winter III (Fear)’ which starts off in sublime fashion, oozing atmospheric beauty and elegance. The minimalist post-rock, shoegaze vista slowly and gently increases in intensity before bursting at the seams, exploding into something both savage and beautiful at the same time as gorgeous melodies are interwoven into the black metal tapestry masterfully.
If anything, ‘Winter IV (Interment)’ is even more gorgeous. The quiet beginning contains some lovely understated acoustic guitars and arguably the most memorable melodies. The bold, heavier riffs that replace the atmosphere-drenched intro are equally as compelling as the track shifts almost surreptitiously into a much darker, angrier-sounding place before ultimately unravelling into something altogether slower and doomier as it progresses to a conclusion.
‘Winter V (Death)’ begins with savage intent, replacing melody and subtlety for something altogether harsher, at least at the outset. As the song develops, there’s a greater injection of what I can only describe as ‘moments of clarity’ within the more extreme framework. I’ve not mentioned the progressive elements of Fen very much in this review up to this point, but whilst they are to be found within the entire album, they make a real mark within ‘V’. Grandiose, euphoric-sounding moments are quickly replaced with a more discordant section or a challenging shift in the dynamics of the song. And yet, whilst the markedly different and competing ideas should interrupt the flow of the track, there’s an impressive smoothness that is beyond my limited comprehension.
Fen’s last hurrah on ‘Winter’ is delivered by ‘Winter VI (Sight)’. It is the shortest composition on the record but. The minimalist, atmospheric opening is heartbreakingly serene and beautiful, allowing the listener the time and space to think and look back at the entire album in retrospect. It isn’t until the half-way mark that things change with the reintroduction of Fen’s raw black metal approach, albeit overlaid initially with whimsical clean vocals. Somewhat fittingly, the final moments of the album are given over to a challenging, almost cacophonic crescendo of extremity, the perfect counterpoint to the laid back vibes both at the outset of the song and the album itself.
‘Winter’ is an album that perfectly demonstrates the not inconsiderable talents of this trio of musicians who go by the name of Fen. This is black metal of the highest order that displays sophistication, beauty and progressive intent, delivered in a package that just gets better with every listen. If you are a fan of intelligent extreme metal, there is literally no excuse good enough to explain why you don’t have Fen and ‘Winter’ in your life.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.0
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day