Review Summary: A perfect marriage of the delicate and the vicious, the vulnerable and the fearless. Fen's genre defining moment is upon them.
Bluntly put, Fen aren’t going to win any brownie points for brevity on Winter
. The album, their fifth to date, is a monstrous thing, clocking in at around seventy-five minutes all said and done. Furthermore, it matches the scale of its runtime musically, an ebbing and flowing atmospheric black metal behemoth packed to the brim with agonizingly patient builds and apocalyptic crescendos. Winter
feels like a journey, and it was clearly meant to be to judge by the well-worn “roman numerals instead of normal track titles” gag. So, I believe them when they say that Winter
is “a lengthy and self-indulgent record for which we make no apology”, a quote taken directly from the album’s Bandcamp description. But you know what? It’s so damn worth it, clichés and self-indulgence aside.
It’s hard to say precisely what happened between Dustwalker
and Carrion Skies
to result in such an abrupt shift in quality, but who’s complaining? With one swift stroke, England’s brightest post-y, folk-y, blackish underground forerunners jumped from three records of brazenly whatever material to focused, memorable black metal on Carrion Skies
continues that trend triumphantly, making for the career defining masterwork that Carrion Skies
fell just short of becoming. Where its predecessor was jammed full of songs that caught your attention and didn’t let go, Winter
feels like a culmination of artistic growth into one intensely ambitious creation. Taken, once again from the album’s Bandcamp description, The Watcher (yes, they’re one of those
bands) summarized the direction of the album as wanting “to return to the roots of the band”. I don’t really buy that, since their earliest material could often be boiled down to average Agalloch worship. Winter
just feels new to me, one of those rare records that melds its influences just right, nailing that perfect middle ground of post rock, shoegaze, black metal, progressive rock, and whatever else you might be able to hear in the mix (there’s a lot).
If there’s one thing Winter
doesn’t have going for it, it’s that the songs aren’t as individually distinctive as those on Carrion Skies
. That’s not to insinuate that they’re not memorable, the album doesn’t lack in that department by any means, but it’s true that the album is meant to be heard in one sitting. Everything flows into the next piece elegantly, but there are plenty of alternately explosive or delicate moments to wonder at. The bookends prove to be the most individually impressive, “I (Pathway)” being both the longest and most varied track on display. It’s structured in a way more reminiscent of post rock, simply executed by way of black metal. There is a distinction in that, believe it or not. Most bands in this niche of post-y atmospheric black metal just flavor black metal songs with major keys, twinkly guitars, and wandering runtimes without really putting much thought into it. Fen do these things, but they’re handled more gracefully, properly building up to climaxes without ignoring the downtime afterwards. Conversely a few of the middle tracks, “II (Penance)” and “III (Fear)” go the opposite route with more emphasis on scathing shrieks and buzzing riffs. Likewise, there’s a graceful execution that sets them apart from the pack. The manic screams that lace the heavier moments are superb, slicing through the cacophony with precision and power. Soft chants and singing accent the calmer moments, like the somber intro to “I (Pathway)” before giving way to a positively electric explosion of metal.
While the core five tracks are an exhausting and absorbing experience in and of themselves, the closing track is shockingly condensed and focused comparatively. “VI (Sight)” is both the shortest track and the most straightforward in that it very clearly goes in one direction. It takes most of the first five minutes to progress through engulfingly beautiful ambience into a brief, and gorgeous, clean guitar passage. Yet when the wave hits, it hits with a fury only hinted at before. It’s the catharsis of the end, a climax and release after an impossibly tumultuous adventure. It fades with a similar suddenness to its arrival, several long moments of emotional upheaval and then a swift fall into fading sound. It’s a curious way to end things, but all said and done, Winter
could end in no better way.
I don’t know where Fen go from here truthfully. Winter
feels like that last masterstroke that leaves no room for return, and I don’t foresee a future where Fen top it, at least not anytime soon. But it’s also the kind of experience that, despite the sure diminishing of all future endeavors, is so good that you’re thankful to have experienced it anyway. Sure, it’s self-indulgent as hell and Winter
is a singularly awkward title for a record that embodies nothing of that cruel, humorless season, but I’ll take the stuff I don’t understand along with the stuff I do, gladly and fearlessly.