Fen is a black metal band from eastern England formed in 2006. Now four albums (and two EPs) into its career, the trio has begun to establish itself as not only a solid player in the atmospheric metal scene, but one of the genre’s leaders with its last two efforts. 2014’s Carrion Skies was a behemoth at more than an hour and 40 minutes – a magnitude that would cause most bands to crumble under jarring repetition – but was justified in at least most of that run time by strong songwriting and varied compositional techniques. While Fen touches upon a number of genres, including post-metal and doom, its willingness to branch out is particularly notable in the band’s overarching field of black metal, which too often sticks to a small comfort zone of buzzing guitars and predictable structures. The songs on Winter cover a large amount of sonic territory, from arrays of contemplative guitarwork and shuffling percussion to furious riffing and back, usually within the same song.
Fen’s fifth album is a highly conceptual piece, described by frontman The Watcher (article and all) as “the culmination of over 18 months of writing and rehearsing, pushing ourselves harder and harder as musicians…a lengthy and self-indulgent record for which we make no apology.” Winter is, of course, a popular topic for black metal bands, so the onus is on Fen to create a landscape that hasn’t been traveled countless times before. The most prominent characteristic of Fen’s music is the broad dynamic spectrum explored across each song. Opener “I (Pathway)” sets the template emphatically, as the band moves seamlessly between sections of Windir-inspired metal and more restrained moments of textured guitar interplay and uplifting clean vocals. While plenty of acts utilize this dichotomy, Fen’s deft songwriting lends exceptional balance to the array of styles as the songs ride drummer Havenless’ ever-shifting rhythms. A few unusual time signatures even work their way into the mix, bringing to mind previous effort Carrion Skies’ opening statement.
Much of Winter’s success lies in its soft, expansive sound cultivated by producer Jaime Gomez Arellano (Altar of Plagues, Primordial, Ulver). “III (Fear)” begins with a laid-back jam led by bassist Grungyn, while additional instruments slowly join the revolving riff until Havenless signals for the song to begin in earnest via booming tom-tom rolls. It’s easy to overlook how seamless these transitions often are, as the full breadth of the mix is explored whether there are just two instruments in play or several layers over chaotic blast beats. “I (Pathway)” features hazy tremolo-picked guitar in the background, while clearer interwoven lead lines guide the song through its many twists and turns. Some moments work better than others, of course – the sudden break eleven minutes into “IV (Interment)” feels a little awkward sandwiched between two high-energy runs, but at least provides a landmark before the song slowly decompresses into doom metal out of the Ahab playbook.
The next song, “V (Death),” wanders into the album’s primary shortcoming. While it comes at a point in which Winter – now approaching the hour mark – could really use a singular moment, it is instead largely content to meander between mid-paced riff ideas that extend the song without building much momentum. Each motif is plenty interesting in its own right, but even the best albums suffer from the law of dimishing returns, and Fen may be better served in saving some material for a setting when it can shine on its own. That said, clean vocals (sounding very much like Ghost Brigade’s Manne Ikonen) bring some flavor to the song, and the aformentioned singular moment finally arrives in a luscious instrumental outro which sets up “VI (Sight)” to finish Winter in grand style. Four minutes of ambience opening the song are a welcome breather, even a breath of fresh air, as the piece works its way to a pummeling climax (fans of Isis’ post-metal classic “Carry” may feel a familiar rush).
Winter is a surprisingly easy overall listen, which is a testament to Fen given the magnitude of the project at hand. There’s a somber grace with which the trio crafts each song, accentuated by an organic-sounding mix courtesy of Arellano. Now in its second decade, Fen is cementing its place at the fore of a black metal scene whose fans expect a more nuanced and, ultimately, transportive listening experience. While the band is exceptionally long-winded and may benefit from tightening things up, it’s hard to earnestly complain about there being too much material on an album with such a high compositional floor. Winter certainly achieves the band’s stated goal of presenting “a journey towards sanctity and redemption across a landscape steeped in mystery, hints of forgotten darkness and sorrows long since drowned in the distant past.” Here’s to hoping that Fen’s journey continues into more such lands, either forgotten or uncharted entirely. If this is the logical conclusion to Fen’s first ten years of existence, then it’s probably safe to expect something just as enthralling the next time around.