Here on the Eastern side of the great United States, it feels as though Winter is just about letting out her very last breath. It’s not been a particularly harsh one, but we’ve had enough snowy nights that I can clearly recall that out-of-the-ordinary silence that envelopes the house following a snowfall. And it’s during those particular periods of quietude, that the atmospheric, post-black metal of Fen pops into your thoughts. How fitting is it then, that Fen have chosen to release their fifth creation under the moniker of Winter. Judging by the hype I’m picking up over this, their newest release, that’s probably as much as I need to tell you about the London-based band. Punxsutawney Phil caught a glimpse of his shadow and foresaw more winter on its way, looks like he wasn’t wrong after all!
Making an unhurried start, movement “I (Pathway)” has a wind-swept breeziness, opening up only when The Watcher’s guitar pickings and Derwydd’s steady heart-beat like drumming takes over. Like the changing of the seasons, there’s nothing brash or hurried about how this Winter sets in, and in fact, “I (Pathway)” very much follows on from how Fen left off with Carrion Skies. Vocals begin as little more than subtle clean singing backed by the occasional whisper, delivered by The Watcher and Grungyn. As far as intros go, it’s minimalist, breathtaking and will no-doubt be well-received by fans of the band. Near on 3-minutes in, The Watcher’s snarl kicks in and things become considerably more dramatic. It’s no stretch of the imagination to compare The Watcher’s crudely growled rasp with the harsher delivery used by John Haughm, in the early days of Agalloch. Leading up to the mid-point of the track Fen‘s guitar-work develops a religiousness or subtle bell-like ring and a moodiness takes ownership. Being that this is a lengthy 17-minute progression making use of escalating builds and thunderous climaxes, the track steadfastly holds your interest and maintains momentum despite backtracking on itself a few times.
Fen promised remarkable track lengths on Winter and they certainly weren’t exaggerating – only a single track falls below the 10-minute mark. Loaded with such tightly packed content and a noticeably harmonious quality, “II (Penance)” follows on almost too seamlessly from “I (Pathway).” The parallels of these two tracks bring to mind a combination of the atmospheric black metal of Agalloch‘s Pale Folklore and Marrow of the Spirit, blended with bursts of Omnium Gatherum‘s sad-boy melodic death. The problem is, if you’re not focused, you’ll not even notice that you’ve progressed through the first track and into the second, and this gives Winter a distinctly weighted feeling.
The remaining tracks are comprised of moments that either leave you breathless (“VI (Sight)”), or that come across as unusual “IV (Interment).” Though it’s difficult to set aside the 2-step-like waltz of the guitar prominently featured at the start of “IV (Interment)” or the ease with which The Watcher switches up his vocal intonations – funeral doom growls, blackened rasps, cleans, none seeming beyond his reach. It’s “III (Fear)” that ends up the high point of Winter. Setting aside the humming bass, positioned for maximum effect, a ponderous blend of atmospheric post-metal and neo-folk slowly draws you deeper into Fen‘s suffocating struggle with the elements. At the 3-minute mark, The Watcher makes a dramatic entrance, giving by far his best vocal performance on the album. Cut with moments of well introduced jangly Norwegian-style black metal (think Taake‘s Noregs Vaapen if you will) the song creates a weird anticipation for a banjo to kick in. This aspect was exactly what Fen needed to bring “III (Fear)” back to its black metal roots.
According to our production schedule and my niggling conscious, I’m at least a week late with this review and there’s a very good reason for that. Winter is a long and arduous experience, and because of a 75-minute run-time, it’s tough to endure (in a single sitting) what Fen have so lovingly constructed. A track like “IV (Interment)” running around 3 minutes beyond its natural breaking-point does nothing to help the situation. Winter also suffers another misstep. There’s a very fine line between creating a song that has an easily detected pattern of symmetries and one that’s too simple. When a song strikes the balance just right, it’s impossible to forget. Fen‘s melodies are often too simple and too similar to separate one track from another, and though easy to like in the moment, they just don’t stick to the old shovel. Hindsight is 20/20. Looking back at the number of times I’ve returned to Carrion Skies, is probably less than I can count on one hand. With that in mind, I wonder if I didn’t somewhat over-rate the album at the time. Though Fen are becoming increasingly skilled at layering a range of influences and bending a number of genres, with Winter assuredly their best outing yet, there are only parts of this release that I feel compelled to hear again.