Here at Angry Metal Guy US headquarters, subtle signs point to 2014 drawing to a blustery close. My very metal cats watch the crackling fireplace, mesmerized as the world burns at their paws. Top 10 lists hastily scrawled on the backs of store receipts and the margins of the daily paper are pulled from coat pockets and tossed carelessly about, littering every surface. And as the holiday silly season approaches, I’m winding down, bourbon in hand, returning to the contemplative atmosphere of post-metal and avant guard favourites like Agalloch, A Forest of Stars, Anathema, Horseback and New Keepers of the Watertowers. Now a year and some change after the release of Dustwalker, British progressive black metallers – Fen recapture my attention with their fourth full-length release. And those of you that read my review of Dustwalker will remember I ended up more enamoured with the album art than the contents of the album. Will Carrion Skies be redolent of the decaying flesh referenced in the album title, or can it overcome the stigma of image over substance?
Carrion Skies introduces itself with “Our Names Written in Embers Part 1 (Beacons of War),” a sonic journey that has the expanse of a night sky filled with New Keepers of the Watertower atmosphere and a smattering of A Forest of Stars sparkle. The subtleties last only a short time before things are heavied up and Frank Allain (The Watcher) and Grungyn make their snarling blackened appearance. The track shifts and contorts, winding through moments of sparse post-metal instrumental weirdness that feels somewhat Opeth-like before you feel Fen‘s deliberately slow and deathly grip strangle you with moments of Mournful Congregation malady.
After being beaten for a good and solid eleven minutes by Part 1 of “Our Names Written in Embers,” Part 2 appears a little brighter but with little or no break inbetween. The seamless transitions between tracks work in favour of the album’s flow but with continued listening leave you unsure which track you’re immersed in without physically checking your playlist. Instrumentally, Carrion Skies is a beautiful melting pot of subtle textures, distant light and extreme darkness with a dynamic and well thought out production that plays its part in bringing each nuance and melody out, building it up and letting it shine splendiferously.
There’s no one particular performance that stands out above any other on Carrion Skies. The drums play their part with subdued but gripping precision, the guitar work is melodic and contradistinctive enough to keep you listening despite the lengths of the tracks, and vocals vary between Anathema tinged wispy cleans, Mournful Congregation infused gurgling, Agalloch croaks and a rather solitary sounding blackened howl. Carrion Skies main drawbacks are the lengths of the tracks that have a tendency to run on, and that the album must be treated as a single entity, with each track treated as a sub-part of a greater story. It’s not the kind of album you’re going to be able to spin casually or piecemeal. Carrion Skies is ultimately a time consuming listen that needs a lot of time and repeat plays to grow, develop and build familiarity.
Bleaker, harder and more ambient, Carrion Skies is indeed Fen‘s best and most intense storm thus far. It’s more mature, emotional, well thought out and cohesive than its predecessor, and like Horseback‘s Half Blood and A Forest of Stars‘ Shadowplay for Yesterdays, given the time Carrion Skies needs to grow and carry you away, both its light and darkness shine through brightly.