The bleak and harsh Canadian Winter has drawn us into her icy bosom. Days are short, temperatures are lower than the last run of scores I’ve given, and rain and snow abound. It’s the perfect weather for the frosty kiss of good atmospheric black metal, and yet there has been a relative dearth recently. The English trio of Fen aim to change all that with their sixth release, The Dead Light. Fen has been quietly amassing a reputation for itself through a string of quality releases, and regular touring featuring a dynamic live show. Most reviewing sites were enamored of their last album, Winter, and felt it was their strongest release yet. But AMG is not most sites, and our own kvlt Madam X was left feeling distinctly underwhelmed by the bloated length and simplistic riffs. Now, the last person who publicly disagreed with the Madam is but a pair of molars in the Skull Pit, but I was someone who enjoyed Winter despite its flaws, and was excited for the new album. The Dead Light promises to be more streamlined and focused, and early hype is already present. The question is: are we gonna be the party-poopers once again?
For the uninitiated, Fen’s atmospheric black metal is along the same lines as Saor or Agalloch. Songs concern the nature of the world and our place in the universe rather than the misanthropy of Satan’s minions. Where Fen has always excelled is its exceptional sense of dynamism, which lends a unique profundity to its material. This is because the climaxes are patiently and systematically created and therefore feel earned. Too many artists’ conception of dynamism is to simply alternative loud, harsh stretches with gentle acoustic ones, without establishing any real momentum or logical interplay. As a result, the soft parts don’t provide balance, they just sap energy and interest. Fen, on the other hand, has an intrinsic sense of how to build momentum and then provide the cathartic release the music depends upon. While Winter was certainly bloated, its highs were so high that many were willing to overlook its weaknesses. The Dead Light continues this trend, and while the peaks may not match those of Winter, when they come, they are emotional and powerful. When lead-singer, The Watcher, screams “We lie to ourselves!” in “Labyrinthine Echoes,” the payoff is both earned and enormously satisfying.
The other major highlight of The Dead Light is that it is much more focused than Winter. While there are plenty of atmospheric stretches, they are of manageable length and feel purposeful, rather than the languid, and occasionally directionless, meanderings the band has previously been guilty of. Tempo changes occur regularly throughout songs — notably on “Exsanguination,” which has four major shifts, all handled gracefully — and maintain the listener’s interest without being overly jarring. An excellent production is the cherry on top: it highlights the guitars and melodies, without sounding too shiny or artificial.
Downsides really are minor, and really limited to the lack of aforementioned ‘highs’ that we’ve come to expect from Fen. If The Dead Light were a roller-coaster, it would be efficient, quick and entertaining. But it just doesn’t quite reach Winter’s towering highs (it also doesn’t have its boring lows). The closest it comes is on “The Dead Light (Part 2)” and bits of “Nebula.” This is nitpicking, because only a very few bands ever achieve moments like these (Violet Cold and Blut Aus Nord are the others that come to mind). The album also doesn’t offer any many changes to Fen’s formula: this is a tinkering rather than a giant leap forward.
The Dead Light is high-quality, extremely entertaining black metal. The band members clearly heard the concerns about Winter and have tweaked the formula to make something sleeker, faster and more streamlined, while still emphasizing their considerable strengths. The minor price is that this comes at the expense of the extraordinary climaxes we’re used to. The overall effect, however, is still deeply satisfying. This should please existing fans, while pulling new ones onto the Fen bandwagon. It’s been an exceptionally strong year for black metal, but if you like the atmospheric side of things, you would be remiss if you let The Dead Light pass you by.