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"I close my eyes and drift away..."
Welcome to the earthen splendor of "Ancient Sorrow", Fen's first official release. Recorded in the summer of 2006, and released over a year later in the autumn of 2007. I've searched my mind and heart for the most appropriate adjective that captures the essence of Fen's overarching sound and spirit, and, in truth, the word itself isn't even in the English language. "Hiraeth", to which there is no direct English translation, is a beautiful Welsh word that refers to a very specific emotional phenomena - in essence it is a longing, a mourning, or an abstract homesickness for a perceived past time, state of being, or home. In Wales this refers to the wistful emotions associated with a cultural longing for the poetic Welsh past. (As if the EP's own title wasn't clear enough!) Fen's entire ethos unmistakably exudes this quality: a vague yearning for, and mournful eulogy of a perceived past, through the eyes of mortal men, animals, and the enduring impersonal perspective of the passing of time - so beautifully captured in the vocalist and guitarist's alias, "The Watcher".
"I watch the Crows drift across lightless skies..."
More to the point, with three robust tracks, clocking in at twenty-eight minutes in length, the scope of this EP and the depth and atmosphere of its content is rather substantial. Ancient Sorrow's highlights are strikingly resonant and lasting for such a young band's premiere, like few things I've heard before or since. Arriving in confidence,"Desolation Embraced" imposes it's reverberating warmth and cavernous howls upon bleak marshy landscapes (further explored in "The Malediction Fields"), climaxing in a memorable midsection, and finally winding back up it's earthen roads, returning home.
"The Gales Scream of Loss" pierces the air with a grave, mournful chill; it's humming, searing riffs and rousing keys paint a vast and reflective atmosphere, gradually forming a hypnotic hold over the listener. The song builds so effectively that the four minutes absent of vocals feel brief and engrossing, and three quarters through the experience, the howling wail of The Watcher will send chills down your spine. Immersive, pensive, lamenting, and bordering on emotionally exhausting, Gales is sincerely one of my favourite songs of the 2000s, and endures as a staple of the band's live setlist. By contrast, the final foreboding offering explodes with an abrasive and tumultuous edge, serving as the longest song on this outing, though doesn't keep pace with the captivating prior two tracks.
To be frank, I never expect to be blown away by an EP. EP's are typically a transitional splurge of leftover or experimental ideas bands have in between proper releases (or sometimes, in the case of this release, they're simply abridged albums). Nevertheless, Ancient Sorrow not only earns an identity of its own amidst Fen's wonderful discography, to be entirely blunt, the first two tracks are as strong, or stronger than anything from their full length debut, and some of the group's finest work to date. In summation, this EP is a compelling debut and standard to set, sowing the seeds of Fen's sound we would see blossom on future releases. Ostensibly, if not for the final track, which is neither deeply moving nor intolerable, this release would be as close to the mark of relative, thematic perfection as one could expect. The first two tracks are a "100%" experience. Needless to say, a strong recommendation and a promising outset from an exceptional group, and one of my personal favourite EPs of all time.
The Gales Scream of Loss
One could argue that Burzum created a monster many years ago when "Filosofem" was unleashed upon the underground, but it was quite an intriguing and unique one so it's difficult to complain. Naturally the rise of a very different take on black metal that would put some distance between itself and its Venom and Bathory roots would come to incorporate a number of differing influences, many of them not metal in orientation, but its usually goes back to the odd little quirks of Varg's latter music, as well as a few other unique players in the Norwegian 2nd wave, that paved the way for the melding of a noise driven post-rock character in some recent incarnations within the scene. But this hodgepodge of ambient, 70s progressive rock and modern sounds has found a recent favorite son in Fen, from the cold and dark realm of the British Isle no less.
While comparisons to Agalloch seem all but unavoidable, it's important to note a fairly different approach in Fen's take on what is almost the same hybrid style. The latter, at least insofar as "Ancient Sorrow" is concerned, doesn't seem to be as reliant upon elaborate guitar effects and rhythmic gimmicks, offering for more of a plain mixture of dissonant chords and atmospheric additives via keyboards at a few isolated points. The results music has more of a laid back, lounging character to it, though it definitely seeks for a contemplative character that isn't too far removed from the later period of Burzum's music before Varg's incarceration. The vocal character offered by The Watcher deviates from Varg's agonizing wails and opts for something a tiny bit more sinister, though it gives off a similar impression of fatalism when it finds itself amongst the surrounding sea of depressive guitar chords and slow paced drumming.
The EP format definitely serves Fen well, as their longer composing style and free-flowing structure tends to lend itself to the listener drifting off and forgetting where he is. With a greater multiplicity of songs, the motive based groove that kicks off "Desolation Embraced" would fade into the ether amid all of the surrounding musical ideas. This particular song definitely makes extensive use of the minimalist device of very gradual and subtle development of an idea, turning what would otherwise be about 4 minutes worth of material into an 8 minute epic excursion into a world of faded memories. "The Gales Scream Of Loss" takes things in a plainer direction, resorting of a very basic chord structure and a repetitive strum pattern that is rhythmically upbeat and folksy, yet mercilessly somber in its demeanor, in large part due to the droning clean vocal and keyboard backdrop. "Under The Endless Sky" finds the band back in a grooving, motive based sound with a slight progressive edge, but this time the feel is a bit more jarring and violent, as the drums exhibit some mid-90s Darkthrone tendencies with a set of mid-paced blast beats, though tempered with a continual reference to droning keyboard parts.
"Ancient Sorrow" is the sort of album that can inspire deep contemplate or just provide a captivating distraction from the frenzy of everyday life. It's music that is deliberately slow, gradual, and nostalgic, dwelling upon its themes to the fullest possible extent without becoming an infinite regression of itself. It shows a strong attentiveness to detail, particularly in how a small ensemble of instruments can be used to bolster the dimensions of the whole. Fen has since improved and further refined their sound, but they definitely hit the ground with an effortless yet powerful stride on this one.
The only thing going for this band is their cool looking logo. There is definitely nothing musically interesting about them, seeing as there have been quite a few bands doing similar sounding metal for quite some time. Two that come to mind are Agalloch, and (perhaps with more post-rock and cleaner production) Lantlos. Either way, both these aforementioned bands have a much better sound and perform this particular offshoot of black metal more effectively than Fen.
First I would like to write about production. Here we have a very fuzzy mix; to the point of almost drowning out the drums completely. Perhaps the fuzz adds to the overall atmosphere, and because it's mixed very low, the bass receives more acknowledgement for driving the melodies, but it just ends up sounding sloppy. Yes, there is quite a bit of atmosphere to this EP, but it's more due to the hazy production than anything maintained by the instruments themselves.
Drumming here is mediocre at best. The double bass portions seem very forced, and the drummer seems to have quite a difficult time keeping up with the small amount of blasting that he does in the record. The drums are mainly filtered out, or perhaps drowned out by the constant hum of bassline would be more accurate. Either way, there's a lot of crashing and hollow sounding snare rolls for fills and doesn't impress me at all.
Guitar work is pretty contrived, having a melodious (albeit unoriginal sounding riff) undertone with a high distortion-lacking overtone keeping with the post-rock flavor, and can be found in any Lantlos or Alcest album. Be that as it may, there is nothing original done here, and the riffs sound tired and boring.
There is a small amount of synth heard here, but is barely worth mentioning because it is completely drowned out by the guitars, and bass. When the band moves into a softer bridge-like melody, they are sometimes evident; or when the keyboardist decides to move to a less subtle sounding standard string arrangement, does the synth peek it's head out from behind the foggy sounding album.
Vocally, there is absolutely nothing here that can be remotely considered original. Every band that does this whole post-rock infused blackish dark metal uses the same vocals, and many of the bands have a much earlier start date than this one. Basically, it's a half whispered, half growled scream, and a smattering of whispers, and clean vocals that are about a half octave (and a bit less annoying) from where Neige usually performs...but nothing original at all.
I don't get it...Maybe I just don't have the wool pulled over my eyes, but seeing the newfound "popularity" of bands like Alcest and Agalloch, Fen just happened to want a piece of the action I guess. Problem is, this isn't a general form of black metal; where there are hundreds of thousands of basement bands and Darkthrone clones...This is a very particular and small piece of the pie. Unless there is something being done that is just mind-boggling, there really isn't much room for error when it comes to a new band entering the scene. A very fine line exists between fresh and interesting, and contrived and borderline plagerism. Anyway, I guess in my opinion this band falls more into the latter category than the former.
The EP seems to be the format of choice for new bands to showcase their developing music and songwriting skills and this particular EP "Ancient Sorrow" demonstrates in three songs the potential that UK band Fen has in creating stirring and dramatic music that draws on black metal and post-rock as its main influences. First track "Desolation Embraced" has a great deal of power and majestic range to which the cold and icy BM singing adds a sharp sculptured edge. Both clean-toned melodic guitar and harsh buzzing BM guitar are used and these tend to balance each other especially on the main riff, giving the song an uplifting and grand yet melancholic feel. This is an excellent song indeed.
"The Gales Scream of Loss' is a much more urgent song with sharp staccato jazzy drumming that makes the heart skip a beat in contrast with the continuously buzzing tremolo BM guitar and whispered BM vocals seared with evil intent against a background clean-voiced choir humming with sadness. This song is a fine example of how two genres of music contrast each other, each style bringing out the most extreme characteristics of the other style. The BM elements end up sounding extra grim and icy and the post-rock elements are warm and together give the music depth and atmosphere.
"Under the Endless Sky" is a lumbering heavy beast that incorporates fast drumming at times and now includes plaintive droning keyboards in the background while maintaining the BM elements of the previous songs. Acoustic guitar is included as well. The entire feel of the song is downcast and gloomy. Halfway through the song changes with all instruments except the BM guitar pausing for a while, then when they all resume the bass guitar starts to pursue its own melody. The percussion becomes more complex while still plodding along and the keyboard tones push to the fore. Technically this song is more involved and complex than the previous tracks and has a richer sound but is not as emotionally moving. While the drumming tends to stand out here, the riffs seem less impressive than on the other songs.
Overall this is a good glimpse of what Fen can offer at this point in their career and I do think they can offer more, especially in atmospheric and emotionally powerful BM / post-rock, than what appears on the EP. The balance between glacial BM and warm post-rock seems about right and the band exploit the contrast in the two styles well. There is scope for experimenting and manipulating the BM vocals with effects to make them more hissy and cutting so that the music can acquire a sharper edge still. It seems to me that the band may be heading in an Isis-like spacious heavy guitar direction as indicated by the third track and that would allow for many opportunities for experimental improvisation if the guys are so inclined. No doubt some very compelling music may come out of that!
Recommended to me by a friend, Fen interested me immediately due to their genre description. Tagged as 'atmospheric black metal/post-rock', Fen were always bound to attract my attention sooner or later. Thankfully, it was sooner. Only once before have I seen a band attempt to blend both black metal and post-rock. It wasn't unsuccessful, but it certainly wasn't terrific. Considering my recent love for everything post-rock, this was simply a must listen to band because i'm also an avid black metal fan, especially when it's tagged 'atmospheric'. Just my kind of music.
Anything and everything can be tagged atmospheric. It's such an easy way to label something. Generally, I like to spend time soaking up the atmosphere a band creates and I like to converse about it. Whether it was effective in what it was trying to achieve. Whether it was lifeless and dull. The possibilities are endless. Atmosphere is something Fen relies heavily on. Some might say too heavily. The main idea is to create an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere by using a vast array of instruments. In this case, it would be the keys and the strings that enhance the atmosphere laid down for the audience.
Using both keys and strings adds an air of creativity about Fen. They're not bound by stereotype, that's for sure. The keys in particular are immensely effective in laying down an atmosphere as the backbone to Fen's music. As for the atmosphere itself, it's sorrowful and is effective in conjuring up images to suit the lyrical themes. The beauty of nature in particular. Decaying landscapes. A solitary tree in the midst of a stunning visual paradise. Considering lyrics are not provided, one can only assume they delve deeper into the idea that the music portrays to it's on looking audience. The music is airy, free to roam and bask in the glory of solitude amongst nature's finest landscapes.
Fen have a habit of complimenting their own music very well. Soft distorted screams never overbear the listener. The vocals are usually a case for disparaging a band, but not in this instance. Although Fen's vocalist does add a bit more punch to his vocals, they're never loud enough to drown out the instruments on offer. At times, they change to an even softer form of choir-like spoken vocals that compliments the grace that accompanies Fen's atmosphere. More so often than not, a particular highlight of Fen's music is it's catchy essence. From that low driving bass, to the penetrating drums. It's catchy as hell. My highlight would be The Gales Scream of Loss.