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Fen keeps proving more and more that they are the best metal band I've discovered in the past three years or so. That may not say much, because I haven't been getting into metal as much as I used to 5-10 years ago. However, each one of their releases, hands down, blissfully surprises and captivates me. I get hopelessly hooked on it for weeks, if not months, as if no other music existed on Earth.
I think Fen are some of the best at merging two completely different genres and making it sound easy and natural, while somehow ending up with a sound that's completely different from both genres. I'm talking about black metal and post-rock, but wait. Some metal fans hate the term post-rock, I know. I only use the term because I can't really think of anything more appropriate. I'm referring mainly to their experimental, complex, long, winding style of songs - maybe this is actually more similar to progressive rock. Seriously, while they "mix" both of those genres, it sounds like neither of them at all. Agalloch is probably the most similar band I can think of, but they really don't sound like them too much either. I guess I can hear sort of a "sludge" sound hidden in there too, like Isis and Pelican. In fact, I would say they sound much more like those bands than your traditional black metal bands like Emperor, etc.
This really is one of the most atmospheric metal albums I own without any cheesiness. I really feel like I'm on a rocky coast with waves crashing, under an ultra-gloomy, overcast sky and rain pouring down nonstop. I have a tendency to listen to Fen on rainy days, but that doesn't mean it's some ultra-depressing cheesy Goth metal or anything. The sound here is very organic, and remains very heavy despite all the atmospheric parts, which seem more like jam-session type segues at times. It's amazing what they can do with only guitars, bass, and drums; there are no keyboards here like on the past two albums, but I don't miss them. Anyway, this is easily one of the best albums of the year, and one of the best bands of the decade.
Around this time two years ago, Fen offered its second record to date, "Epoch". Adorned with an inconspicuous blue cover and coming from a band I had then-heard very little about, I would never had predicted that it would become one of the most powerful experiences I'd ever had with metal overall, let alone any of the specific sub-genres listeners claim the band fit into. Boasting a style fusion of atmospheric black metal and post-rock popularized by some North American bands (namely Wolves in the Throne Room and Agalloch), Fen put their own twist on the tried-and-true formula, evoking an atmosphere like few I'd ever heard before. To this day, I've considered "Epoch" one of the greatest black metal albums to come out of the contemporary period, and it comes as no surprise, then, that "Dustwalker" was, and still is an album that inspires quite a bit of excitement in me. Although it may still be too early to tell how "Dustwalker" will ultimately stand against its near-perfect predecessor, I can't think of a better album to have started 2013 on. It's a rich, darkly beautiful exploration of the feelings between hope and despair, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's just as impressive by year's end.
Especially considering the effect "Epoch" has had on me, it's only natural to have approached "Dustwalker" wondering how it would stand up to the one before. Although albums have been cut from the same proverbial cloth, there is the sense that Fen wished to reinvent themselves here, however subtle the changes may be. While "Epoch" gave the impression of an air, or aether-based album, "Dustwalker" offers an earthier experiences. Many of the superfluous background synths have been taken out of the mix, now replaced by a greater focus on clean guitar tones. Although the emotional emphasis on melancholia and sober reflection has never faltered within Fen's formula, the way they convey the atmosphere feels far for natural. Rather than "Epoch"s experience of soaring lonesome over a dark forest, "Dustwalker" plants you beneath the tree canopy, looking from the roots up and feeling all the more insignificant as a result.
As one may imagine, Fen's black metal aspect has become grittier with this earthy atmosphere and production. Even so, Fen's style seems more rooted in post-rock aesthetic than ever. Although the distorted guitar tones have been kept true to organic form, there's nothing about the sound that grinds against the ears; it's a rare case where I would call a black metal album beautiful from the classical aesthetic. Much like Fen's past work however, "Dustwalker" enjoys a fair deal of cinematic complexity birthed by an influence in progressive rock. Most of these tracks linger around the ten minute mark, and there are ideas enough to keep each of them vibrant and engaging throughout. Among these, the first three tracks ("Consequence", "Hands of Dust", and "Spectre") are the best things the album has to offer. "Consequence" takes a more progressive approach to songwriting than previously seen from the band, whereas the second and third opt for a slower-paced, 'cinematic' feel. "Spectre" may very well be the greatest thing Fen have ever done, opening with warm acoustics and brittle-yet-tender clean vocals, before ultimately building up into an almighty climax that has never lost any of its staying power. The second half of the album follows a similar stylistic direction, but it never feels quite as memorable and emotionally perfect as the first three tracks.
Although it has higher highs than "Epoch", "Dustwalker" is not quite as consistent as its predecessor. Regardless, Fen have successfully innovated their sound just enough to make this album take on a life of its own. It will be curious to see if any other atmospheric black metal band this year is able to knock off Fen off of their early throne. Ultimately, it will be up to time to decide where the album stands, but it's rare that an album leaves such an immediate, yet lasting impact on me. 2013 is now upon us, and it is sounding incredible.