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Thawing - 86%

Larry6990, March 14th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2017, CD, Code666 Records

Winter is no longer upon us. The ice is melting and spring’s first flowers and lambs are starting to emerge. But this is black metal: Aaaiiee!! Grim, frostbitten, freeziness!! I’m unsure whether releasing an album entitled Winter is a momentous statement, or a vapid joke. It’s like a power metal band calling their new opus Dragons!* Alas, this is the decision made by English post-black stalwarts Fen; whose previous titles and lyrical themes were so introspective. The tracks on this 2017 release are helpfully titled “I”, “II”, “III”, “IV”, “V” and of course, who could forget, “VI”? It’s safe to say any insight into the concept of this album has been, at the very least, obscured. But Fen have always been masters of absorbing the listener into their cold, sorrowful atmospheres – so let’s see what this mysterious veil pulls back to reveal…

With six tracks, averaging out at around 12 minutes each, this is a lengthy endeavour (the band’s longest to date) – and Moonsorrow this ain’t! Guitarist/vocalist extraordinaire Frank has always been an excellent songwriter, and in no way do I seek to insult his abilities. But I have previously described the majority of Fen’s tracks as being structured thus: the quiet, clean-picking bit followed by the loud, black metal screaming bit – rinse and repeat – the, long fade-out bit. Such a gross oversimplification sounds immature, but you’d be surprised at its accuracy. However, Winter makes the most of the loud, black metal, screaming bit; and therefore expands said sections to encompass the majority of the album.

After the obligatory ambience, “I” successfully crafts a foreboding tone with its haunting choral chanting, until it finally bursts into a much more riff-oriented wall of sound than ever before. Much praise to the production quality for balancing everything so well, whilst retaining that characteristic murkiness. Most notably, Grungyn’s bass can be heard proudly displaying its own melodies, creating yet more layers to sink your teeth into. Frank’s vocals have matured to the point where he sounds totally in control, and able to pack an emotive punch. The amount of palm-muted guitar work is also welcome, rather than pure tremolo picking.

The highlights of this release lie at the climactic pinnacle of each piece. When the drama heightens, you feel the full effect of what Fen’s sound can create. Powerful drums; layers of dissonant, tragic guitar leads; piercing growls; and that extra mystical layer of keyboards. In the multi-faceted “V”, this climax is reached quite early on, before delving down into a quagmire of chugging riffs at the seven-minute mark. One of the best moments on the album. If you are prepared to dig deep, and I mean real deep, Winter will reward you. My initial feeling was that this was too long, even for Fen. But the more I hear, the more I discover. This is easily the best since the foggy glory of Dustwalker. Just lie back and let the darkness engulf you – even if spring has arrived. Use black metal to curb that filthy hayfever!

*Whilst writing this, I received the promo for Bloodbound’s new album: War Of Dragons