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Chapter 8 – A Winter For The Soul - 94%

The Nemeton, March 17th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2017, 2CD + 2 12" vinyls, Code666 Records (Limited edition, Deluxe edition)

“My sight returns as from a dream
A dream empty of thoughts and sounds and visions
And I remember it being one of the most beautiful places I had ever been
I had never before that point known such peace
A winter for the spirit…”

Under the gifted and caring hand of the prolific producer, Jaime Gomez Arellano (Altar Of Plagues, Primordial, and Ulver, to name only a few), the de jure leaders of British atmospheric black metal have returned – Winter is coming (forgive me, how could I not)! After Fen’s previous two superb efforts, 2013’s “Dustwalker”, and 2014’s “Carrion Skies”, three years (and a wonderful, overlooked split album) later, the group return with the daunting, existential tour de force: “Winter”.

Arellano, overseeing the recording, mastering, and mixing of the album, has guided Fen to their most brilliantly mixed production to date, the intricacies and subtleties of which must be returned to numerous times with vigilance to fully appreciate. The engineering is dark, crisp, full, audibly balanced, and smoothly adjoined. Having purchased the collector’s edition, as best as I can tell, Derwydd was still providing drums for a majority of this record, so a final farewell and job well done, as well as a warm welcome to Havenless! Finally, respectful condolences to the loss of a personal friend of the band, Barry Haynes, whom this album is dedicated to - “Winter is dedicated to all who have lost, and to those claimed by the end of life’s own winter.”

“A wanderer become mourner, one whose spirit now thrums
To the resonant howls of the ancient dead
And I cry for them with each step
I bleed for them, I howl for them…”

Winter is a seventy-five minute interconnected piece, partitioned into 6 primary movements; the experience guides the listener through a journey of self-reflection, internal conflict, psychological and religious symbolism, and ultimately confronts mortality, metaphorically and physically embracing death. Winter is largely driven by its rhythm section, it’s warm bass, and thundering, deft percussion work are the vital pulse throughout this journey. Winter explores the overarching vast, bleak soundscapes of the snow-swept Fenlands, seeking catharsis from life’s regrets, with an ear to the ground for the long-forgotten voices of the past. The story begins in earnest with the mesmerizing ascension of the titanic, seventeen minute opener, “Pathway”, establishing the tone for this mournful peregrination through Britain’s marshy soils. Fen’s tasteful and dexterous understanding of light-dark dynamics, build, swelling, and culmination , are as remarkable as we’ve come to expect, and evermore natural with each subsequent release, however, the interconnected nature of this record sees the band presenting their post-rock compositions in a less exhaustively climactic format.

Due to the considerable length of the album, as well as the necessity to listen to each track in the context of the full experience, Fen are careful not to overwhelm the listener with each song, and thus craft a broader experience that requires patience and familiarity from the individual. The benefit of this direction is that Winter is a carefully crafted, superlative theater of the mind, and an introspective soundscape of imagery and emotional escapism. The demands of this direction are that Winter is a meandering course, engaging the listener throughout, however – due to each respective track not being individually constructed in-and-of-itself – never quite peaking with the immediacy that many listeners may implicitly demand of music. One is confronted. Either the listener is willing to accept the artists’ design, or they choose to hold their own subjective preferences against the experience – neither of which ultimately addresses the quality of the content itself.

The rousing outro of the opener sets the stage, as the character approaches the monolithic (psychological and literal) Cathedral, which sees the band’s first ever music video release: “Penance”. Winter’s (impressively) minimal shortcomings are largely a product of meandering midsections that bloat a couple of the latter tracks, which are otherwise interwoven with rich, provocative segments. Fen display a firm grasp of what appropriate degree they should challenge the listener, and when they should offer respite, carrying the journey along with a careful balance of grace and force, making the otherwise intimidating album duration a considerably immersive and overall smooth experience. Highlights include the pensive majesty of “Fear”, and the stirring surrender of “Sight”. For the few and the proud, those who purchased the collector’s edition were treated to the triumphant retrospection of “The Keening Soils”, wherein the character makes peace with the hardships of his life, and embraces his place amongst the forgotten fallen of his kin.

“For I am now one with these voices
I am their shield, their banner, their herald
My realm is here, my refuge found…”

Winter further solidifies Fen’s de facto ascension to the forefront of British black metal. As much as this album is the tasteful stylistic synthesis that Fen has built their ethos around, it is, for all intents and purposes, primarily a black metal album; doom metal aesthetics and lyrics are explored heavily (complete with the elegant, melodic outro of “Interment”), and the wonderful post-rock structure that Fen have long since refined is present and purposeful, however, Winter is unequivocally darker, colder, fiercer, and more morbid than anything the band has done to date.

With the band's expressed desire to reclaim their roots, the interplay of dynamics, the deeply subjective, diary-like lyrics, and the aesthetics and landscape explored in the music video itself, one could certainly make the case that Winter is, in some capacity, a spiritual successor to the genre-beloved premiere, “The Malediction Fields”. On the whole, Winter is certainly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, this however is no strike against the album, as this was an entirely deliberate artistic decision, and the overall experience, while demanding patience, is replete with brilliance, carefully paced, and crafted with the discretion and preparation of a year and a half of writing on the part of the band. Winter is a grower, and, like so much of this wonderful group’s work, rewards those who return and immerse themselves in the layered atmosphere of its vivid expanses. Winter is coming.

“I surrender
I descend
I dissolve
I end.”

Recommended Tracks:
The Keening Soils*

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