originally written by Chris McDonald
It’s becoming increasingly marketable in the metal scene to have that catchy label to apply to your band’s sound for the Internet hordes to lap up. Projects that pay homage to varying musical styles can often gain recognition largely based on the variety of their influences; bands like Opeth, Akercocke, and Unexpect come to mind. Not to say that these bands have achieved this status solely because of their unusual blend of metal with other genres (far from it), but when you think about it, would Akercocke have gotten the same level of popularity they currently possess if they had concentrated solely on their black/death segments from the onset? Would Enslaved have achieved their legendary reputation if they had never progressed out of the traditional black metal template of their early period?
I bring this up because young U.K. collective Fen have attracted a similar interest from genre nerds since the release of their debut EP Ancient Sorrow in 2007, thanks to their innovative blend of atmospheric black metal with doom, folk, and post rock influences. Post black metal? Sure, why not. What’s really important is that Fen’s remarkable blend of shimmering black metal with ethereal atmospheric elements is so refreshing in its originality and stunning in its execution that any and all attempts at merely labeling the sound seem utterly insignificant.
Epic, sorrowful black metal constitutes the backbone of The Malediction Fields, but Fen use the intensity and ambience of this genre merely as the foundation for a much richer, more diverse sonic palette. While the raw urgency of the vocals and the tragic riffs bear similarities to the works of Wolves In The Throne Room, there is just as prominent an Agalloch influence in the somber acoustic guitar segments, depressive melodies, and distant clean vocals. The post rock elements are not overstated or gimmicky, showcased more in the passages of densely layered clean guitar melodies and the spacey, ethereal vibe of the album as a whole. But the greatest strength of Fen’s work here is not the record’s myriad of stylistic influences, it’s how all thoughts of dissection and categorization of the sound fly right out the window once the true nature of the album begins to reveal itself.
The Malediction Fields is nothing less than a shining example of depth and cohesion in songwriting. While all of these songs are undoubtedly eclectic in their construction, each track is so skillfully and honestly composed that every stylistic element feels not only well conceived, but utterly essential to the song’s ultimate whole. The music is dense and complex, even progressive, but never feels overly calculated. The guitars, while critical, are but a mere fraction of the whole sonic picture that Fen paints. When a melody is played, it is truly played and contributed to by the entire band; when a more intense segment hits, it likewise hits with the complete impact of four talented musicians who share a common artistic goal. The drum work serves effortlessly to guide the other instruments through the alternating soft and hard segments, keeping everything in balance through tasteful time changes and a non-commanding presence in the mix. Nimble (and audible) bass playing lends an almost jazzy feel to the more post-rock sounding passages, while the variety of keyboard sounds (from tinkling piano to grandiose orchestration) adds to the organic, dreamy atmosphere that unifies the record and elevates the material at hand far beyond a mere collection of riffs and figures.
I could go on and on praising the compositional and instrumental talents of this band, but ultimately it is Fen’s ability to forge a true emotional connection that makes The Malediction Fields such an amazing album. The elegant interplay of blasting black metal with uplifting epic marching in opener “Exile Journey,” the mesmerizing acoustic ambience and explosive climax of “The Warren,” the swirling, misty melodies of “A Witness To The Passing Of Aeons”; all bear the ability to communicate with the listener in a manner that rivals some of metal’s most luminous projects (Negura Bunget, Agalloch, Neurosis). Only a truly callous soul could deny the sheer heartstring-tugging power of a song like “Colossal Voids,” which guides the listener on a dark but enlightening voyage through gorgeous acoustic strumming, warm keyboards, and hauntingly alluring singing. The closing two tracks, comprised of the compelling blackened riffs and orchestral keyboards of “Lashed By Storm” and the trudging despair of the monumental “Bereft” make for such a stirring and beautiful conclusion to the album that it can almost be too much to take in one sitting. While Fen are, first and foremost, a metal band, they never exploit the more aggressive aspects of their sound to avoid having to put actual feeling into the music, or the softer aspects to feign diversity. I don’t really know how else to put this, but everything just sounds completely… right.
Music with this level of depth and innovation would be a triumph for a band five or six records into their career; the fact that this is Fen‘s debut full-length makes the fiery passion and top-notch instrumental chemistry displayed here all the more remarkable, and the prospects of this outfit all the more exciting. This record is not flawless, but the few minor criticisms that can be summoned (occasionally shaky clean vocals, a slightly overly-abrasive drum mix) seem so pithy when taken into the context of the album as a whole that I’m hesitant to mention them at all. I can think of nothing more to say in praise of this recording, except that The Malediction Fields is a breathtaking work that absolutely requires attention from all who are reading this review, and I continue to find new things to love about it every time I sit down for a listen.