In tomorrow’s Editors’ Picks column (spoiler), I muse about the values of retrospectives and here I am, afforded again with the opportunity to discuss a posture or perspective that seems to inherently contradict our idea of how music is made. We’d like to think that music is this unmediated thing, relying on gut instinct and inspiration. Surely we recognize the role that skill and technicality play in great music but we’d rather ignore things like planning, rationality, or frustrating, painstaking repetition. Our image of how music is made is still linked at its core to Romanticism and we would like to imagine the creator is the genius atop their tower, struck by the lightning of inspiration, divine or otherwise.
Retrospectives are too intentional for this narrative, exposing a side of artists that doesn’t communicate in a primal fashion with music but rather stems from a sort of “meta” perspective on their own career. What frustrates our narrative of how music is made even further is that these retrospectives can create some of the more guttural, effective, and visceral music of an artist’s career. This is the case with Fen‘s Stone & Sea, an EP originally released as part of a split with Sleepwalker back in 2016. It is a clearly designed melding of Fen’s earlier sounds, which stemmed from a close connection to a primal, furious type of black metal, and the atmospheric trappings of their later career. The result, as it might frustrate those of us who would like to paint a clear and linear progression of the band’s career, is some of their most effective music to date.
Gladly, these three tracks are now facing a reissue, allowing those who aren’t diehard fans of the band enjoy them as a standalone release. This is a great thing since, as we said above, they really are excellent tracks. The shorter runtime of the EP allows this release to shake much of the main thing which ailed Winter (2017), namely its sometime awkward length and excess. Instead, the structure of this EP works perfectly, allowing a better balance between the heavier parts and the atmosphere. “Tides of Glass” opens with an almost Pink Floyd reminiscent intro before exploding into the signature riffs which marked the band’s earliest forays into black metal. The production does these heavier moments justice, while giving the ambient parts the volume boost and clarity they need to compete.
Next up is the eponymous track of the album, which serves as a sort of bridge between the opening track and the third. It’s an achingly beautiful meditation which relies mainly on the guitar for its main mode of expression, though we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the excellent percussive instruments which add weight to the end of the track. The end result is a ditty which reminds us of neo-folk ensembles like Ulvesang or the more quiet passages on Thrawsunblat‘s recent release (remember that album? Please revisit it). The transition into the aptly named “The Last Gravestone” is also masterfully handled, the main chords of that track flowing naturally from the middle of the guitar lines which occupied the majority of the connecting track.
Add on the return of beautiful, clean, choir vocals and you’re set to enjoy this album’s last moments. The heavy and the light once again mix in a brilliant way, creating a moving type of atmosphere that’s made Fen’s later career revered by many. This track also features incredibly powerful screams and yet another mode for clean singing, the reflective and powerful style showcased right after the middle of the track.
As the EP ends, we are left with a strong sensation of the band’s perspective on things, not just the usual themes of a black metal release (more than present in the well written lyrics), but also on their career and growth as musicians. In this mode, Fen are the most expressive and convincing they’ve been in years, perhaps ever; Stone & Sea then, in poetic fashion, represents a promise for the future, even as it looks towards the past. Hopefully that promise is fulfilled and Fen’s next release showcases the unique approach to atmospheric black metal that this EP begins to unfurl.
Fen’s Stone & Sea sees release on March 8th via the excellent Eisenwald Records. You can head on over here to pre-order it.