I don’t think there’s music more suited for the winter months than atmospheric black metal. Each year, as the weather gets colder and the snow builds to less-than-comfortable levels, a nice spin through an Alcest, Panopticon, or Wolves in the Throne Room record gives my heart the appropriate amount of warm-yet-icy feels that only this type of music can provide. The music of London’s Fen falls into this same category, and I’ve been a fan for a while now. Hell, they even have an album entitled Winter for Pete’s Dragon. The band do atmospheric black metal as good as anyone in the game, and their latest record, The Dead Light, may be their most stirring mission statement yet.
While I cannot point to an album in the band’s back catalog that I dislike, the aforementioned Winter served as a unique entry in their discography. Upon first listen, the record’s anthemic, epic approach to the genre (while somehow never losing a defined sense of intimacy) made it my favorite record the band had yet produced. But time, like with most things, somewhat eroded that perspective. A significant factor in this gradual decrease in my enjoyment was, quite honestly, the album’s length. Sitting through well over an hour’s worth of material on the regular is a cumbersome affair, and Winter’s girth significantly dampened my enthusiasm regarding its incredible musical highs. The Dead Light, thankfully, highlights a band that has learned from its excesses, clocking in at under an hour and just about a full 20 minutes shorter than its predecessor. This makes for a leaner, more direct listening experience that highlights the band’s incredible musical abilities considerably.
Opener “Witness” re-establishes Fen’s atmospheric proclivities right off the bat, churning out a widescreen mantra that creates a doomy, triumphant air that the band will latch onto throughout the record. The production on The Dead Light is absolutely fantastic, and “Witness” displays all its intricacies and textures perfectly. The bass thrums clearly in the mix, the drums pop with appropriate weight, and the guitars feel as if they could ascend straight to heaven constantly. This type of production work amplifies everything necessary for an album of this epic a scope to succeed, so hat’s off to the team behind the board here. The album kicks into high gear in its subsequent two-part title tracks, which showcase the band’s proggier side with some of their most rock-and-roll riffs to date. It’s a fantastic opening to the record that combines a whole lot of metallic elements into something that is both deeply satisfying and ridiculously entertaining. Which, honestly, is just about how I’d describe the record as a whole.
Say what you will about Fen’s direction as a black metal band, but it’s almost impossible to deny that they write some of the most emotionally affecting music in the genre today. “Nebula” is simply gorgeous, showcasing the band’s significant range as vocalists as well as their ability to write poignant riffs that still pack a punch. “Labyrinthine Echoes” is no less potent, delivering on the promise established in the early going of the record with a titanic, diverse track that certainly stands with the best the band have yet written. But it’s not all sad beauty in CinemaScope. For those worried about the band’s continued ability to bring the black metal, fear not. “Breath of Void” brings Fen back to its blacker roots, though as always that intensity is filtered through an Astronoidal emotional prism that keeps the music from falling too deeply into the depths of total despair. All of this emotive ebb and flow congeals in closer “Rendered In Onyx”, which unsurprisingly combines the band’s sonic highlights into one continuous atmoblack smorgasbord that will surely leave listeners both satisfied and craving more. Exactly as it should.
The Dead Light is a powerful, deeply considered and expertly performed statement by a band that has little left to prove. Their comfort as musicians is obvious, but their continued adventurousness as songwriters keeps them an ever-fresh voice in the crowded world of atmospheric black metal, and one of its most convincing and intelligent practitioners. I will continue to give The Dead Light the space and time it deserves on my black metal playlists, and if you decide to embark on this epic sonic journey I have no doubt that you’ll feel the same. A superb outing.
The Dead Light is out now via Prophecy Records, and is available for streaming and purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.