Fen - Dustwalker (2013)


When dealing with extremes, no one is as equipped and impressive as London based three piece Fen. Throughout their career, which is now going into it's seventh year, they have shown time and again that they have a penchant for taking what you expect, and giving you the opposite. Rather than follow the same path, they buck the trend of predictable tempo shifts and changes, and go from one extreme to the next, minute to minute, song to song, and album to album. With "Dustwalker," their third full length album, they take themselves even further, writing and recording an hour's worth of wild twists and turns, that will leave you scratching your head and trying to figure out how in the world the path from A to B got this complex, and this fucking good.

While the band wastes no time injecting a touch of frightening aggression on "Consequence," it is far from one dimensional. There is a melodic presence to be had, albeit a subdued one. Though it is mainly based in the guitar and low end bass work, there are fleeting moments where depressive chanting takes hold of you. Screeching vocals take most of the reps in the first half, giving way to more versatile and varied cries in the latter stages. But it is the musical accompaniment that garners most of the praise here, volleying back and forth between high speed chaos and downtrodden melodies. The latter forms the framework for "Hands Of Dust," a softly played piece of clean guitar starring in a calming introduction. It's in these more drawn out pieces that you find the most complete works, as the band allows the track to build organically from nothing into something massive in scope. A nearly four minute passage of lightly tapping drums and crooning vocals lays the ground work for the initial explosive scream. While it may be a stretch to categorize anything present here as "atmospheric," the main guitar riff does contain a certain piece of hazy quality. It is in the more raw moments where the bass work shines brightest, anchoring the entire track in a perfect, steady hand. It is a credit to the band how seamlessly they manage to go from one segment to the next, laying out a more cohesive track than simply pieces that were strung together.

As if being masters of the blackened arts weren't enough, the opening stanza of "Spectre" shows a mastery of the progressive ones as well. Sounding like a song ripped from the psychedelic seventies, you are treated to something that, from what my ear can tell, is completely fresh and new. The subtle guitar plucking and cymbal taps are the icing on a cake that is as solid as it is sweet. They somehow find a middle ground between the blistering double kicks and raw distortion, and the use of clean vocals. With a melody that is sure to remain rooted in your frontal lobe for days, this is a track to hang your hat on for any fan of heavy music. And after such a blissful awakening, it only makes sense to tie things together with a short, and simple interlude like "Reflections." The waxing and waning of sounds comes and goes, erupting into the first notes of "Wolf Sun." All of those subtleties that made the last two tracks so enticing don't go out the window, but take a back seat to some more direct musicianship. There are portions here where it would seem as though Blue Cheer has been brought back, fronted by a more mellow Varg Vikernes. The resulting combination is one to behold, throwing a barrage of drums in your general direction. It is also here that you get a true sense for the production work; a step above raw, a step below polished, it provides a very unique sound to both drums and guitars. As furious as some moments are, the outro is as delicate as you could ever get.

I hesitate to call "The Black Sound" a straightforward offering, simply because it has so many twists and turns. Just when you think you are in for a ten minute blackened doom song, you make a sharp left, and wander off into something else entirely. Softly plucked bass strings lead a whispered vocal section that is completely isolated from the screeches that precede and follow it. It is this complex web of styles that makes a ten minutes run time seem like nothing, as you float in a tide that experiences both the ebb and flow of tempos and tenacity. But it is in the outro that you find something even more special, as the harshest of screeching vocals runs hand in hand with a catchy riff. As a finale, "Walking The Crowpath"  is perfect; it leaves that lasting impression that all bands hope to achieve with their closer. But in any other context, it would still be as powerful. It serves as a microcosm for the album as a whole, showing off that uncanny ability to be grave and meaningful without being a slave to one method. It also serves as a message that black metal vocals need not be incoherent messes of raw feed distortion. There is a story in these words, one that deserves to be heard with all of the emotional value that goes into them.

If you were to read a bio of Fen, or merely skipped through the album in leaps and bounds, you might not leave the experience being overly impressed. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. There is not a wasted minute, let alone second, on "Dustwalker." At no point will you think that a song could have ended sooner, or should have been split into two or three separate tracks. It is the construction and placement that makes everything so profound. Remember, it isn't enough to stay on target within each track; you must also stay the course from song to song, to create momentum and moods. And throughout these seven tracks, this three piece do exactly that, while all the while showing that there are many faces under this moniker. Never straightforward, always intriguing, and sometimes haunting, "Dustwalker" may be one of the finest moments in the extreme metal scene in a very long time.

9/10

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