Any discourse that I’ve had regarding ‘post-black metal’ doesn’t last long without me bringing up Fen‘s second album, Epoch. The popular belief seems to be that their debut, The Malediction Fields, was a better record, but I stand by Epoch not only as Fen’s best release, but one of the (if not the) greatest post-black album ever made. To me, it was the fusion of precise songwriting and sonic vastness; whereas most bands would be lucky to succeed at one or the other, Fen were a rarity. To date, Epoch is one of that handful of albums that still begs me to listen to it, years after I first heard it.
There’s no denying that unbeatable precedent which has weighed heavily on the way I received Dustwalker, Epoch‘s 2013 successor, and now Carrion Skies. At first I loved Dustwalker, but a lacklustre B-side has since dimmed my approval. I don’t mean to infer that Carrion Skies is a bad album by any means, but with Fen’s latest, my strongest reaction is one of disappointment for the widening schism between my idealized imagining of Fen and the work they’ve actually been doing. Yet, Carrion Skies deserves to be heard; its merits nonetheless outreach its less subjective shortcomings, and though it falls short of the consistency and excellence I keep hoping to hear from this potentially world-class act, there are more than enough flashes of brilliance on the album to excuse Fen’s less inspired moments.
In most senses, Carrion Skies represents a continuation of the approach and execution of Dustwalker. Once again, Fen are blessed with a pleasantly ‘earthy’ production, perhaps a nip murkier than Dustwalker, conjuring swampy images of The Fens for which the band was so-named. If Epoch represented the aether and Dustwalker evoked earthly hardiness, let Carrion Skies be seen as their swampy equivalent; earth marred with the muddling effect of water. These superfluous associations with nature are unnecessary and pedantic, but it’s only to Fen’s credit that the images are evoked in the first place.
Musically, Carrion Skies is perhaps more riff-based than its predecessors, but the sound is instantly recognizable. Atmospheric black metal (with muddy reverb aplenty) and effective post-rock segues are once again the breadwinners of Fen’s style. I might have hoped to hear some greater stylistic innovations over the course of four albums, but with a rare blessing of an already-identifiable style, switching things up is by no means an immediate concern for Fen. As such, most of my thoughts relating to the execution of Carrion Skies could just as well be transposed to any of their other works. I am usually as impressed by The Watcher‘s snarled vocals as much as I’m impressed by their surroundings. If the given passage feels evocative and purposeful, chances are the vocals will strike me the same way; ditto for whenever they dawdle. Fen’s vocals (perhaps save for the effete cleans, about which I’ve had mixed views throughout their career) sound rightly placed in their black metal setting, although his aggressive delivery places The Watcher more along the lines of John Haughm‘s (Agalloch) rasp than the average basement shrieker.
For better or worse and with the exception of the first and last tracks, I remember the songs on Carrion Skies for particularly strong passages rather than the composition as a whole. The bending guitar part at the bass-heavy intro to “Our Names Written in Embers Part 2” is very good. The mid-section of “Sentinels” has great lead riffs and a cleverly atmospheric use of clean vocals. The build-up of “The Dying Stars” (accented with a brilliantly effective pick slide as the vocals emerge) possibly stands as the best passage on Carrion Skies. Even the post-rock introduction (a trope usually handled by bands with the same somnolent attitude with which they would approach wallpaper and how-to knitting videos) feels driven and motivated. With that excellent momentum, it’s a shame that “The Dying Stars” seems to lose focus shortly thereafter, diving into a sleepy post-rock segue and re-emerging like a different song altogether. I get that impression from many of the songs here. There are masterpiece-worthy ideas here, but the songs they’re part of are rarely perceptive enough to make full use out of them.
“Our Names Written in Embers Part 1” is a memorable track; nowhere near as powerful as Dustwalker‘s respective opener (and one of my favourite Fen tunes) “Consequence”, but it’s one such track with a pleasantly defined beginning, middle, and end. However, nothing on the album could prepare me for “Gathering the Stones”. This track brings me back to the shock and awe I felt with Alcest‘s “Deliverance” earlier this year, a spectacular end to an otherwise underwhelming album. The central motif is run through a series of stages, each one more enticing than the last. It’s a gorgeous monument that highlights Fen’s skills with melody and atmosphere alike. Unlike much of the album, “Gathering the Stones” identifies its best ideas and actually fucking sticks to them. Whereas the rest of the album was generally a frustration in that regard, “Gathering the Stones” sees it realized beautifully. This is the Fen I wanted to hear. If anything, it goes to show that Fen’s potential can be seen on every album; the resulting quality of each album is determined by how much of the album is defined by that potential.
In more ways than one, I’ve linked this album to the recent fare by Agalloch, The Serpent & The Sphere. Not only do the bands overlap stylistically (they’ve toured together, if I’m not mistaken); in both cases I expected masterpieces in keeping with their past work, and both times the result was an otherwise solid album that fell short of the game-changer I was hoping for. Carrion Skies is the least impressive album from Fen so far, and in a sense, saying that should only serve to emphasize what a strong career they have had up until now.
01) Our Names Written in Embers Part 1 (Beacons of War)
02) Our Names Written in Embers Part 2 (Beacons of Sorrow)
03) The Dying Stars
05) Menhir – Supplicant
06) Gathering the Stones