Fen
Epoch

It’s 2011, and more than two decades after black metal first slithered out of the darkness, it’s still shifting and changing into surprising and unexpected new forms. Recent mutations include the rambling, crystalline majesty of Pacific Northwest acts like Agalloch or Wolves in the Throne Room, or the unexpected fusion of black metal and shoegaze, as heard in bands like Alcest, Amesoeurs, Svarti Loghin and Sorgeldom.

The UK’s Fen started off as the former, with 2009’s Agalloch-like release The Malediction Fields. And now they’ve metamorphosed into the latter with their newest, Epoch. Maybe it’s a British thing – it’s where shoegaze originated with seminal shoegaze acts (and precursors) like Slowdive, Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine.  Regardless of what motivated the shift in Fen‘s sound, I think it’s definitely a welcome evolution, as Epoch is one of the most successful examples to date for this new ‘blackgaze’ genre.

While black metal usually scrambles forward with jagged guitars and equally frantic drumming, here the aggression is mostly handled by the drums and vocals alone, leaving the guitars to melt into the keyboards, creating a lush, amorphous atmosphere. Couple that with Fen’s long, progressive songwriting, and you have an album full of immersive, haunting epics with a unique sound and character.

“Ghost of the Flood” explodes like a summer lightning storm, but one that’s diffused and blown-out through a curtain of misting rain, so that the overall effect is one of both savage and shimmering violence. The follow-up, “The Gibbet Elms,” reverses the effect – it’s a largely slower and more relaxed song, but it’s shredded by harsh, screamed vocals. Sometimes the blurring is even handled by song structure. “Half-Light Eternal” seems like it’s the album’s one classic shoegaze track (the clean vocals are much improved from Malediction, but still a touch too tremulous), but by its midpoint it too explodes into fury.

In fact, given the strength of these various sonic and structural juxtapositions, I’d say the album’s most furious moments are sometimes also their weakest and most unnecessary. “Carrier of Echoes” piles keyboard bloom atop a post-punk bassline for its first few minutes, but when the song cranks to a traditional black metal bash-fest, the riffs lose their clarity and focus. “Of Wilderness and Ruin” also has some problems when the drumming takes over and explodes into a frantic spasm – it’s simply too untamed and imprecise compared to the decadent ebb and flow that Fen has mastered on the rest of the album. I simply don’t think Fen needs these violent moments anymore, because the rest of the texture and experience here is so compelling.

It’s still amazing to me that these two odd bedfellows – black metal and shoegaze – managed to mate and create such interesting results in the first place. However, so far it seems like many bands – Alcest included – have been content to merely alternate between darkness and light, raging one moment and soothing the next. Epoch takes everything to the next level by successfully isolating and then blending the key elements of both genres in a balanced and organic way. And that’s why, despite a few jarring missteps, Epoch is a really fascinating evolution – not just for Fen, but for this new blackgaze genre in general.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
February 16th, 2011

Comments

  1. Commented by: Nick Taxidermy

    this sounds really great.


  2. Commented by: stiffy

    I’m anxious to hear this one. I just got their last album recently. They remind me of a mix between Agalloch and Altar of Plagues. Unfortunately I find the last release to be a little boring. I’m hoping this is a step up.


  3. Commented by: .W.

    not so surprising a crossbreed, given that both genres are at their respective hearts introspective (or at least introverted). good review, looking forward to a spin.


  4. Commented by: E. Thomas

    new one, Carrion skies is brilliant- much blacker


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