'I thought I’d try to coincide this review with the review of Mitochondrion’s massive Parasignosis, in part because they will both more than likely end up on my 2011 year-end list (unless they both succumb to the curse of the early release), but also because they are so drastically different. Oh, and also to annoy you readers that bitched about Agalloch’s Marrow of the Spirit being the Metal Review album of the year in 2010.
Those that heard and enjoyed 2009's Malediction Fields from these UK fenny (people from the fens might enjoy that term of endearment) metalheads will of course note that Fen culled deeply from the organic, vaguely post-rock-imbued grey metal played by Agalloch, Ironwood, Castevet, Wolves in the Throne Room and Bergtatt-era Ulver, and that has changed little on the band's second effort, Epoch.
So now that the Agalloch haters have left, it’s obvious from Epoch, that Fen is in fact the UK's answer to Agalloch. They're not as pagan or Heraldic as country mates Winterfylleth or Wodensthrone (who share their keyboard player with Fen), but they are a typically multi-hued affair mixing somber acoustics and atmospherics with rangy, jangly bursts of black metal complete with distant rasps and suitably moody clean vocals.
Call it pretentious, artistic, or even argue if its black metal, but regardless, Epoch easily hovers around the brilliance of Marrow of the Spirit, and thusly is equally divisive. Each of the 8 lengthy songs (6 -11 minutes) ebb and flow with an often languid tapestry of melancholy acoustics and a croon often broken up by damp black metal riffs and shrieks. It’s not about catchy riffs or sing-along choruses or even songs -- Epoch is about mood and atmosphere. It’s about a musical, organic link with nature, an internal oneness derived through another’s art. Though less frosty than Marrow of the Spirit, but mistier, the similarities are obvious: after mood setter “Epoch”, simply check “Ghost of the Fog” which unexpectedly explodes much like “Into the Painted Grey”. From there, the album is a magnificent journey that treads lightly but firmly. “The Gibbets Elms” is a wispy, willowy affair with some nice vocal interplay that never peaks despite the promise of doing so. “Of Wilderness and Ruin” starts with some surprisingly deep harsh vocals and spoken words before a long-overdue black metal tangent -- a very impressive one to boot, but it's par for the course, being short-lived as a more shimmery mid-paced throng closes the track.
By now, chances are, you are or are not sold on the album, so describing the next four tracks, which essentially follow the same template is relatively moot and a strain on my already numb fingers. But be aware -- there is a little more black metal in the album's latter half. Still, you’ll either find it dreary or enthralling -- not enough metal or not enough ambiance. For me, the balance on each track is perfect, as demonstrated on the remaining tracks like the beautiful standout “Half Light Eternal” and Smiths/Cure strains of “Carrier of Echoes” and epic closer “Ashbringer”.
I’m still not a huge fan of the clean vocals, which was my only real gripe with Marrow of the Spirit, but as in that case, they fit into the entirety of the whole record. And the synths are sometimes a bit too …symphonic and peppy. I feel they would have better presented far more understated, if at all. But with improved drumming and production and such wonderfully evocative songwriting, those are minimal gripes on what is a sure-fire Top 10 of 2011 contender.
The funny thing is -- and this really isn’t music related, but more of a musing: As someone who grew up in the fens of East Anglia, a band called Fen playing such beautiful and artistic music is something of an oxymoron, as I remember the fens being a drab, flat rural shithole full of inbred people with terrible indecipherable dialects. It’s hardly the majestic, mysterious landscapes that Fen supposedly culls as the influence with their music. Luckily, Fen hardly invoke the town of Chatteris and its inhabitants.'