[Album Review] Fen Deliver a Prog-Black Shimmer of 'The Dead Light'

Named for the marshy Fenlands region in their native England, Fen specializes in post-black metal and shoegaze. To quote the band’s MySpace profile, they “draw the listener into a windswept and desolate landscape, bereft of hope.” After two EPs, the band released their first album The Malediction Fields in 2009. Their follow-up Epoch drew widespread acclaim, landing them glowing reviews in many leading publications, as well as several festival performances.

Their sixth album, The Dead Light, is grand in its bleakness, extensive in its dread. Employing a progressive twist on black metal, with layers of post-metal and shoegaze poured in, it is a crushing, rendering listen, perhaps one left untouched by casual metal fans. Moments of splendor are soon overtaken by despair, building up hope only to break it down in a moment’s notice. As such, though not an easy listen, it is a worthwhile one.

“Witness” sets the bar in its own time, starting off with clean guitars, before the bass guitar doubles the passage. The drums come in quietly, with a minimal presence at first, but still contributing to the slow burn that picks up speed as clean guitars give way to overdriven guitars and their octave riffing. By minute four, the vocals come into play, subverting expectations by bringing several voices with melodic clean vocals, rather than a singular wailer as one might anticipate. Is a six minute album intro a bit much? Maybe, but if it’s done well, damn the runtime.

Part one of the title track adds a prog-sounding edge, like Rush by way of Emperor. The drum fills play around with genre tropes and expectations, and as such are a breath of fresh air for what is usually air in which one can see one’s own breath. Part two serves as a purely instrumental addendum, adding notes of psychedelia into play. Taken as a whole, this is ten and a half minutes of expansive extreme music, and it’s time well-spent.

“Nebula” sees some great guitar work, and some galloping bass lines before plunging right into the core of black metal country. If you’re not used to prominent bass guitar in your black metal, this one might catch you off-guard, but stay tuned for the soundscapes that it helps paint. The ten-minute marathon that is “Labyrinthine Echoes” is a mid-tempo exploration with what must be some improvisation thrown in. From bass-only sections to phaser pedals ahoy, to the thumping drums in the final section, there is a lot to unpack, but yet it doesn’t feel as long as it actually is.

If you’ve been waiting for the blast beats to barrel down the midway, then come “Breath of Void,” you’ll be getting your wish. This might be the least experimental or most traditional black metal track on the record, as it goes full speed ahead without deviating too much from the time-tested formula. “Exsanguination” breaks the skin just enough to create a flow, starting off mellow. Guitar arpeggios ring out over a jazzy bass line, and the other major highlight from this track is what I can only describe as whisper growls. Does this count as ASMR? Can this qualify as ASMR? It’s a bit sensory overload, but in the best way.

Finally, “Rendered in Onyx” goes back and forth and back again between the beautiful guitar passages and the most violent of black metal riffing. It rides the razor’s edge masterfully, much like the whole of this album, and ends as it began, with a mesmerizing clean guitar passage and bass line. Say what you will about traditional black metal, but when a band can turn it on its ear and expand on it, it makes for a great listen, and Fen have provided us with such with The Dead Light. The hype behind these post-genre Englishmen and their music is well-earned.

The Dead Light is available via Prophecy Productions.