After what seems like an eternity, but in actuality three years, Fen have returned with the successor to their 2014 full length release “Carrion Skies”, with the magnificent opus that is “Winter”. I’ve been a fan of Fen for a very long time, and throughout their career as a band seen them subtly evolve and mature into one of the most interesting black metal outfits in the UK today.
“Winter” sees the addition of new drummer Havenless, with long-standing skin-basher Derwydd departing due to a change in his circumstances. The accompanying record company blurb notes that the band, via frontman “The Watcher” have said of the platter,

“With ‘Winter’ we wanted to ‘return to the roots’ of the band so to speak but not in the clichéd, nostalgic way many bands do – instead, we wanted this record to represent the ‘essence’ of Fen in terms of tone, atmosphere and above all concept. This album therefore very much describes a journey towards sanctity and redemption across a landscape steeped in mystery, hints of forgotten darkness and sorrows long since drowned in the distant past. It represents the culmination of over 18 months of writing and rehearsing, pushing ourselves harder and harder as musicians – it is a lengthy and self-indulgent record for which we make no apology for. Indeed, it is a fitting tribute to mark ten years of the existence of Fen.

If you, as a band, put out something in your promotional material that is so honest, especially regarding the self-indulgent aspects of making your music, then you’d best have the belief and the ability to be able to back up the hyperbole. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that “Winter” is the best work of their career. I guess I am bit spoiled, perhaps biased, by actually living in the fens for the last twenty or so years, and therefore when the music is supposed to represent the wholly special, bleak and at times terrifying landscapes of the area, I’m in a pretty good position to be able to say whether or not they achieve that goal. To outsiders, of course, the fens are a source of amusement and ready comedy. Encounter the landscapers, however, in the true bleakness of the winter, and you will struggle to find a more bleak and isolating expression of nature through the whole country.

“Winter”, pretentious though it is at times, (the six songs here are presented with titles marked by numerals, and then with a single word in brackets), is an astounding listening journey. As I often do with my album reviews, I use my 90 minutes each way commute through some of the flattened Lincolnshire countryside to absorb the music. The flow of the album is absolutely outstanding. There are elements here that reach for genres far beyond the confines of black metal, though the spine of the music is absolutely informed by that blue print. Quiet moments of introspection, verging (thankfully not lingering) on shoe-gaze and introspective rock, along with some atmospheres that bring to mind the better moments of the mid-career Anathema oeuvre collide to provide true senses of dynamism and music.

While it’s hard to separate any particular band member here, I have to say that drummer Havenless has been an especially astute addition to the alchemy, with some truly jaw-dropping work on “II (Penance)”, though bassist Grungyn also displays some career highlight bottom-end work. As an album, “Winter” really does reward repeated listens to the whole album in one sitting. In a time where music is split apart, “good” tracks removed and placed on playlists to appease those with attention spans no longer than four minutes, that makes it an almost unique prospect. The tracks work as movements within the greater whole, and for that I am most grateful. This is also, by far, the clearest and most mature the band have ever sounded from a production point of view, with a really masterful sound that manages to provide enough light and shade without sacrificing the harder edge that Fen need when the going gets savage.

This should be the album that finally propels Fen to where they should be regarded; towards the top of the intelligent takes on what black metal can be, and therefore nestled alongside genre giants like Primordial, and fellow British purveyors of texture and tone, Winterfylleth. As for my final take? Well, though it seems like a crude thing to say about a work of art like this, it’s clear that “Winter” is going to be on my end of year list. Simply put, it’s unmissable.

(9/10 Chris Davison)