Fen – Dustwalker

Named after The Fens, a marshy region of eastern England, the post-rock meets occasional black outfit Fen emerged from the UK black metal scene in 2009 with their critically acclaimed debut Malediction Fields. Blending Enslaved inspired progressive riffs with a melodic airy soundscape proved to be quite a potent combination and really put Fen on the proverbial map almost overnight. Their follow-up, 2011′s Epoch, was somewhat darker in spirit but pulled back on the blackended raw nature of their debut for a more subdued affair. Unfortunately, because Epoch was designed as a holistic offering and not as eight discrete tracks, songs had a tendency to bleed into one other causing them to lose a bit of their identity. So despite containing some exceptionally beautiful moments, Epoch had a somewhat amorphous quality to it that had some listeners feeling a bit lost. Even the band conceded this point.

What’s interesting is that as soon as Epoch was released, writing immediately began for a new album which sought to rectify some of these issues. The culmination of this effort is their latest offering, Dustwalker. Does it succeed? Yes it does, but with a catch: Dustwalker, as the album title eludes to, explores even further the band’s post rock inklings and dreamy thematic arrangements, moving yet another nudge further away from their humble black metal beginnings. If you are looking for another Malediction Fields, this isn’t it, caveat emptor. Instead Dustwalker is a direct outgrowth of Epoch and refines not revolutionizes their core sound. But thankfully this time out, songs have a real identity to them and truly capture the spirit of the wetlands Fen was conceived from, brooding yet mysteriously beautiful.

Despite what I’ve told you thus far, opener and highlight “Consequences” pays immediate homage to their blackend roots with raspy vocals followed by a fair amount of blast beats and tremolo picking. You are then immediately captivated by Grungyn’s bass playing which provides the backbone for this 12+ minute epic. The zenith occurs right around the 7 minute mark, with a breakdown that bridges into a musical clearing where all the raw energy built up just softly fades away. Really beautiful stuff and probably my favorite Fen song to date. But even though “Consequences” is a must listen, it’s the next track, “Hands of Dust,” that really sets the tone for the rest of the album. The song begins with a beautiful melody where guitars dance around each other creating an ethereal atmosphere that has a real sense of fragility to it. Eventually it evolves or in some ways devolves into fiery black metal orthodoxy, with The Watcher almost screaming in agony at times.

“Spectre” immediately dives into full blown post-rock with more fantastic bass acting as a wonderful contrast to the Pink Floyd guitars and sound effects. The song eventually reaches its climatic shift right around the 8:00 mark where it picks up some steam to carry us to the end. “Reflections” is a short introspective interlude that ushers in the other major album highlight, “Wolf Sun.” A catchy 7 minute little (!) diddy that instantly grabs your attention and keeps you engaged throughout. The breakdown before 3:00 is spellbinding and definitely showcases Fen’s superb craftsmanship.

The album ends with two more atmospheric behemoths, “The Black Sound” and “Walking the Crowpath.” Ironically, “The Black Sound” is somewhat subdued and never really plateaus. Even with The Watcher growling at you, the music never really lashes out, but rather serves to provide pure dark ambiance. The album’s finality, “Walking the Crowpath,” returns to the bog with furious tremolo picking and a mid-section filled with Agallochian sounding monologue. Its an intense ending to an overall very enjoyable listening experience.

Dustwalker was recorded at Two Harts Studios by Barry Haynes and mixed/mastered at Shockwave Studios by leader guitarist and vocalist The Watcher. What happened? As I stated above, the bass guitar is really the true and only highlight of the mix. But I am really at a lost on what The Watcher was trying to accomplish here given the melodic nature that underscores every track. The songs have a somewhat muffled sound where the music almost feels distant and removed. And because of the copious amount of dynamic compression applied, the drums are just completely drowned out, they literally feel faded in the mix which just sounds weird. Where Dustwalker improved upon Epoch musically, it took a step back production wise.

Other than some production mishaps, this is still a step up from their last full length and firmly establish Fen’s position as one of UK’s top black metal outfits. Dustwalker is intense, dreamy, yet haunting and at times, even spiritual. For fans of Epoch, this is your album.

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