It must surely be time to come up with a more apposite and informative description of the kind of music that Fen play than ‘post-black metal’. While there are still undeniable links between the contents of Dustwalker and the various strains of black metal that have cast a shadow on the metal underground over the last 25 years, this band have now moved so far away from that genre – particularly in aesthetic and atmospheric terms – that simply proclaiming them to be resident on the next musical stepping stone along seems rather unfair.
There are moments here, particularly during furious opener Consequence, that make it plain that Fen still feel a kinship with metal’s malevolent wing, but the prevailing mood of the Brits’ third studio album is one of melancholic warmth, poignancy and ethereal grandeur, influenced far more by the mist-shrouded meta-rock of My Bloody Valentine, the elemental surge of Swans and maybe even the heat haze art rock of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr (the languid melodies and fuzzy clangour of Wolf Sun sound like something dreamt up by J Mascis in one of his more lucid moments) than by anything frostbitten or thematically feral.
Perhaps uniquely among their UK peers, Fen are only nominally tethered to black metal at all: it’s their starting point, perhaps, but no more essential to their sound than the slide guitar that drifts majestically through the fog of riffs on the sublime Hands Of Dust or the vast wall of shoegaze shimmer that underpins the genuinely beautiful Spectre.
Parallels drawn between Fen’s previous album, Epoch, and the surreal, ambience-laden bombast of Primordial, recent Enslaved and even the likes of Cult Of Luna and A Storm Of Light make even more sense here; the key to these often overwhelming mêlées of dark and light, aggression and gentleness, quiet and cacophony, is that every evolutionary step along the road of these songs feels entirely natural and unforced. Breaking new ground is not a worthwhile goal in itself; Fen are not trying to be clever, this is just how they feel and they are consistently disarming in their lack of aesthetic hang-ups.
The stuttering drum figure that emerges towards the end of The Black Sound is a case in point. Disorientating and at odds with the warmth of the dissonant cocoon that surrounds it, it sounds not unlike the mischievous spirit of invention tapping against the window of the studio control room, before it vanishes as quickly as it appeared as the stormy rush of the song’s epic denouement rages on. Peaking with the stunning 13-minute Walking The Crowpath, Dustwalker paints Fen as fearless explorers and men enchanted by the limitless possibilities of their own amorphous artistic urges.
In an age where a great deal of metal lacks any semblance of mystery or atmosphere, an album that cherishes and propagates those qualities with such alacrity and skill is something to be admired and embraced. Not the new black, then, but a burst of colour yet unseen.