Album Type: Full LengthDate Released: 10/03/2017
Label: Code666 Records
When this album is on fire, which is often, it’s absolutely some of the best atmospheric black metal you’ll hear this year. While the build to those big moments can be over-stretched, the payoff is absolutely worth the wait. But even when accounting for its biggest flaw, I believe that ‘Winter’ will end up as one of the year's best albums. There’s simply too much fantastic material here to be denied.
‘Winter’ CD//DD//LP track listing:
1. I (Pathway)
2. II (Penance)
3. III (Fear)
4. IV (Interment)
5. V (Death)
6. VI (Sight)
I hate to start on a dour note for an album I really enjoy, but let’s get this out of the way: 75 minutes is too long for an album by any artist. That goes for my favorite bands of all time too. You can say that opinion owes to a lack of an attention span, or that I don’t respect the album format or whatever you’d like. But even a band like Enslaved, who work in a similar soundscape in balancing progressive and black metal components, generally keep their albums between 50 and 60 minutes. I would go so far as to say that there hasn’t ever been an album this long that wouldn’t be well-served by being made shorter.
With all of that said, while there is definitely some filler here, the majority of ‘Winter’ is made up of stunning, vital, and beautiful music. That the album is hurt slightly by its runtime shouldn’t dissuade you from giving it a fair shot as it does more than earn it. When this album is on fire, which is often, it’s absolutely some of the best atmospheric black metal you’ll hear this year. While the build to those big moments can be over-stretched, the payoff is absolutely worth the wait.
In what is something of a funny coincidence, the most well-paced song on the album may be the 17 minute opening track; the longest on the album. The longer build works here at the introduction, with reverb-drenched guitars building to beautiful clean guitar work and dreary but well-suited singing. Finally the song gets its first proper big moment as the guitars explode and the toms are pounded thunderously setting the tone for the next several minutes. Over time, the song ebbs and flows between heavy atmosphere, reserved and tasteful technical displays and bleaker delicate moments. ‘Winter’ is an album of emotional peaks and valleys, and Fen excels on both of those levels.
This brings us to another point worth exploring: Fen’s use of prog elements throughout the album. This is a difficult mix to pull off in an extreme metal context, or at least it’s difficult to do in an interesting way. All too frequently, bands will throw those elements into a song without considering the emotional tone of the rest of the music, which means there can be a major disconnect during those prog-centric moments. Fen does this better than anyone outside of maybe Enslaved on “Mardraum”, and even then it’s close. The band have such a firm sense of self and musical identity that their need to explore new sounds never comes at the cost of consistency.
While I do believe Fen have indulged themselves a bit too much here, and I believe the album would benefit from a harsher editing process, there’s no denying that Fen are at their absolute best on ‘Winter’. There is no such thing as a flawless album, and this one is no exception. But even when accounting for its biggest flaw, I believe that ‘Winter’ will end up as one of the year's best albums. There’s simply too much fantastic material here to be denied.
“Winter” is available on CD/LP copy here and digitally here
FFO: Agalloch, Alcest, Altar of Plagues, Drudkh