I had to approach this Fen split with the mysterious Swedish newcomers De Arma with a degree of trepidation: With Fen's début full length 'the Malediction Fields having been such a fixture on my playlist since its release and add in that it's a bit of rich time for UK Black Metal (and English Black Metal in particular) then expectations are understandably high. And for Swedish newcomers De Arma: they are an unknown quantity but sharing space with Fen is a tough proposition for any band. So where are we?
Well Fen are up first:
Things have been busy out there in the marshes and the Fensmen return to present us with three new songs and a radical reprise of 'Bereft' which means over forty five minutes of new music to explore!
'Soilbound' opens without warning into a hard guitar cascade that morphs into death metal tinged short chords and chopped barked vocals but with a backdrop of keyboards unmistakably Fen. That flow rushes into the carved out space and we are borne on by the current like a leave blown into rapids.
Within minutes we hit the one place where 'The Malediction Fields' had a weak spot; clean vocals. Then there were moments of real weakness but here it is clear that much work has been done. The improvement is solid, the sound and the use better in every way, so much that it's the moments any trepidation I had vanished.
With a moment of quiet, the song then picks you up and tosses you into a tempestuous rhythm of harsh guitar and cymbals with the melody swirling round courtesy of Æðelwalh's beautifully incorporated keyboards. When it ends I simply cannot believe that seventeen minutes could sweep by so enthralled I was.
The Fens are a strange place; all at once flat and beneath huge open skies but with a feeling of being such an insular world from within the tall reeds and softly rippling waters. It is to the band's great credit that their sound can capture this seeming contradiction with their music. When a wind rises in the Fens, because the landscape is so flat there is little to stand in its way the waters appear on the surface to be driven before it. But parts are tidal, too, and beneath the surface the dark undertow has a will of iron so that your head, your shoulders are pushed one way, but beneath the tide wrestles you the other, stronger, and so under you go. So it is with Fen's music; the keyboards dazzle with misty sunlight and you dive in but the deep vein of Grungyn's bass and the insistent drums of Theutus combine to drag you into another place entirely. This is where the maelstrom of the guitars and truly impressive vocals tug or twist or ease you into songs that constantly whisper of loss, of the natural passing of all things, of bittersweet beauty but with done with a strength of an ancient land, not of a melancholy lace cuffed poet.
The thing that makes Fen so special is that you don't want to talk about the technicalities of their sound, you just want to feel their music pull you under.
The second song 'Ageless Threnody' starts with stark, hard drumming and a great keening guitar that tumbles into a phrasing that reminds me or earlier Borknagar in its undulating then cantering rhythm. The song is colder too, a hint of malevolent purpose to a lonely guitar line swallowed by an enveloping riff and keyboard wave that is signature Fen; melodic, windswept raw Black Metal with those gorgeous tidal swirls of progressive, post-rock barbs. As it shifts to a softer moment, The Watcher produces some truly impassioned vocals which just cap a superb performance. Sixteen and a half minutes? Time is beginning to act in an eerie way.
'Towards The Shores Of The End' is ushered in on a slow, metallic lilting call and a fast swelling bass calling in the the tide. It rolls and softly breaks on those lonely harmonies of keyboards and distant clean vocals until the final approach where the wind picks up, the skies blacken and the song pitches into juddering riff and sinister whispered growls before breaking on the shore.
'Bereft' is an acoustic, instrumental reprise of the original, a short coda that beautifully shows the delicate structure beneath my favourite song from the début. Pastoral rather than folk, light and comforting and a perfect way to leave me wanting more.
Speechless. Breathless. It's times like this you realise how privileged you are to be a reviewer.
Fen are not 'England's answer to Agalloch' or Borknagar with post rock leanings. Fen are Fen. Wherever they decide to take this sound it should form a fascinating and emotional landscape just like their namesake. And if this is the quality of material that didn't make it to Epoch, then I am truly frightened of what they have in store for us.
Then we are introduced to De Arma.
De Arma, which apparently translates as 'the poor ones' are the new project of Andreas, an ex-member of Armagedda and current of Lonndom and are a kind of sibling to Fen in sound I suppose.
The opening offering 'Crimson Waters Ebbing the Shore' begins with the style of dark jangling guitars and bobbing bass which calls to mind The Fields of the Neplilim. As the hoarse vocals join with it there is the touch of The Black League circa first album but without the bombast, a more subtle introversion instead pulling the song into the dark and the teeth lurking there. Very nice stuff indeed.
The second song 'Noemata' is a shift in atmosphere to dip into the space between Katatonia's Brave Murder Day and Discouraged Ones albums. Deceptively light but intense chords create a downbeat backdrop but with The Watcher from Fen guesting on vocals, the band take the sound more out of itself and there is a sombre but placid tone that is eventually transformed by one of those tempestuous moments that Fen themselves do so well. There is a slight twinge of worry that it perhaps sails a little too close to Fen's wake but it is a minor concern for the early days of a band.
'From Horizon To Oblivion', the last outing, is another turn. This time they reach back to those Armagedda roots and a much harder Black Metal sound, discordant notes tugging you off balance and the nicely unsettling shouted vocals finishing the job.
De Arma are such a new band that it isn't surprising that these three tracks don't blend as well as the Fen offerings but equally it shouldn’t detract from the fact that this is quality material with promise and a little intrigue as to how the different approaches on this split will be woven into their début full length. An album which The Watcher has apparently agreed to contribute his classy vocals to.
A great value release from Nordvis: totally essential Fen and a promising new band to get your teeth into. Get ordering.