This usually happens. Somewhere around April or May I hear an album – sometimes a new offering by an old favorite, sometimes something completely new to me – and I immediately know it is going to be the best album I hear all year. Last year I was taken by surprise when Mr. Brown sent me a copy of The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night and I found it impossible to remove from my HiFi or my heart for the better part of the rest of the year. In 2011 so far there’s been a decent amount of music, but the incumbent thus far is in indeed another total surprise.

Fen – Epoch

My good friend Tori, who does a fantastic job keeping me up with worthwhile metal acts old and new, recently started praising this group from the wetlands of East Anglia, Britain. She was having trouble ordering the album but implored me to check out the group’s myspace. I listened to a track or two and really quite liked them, however individual tracks separated from the bulk of the album they appear on often does metal, one of the more dramatic forms of modern music, a total disservice insofar as hearing the tracks in the context the artist originally conceived them to be a part of. I made a mental note and went about my business mainlining The Raveonettes most recent album.

Two days later Tori surprised me with a very generous gift indeed. Apparently Fen’s album, Epoch, had been released stateside that very day and she had stopped at the local FYE to buy not one, but two copies, gifting me with the other one. I was floored – it was a cloudy gray day with a hint of rain in the air and as I popped Epoch into the stereo I was immediately stricken by the sound of the band and how well it fit the ominous, electrical sky. If you look Fen up online they are commonly referred to as a ‘Black Metal’ band but really, that is doing a complete disservice to these guys. It’s metal, yes, and it does contain a healthy dose of that cryptic, quasi-evil-woods-at-night imagery that a lot of Black Metal does, but it doesn’t adhere to any of that genre’s particularly rigid genre-defining elements that so often limit groups with high-concepts to muddy, run-of-the-mill peering*.

First, the recording of Epoch itself has a certain obfuscation to it, and an intentional one at that. It pulled me in tight, opening what could almost be considered a dream state (no, I wasn’t high) but within two tracks I was able to put my finger on exactly what the texture of the music reminded me of – looking at objects through the veil of a pounding rainstorm, the way whatever lies so many footsteps away, a house, a car, whatever, looks as you seek shelter beneath a structure and measure the distance to it through the sheets of hammering water droplets. This is big factor with Epoch, and it seems with Fen in general, because there is A LOT of storm imagery here, both lyrically and sonically.

Next the instrumentation bears a bit more of a nod toward some non-metal approaches than to actual metal ones. The keyboards pull and swell behind the music in a way that reminds me of mid-period Cure. The guitars are often in arrangements of fragmented and minor notes, dreamy, shimmering talismans that enchant like the far off lights of fireflies in the woods at night. And the drums – not much blasting away here, except when appropriate, but the level of skill in knowing how to accent and back off as opposed to just all out metal assault is a welcome layer to much of the atmosphere here. And none of this is to say that there isn’t a good amount of pounding, screaming and razor-fast metal slicing into your flesh from out of the speakers from time to time, but, and here’s the lesson, only when the song calls for it.

Whereas a lot of metal portrays their dramatic arcs with raw rage and emulations of violence Fen prefers to give off a more subtle, spectral sound. Reality ripples a lot on this album, and when it does it often re-congeals in a fever dream more akin to a slow poisoning than to a Morningstar mace to the noggin.

So if there’s one that’s going to beat Fen out, I’ll be happy to hear it, because Epoch is just freakin’ AWESOME!!!

* Note the hate that gets thrown at Dimmu Borgir from a large part of the metal community – another ‘Black Metal’ band that has consistently evolved and expanded their sound palette. How on Earth could it not be a good thing to bring in a choir and orchestra when crafting music that swells and haunts with intentions just shy of modern orchestral?