20 July 2010

CD REVIEW: Fen - Trails out of Gloom (Ripple Music, 2010)

I’d been contacted by Doug Harrison of Vancouver-based band Fen some time ago, before one of my ‘lost weekend’ periods, inquiring about coverage for his band. As the term ‘lost weekend’ implies, as much as I was interested in doing something, the desire to do so did not quite match my ability at that time to achieve those goals.

A week or two back I was contacted again, alerting me to the forthcoming release of the band’s 4th full length album, Trails out of Gloom, to be released on Ripple Music on 13 July 2010. This time, it seems, cycles are turning in the right patterns, and I leapt at the chance to sink my teeth into this latest slab of dark, heavy prog goodness.

There must be something about the Pacific Northwest that leads the more progressive side of heavy bands to sink so deep in the mire. At their more adventurous, Fen reminds me of Agalloch sans black metal vocals. There’s a similar heaviness, a similar darkness, a similar despairing view of the world at large. Where Agalloch retreats into nature for answers, Fen retreats into the self; the end result is a far more incisive, frightening degree of personal darkness. Founder Doug Harrison’s vocals ooze that personal pain and anguish with every syllable. At times I’d say that his voice takes on timbres that may be a bit of an acquired taste, but his delivery is always strong and present, perhaps even soulful, even on the quieter or more fragile tracks. His guitar playing, in tandem with Sam Levin, is every bit as incisive…there’s nary an excess note played anywhere.

Harrison and Levin are joined on Trails out of Gloom by Mike Southworth, who handles the drums while contributing piano on 2 tracks; Mike Young on bass; and Jim Kwan, who adds piano on one additional track.

I’ve used the word darkness, or variants thereof, a few times to describe this music. Fen’s music on this album is fairly sombre, with plenty of harmonized vocals and layered electric and acoustic guitars adding lushness to the mix. A song like ‘Miracle’ is a great example of this; the song starts quietly, with picked acoustic guitar played over quiet sustained electric guitar notes. Harrison’s vocals are plaintive, and the harmonies are wonderful and chilling. The song builds quietly, first adding drums and quiet bass, then a single fuzzed guitar playing a low melodic line. Some people might have been tempted to have a female voice come in to handle the high harmonies, but having Harrison handle them adds fragility and tenuousness to the song. Then things increase in pace; the band builds then fades, an almost organic ebbing and flowing that carries the listener along. A sudden shift to just vocals and acoustic guitar catches the breath before a final all out burst of full on band playing. All of this in a song just over 4 minutes in length. It leaves me breathless writing about it; imagine hearing it.

While the majority of the tracks on Trails out of Gloom are in the four to five minute range, 2 extended pieces make their presence known strongly. The first of these is the 7-minute long ‘The World is Young,’ which features effected vocals and processed drumming that sounds as if it were recorded across a phone line. It’s an interesting effect, dissociating the performer from the performance. The telephone effect is one I’ve heard used so many times for vocals, and its interesting to hear it used in a different way. The song is dirge-esque in the best possible way…rhythms range from the lugubriously slow to a slightly skittering mid-tempo that offers Mike Southworth an opportunity to toss a little bit of intricate kick drumming out there. Again, I love the harmonized vocals; this time, the harmonies are close, in a very Alice in Chains kind of way. When Harrison hits high notes, his voice takes on a tone that I am struggling to find a comparison to…I know I’ve heard a similar voice once before, but I can’t for the life of me figure out where.

The second extended composition on this album is ‘End of the Dream,’ which at 8:15 is the longest piece on Trails out of Gloom. This time we seem to be setting sail in more traditional rock waters; the musicians of Fen still do their best to ensure that things don’t stay staid and placid, as rhythms shift and change in fluid, natural ways. The rhythm guitar playing sounds perhaps a bit thin, but it works, as it cuts rather than bludgeons. The guitar solo about 4 minutes in, while brief, is lyrical and fits the song very well; a second solo a minute or so later intersperses short sections of quicker playing with long, sustained notes. This is something that can be said for each of the tracks on this album; the playing is so concise it almost would border on minimalism if there weren’t as many notes as there are. That sounds like an oxymoron, but let me explain; Fen’s music is all about mood. It’s not about how fast the drummer can play, or whether or not the guitarists are beastly enough to activate God Mode or anything like that. I think that this is a conscious decision, listening to the music; I honestly feel that Harrison and Levin sit there and figure out how to be as economical as possible with their playing to achieve the mood and tone the song requires. Once that’s done, there’s no need for filigree; the song has been served, and the effort expended makes it worth it. Of course, this is conjecture, and when I (hopefully) get to sit down with the band in the coming weeks, it is something I’ll be asking.

On the other end of the spectrum, ‘A Clearing’ seems to be just that; a brief acoustic instrumental interlude that seems perfectly placed to open what might be the second side of this release were it on vinyl rather than CD (speaking of which, Trails out of Gloom as a whole clocks in at a nearly-perfect 46 minutes. At some point in the future I’ll be talking about the tendency for creeping album lengths over the years, but I’ll just say here that this release fits comfortably in that ‘this one’s just right’ zone, length-wise). At 1:38 it’s little more than a taste of twin guitar playing, but it’s absolutely gorgeous, and while so very different from the other tracks on the album, fits perfectly.

With mood being a driving force on the album, it’s appropriate that things conclude with a moody, slower paced composition. ‘In Your Arms’ fits this description to a T, with a dark ballad feel, strummed guitar, keening, crying, harmonized guitars, and tight harmony vocals leading the listener into a midnight-tinged tale of desperation and desire. This is a song I can easily see myself revisiting many times when the nights grow longer, colder, and darker day by day.

Elsewhere, in talking about this release, I mentioned in brief ‘it's almost like an absinthe-fueled dream.’ I think that’s a pretty fair way of describing Trails out of Gloom, and to me that’s a compliment. The music is dark, the lyrics darker still, and the delivery of such is like sipping from la fée verte by candlelight. If you can’t tell by now, I really like this, and encourage you to check Fen out!

Track Listing:
1. Trails Out of Gloom 4:46
2. Through the Night 4:34
3. The World is Young 7:02
4. Miracle 4:06
5. Find That One 4:54
6. A Clearing 1:38
7. Queen of the Mountain 4:30
8. End of the Dream 8:15
9. In Your Arms 6:33

Doug Harrison – vocals, guitar
Sam Levin – guitar
Mike Southworth – drums, percussion, programming, piano on tracks 1, 3
Mike Young – bass
Jim Kwan – piano on track 4


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