Fen are gearing up for a big year in 2011, both with the release of their eagerly anticipated sophomore Epoch and this split with a newish band out of Sweden known as De Arma. If you had the good fortune to experience The Malediction Fields, then you know what to expect from the English upstarts: dense, meandering and melodic black/dark metal with post-whatever overtones, perfect to dream and drift along with. To that extent, De Arma makes for a great companion, as they perform with a similar, evocative atmosphere that differs primarily in the more rasped vocals and traditional streaming of black metal currents in the guitar lines.
Fen have gone even more accessible here than the debut album, and their half of the split consists of four well managed tracks. Moods of both gloom and the radiant sunlight piercing said gloom are conjured through "Soilbound"'s mix of spacious, ringing chords and synthesizer washes, whereas "Ageless Threnody" creates a more belligerent, slower pace, with the same mesmeric, glinting waves of keyboard colliding into the substrate of guitar and thick, anguished vocals. "Towards the Shores of the End" itself is another lengthy piece (all three of these have been 8+ minutes) which uses a bass flow and simple stringing to adapt a more progressive environment, and I found this to the best of these new compositions, with a style hopefully redolent of the forthcoming full-length. The band has also included an acoustic reprise to "Bereft", the final track on The Malediction Fields, and while there's not much to it, it sets up the 'passing of the torch' here rather well...
Which is snapped up De Arma in the more hurried, desperate "Crimson Waters Ebbing", a black metal blasted standard with shaky, clean vocals that soar into the treacherous rasp and a slew of dire, twisting melodies channeled alongside the cleaner guitars and nulling synth line. "Noemata" is perhaps my favorite track on this entire split, 9 minutes of melancholy cast through the same, simple process: roving, spacious guitar lines with driving drums and shining chords. "From Horizon to Oblivion" transforms from a charge of melodic black metal to a more mid-paced, haunting bridge sequence and back again, and I didn't appreciate it so much as their other two pieces, but it certainly fits.
At over 52 minutes, you're basically getting a full-length album, only shared. Fen alone has about 30 minutes of material here, substantial when you consider that they've written about 70 more for Epoch. The production for both bands is suitably vapid and repressed, really giving one the impression that he/she is outdoors witnessing some dour, natural process of decay or the rising of a sun over an unforgiving landscape. The music does its job in sending you to that other place that surrounds you every day, which you often fail to notice. That being said, the compositions are not entirely impressive, and I'd imagine that those outside of the black metal/post-rock (Alcest, Altar of Plagues, Wolves in the Throne Room, etc.) subset of fans will find it far from alluring. Towards the Shores of the End is a good release, showcasing two good bands, but there are no surprises here and nothing that makes you reflect for very long once the music ends. Despite their similarities, the bands would simply be better experienced on their own full-lengths.
Verdict: Win [7/10]