Fen – The Light That Shines

Monday, 24th February 2020

Fen’s latest studio album, The Dead Light, was released at the tail-end of 2019, which, as we all know, is a time when year-end lists have already been compiled and sorted. Such matters were of little concern to this scribe — the album was certainly good enough to take the number two spot, but it drives home a greater point: Fen is a band with a rich, atmospheric sound, one that has black metal as its foundation, but is so much more all at once. They have moved up the proverbial ladder to stalwart Prophecy Productions, ensuring broader reach and more publicity. The Dead Light is deserving of such a push — it matches the band’s glorious 2013 Dustwalker in moments of sheer bliss and extremity, unifying a variety of sonic ideas all for the sake of grand, illustrious atmospheric black metal. Few do it better than Fen, and as you’ll read below, few can explain it in more exacting detail than the band’s vocalist/guitarist, The Watcher, who provided some of the best responses to an email interview a journalist could ask for…

Dead Rhetoric: You were on Code666 since The Malediction Fields. You’ve since moved to Prophecy. What does this represent for Fen?

The Watcher: It represents a big move for us on a number of levels. We worked with Code666 for ten years and five albums – in this transient age of compressed attention spans and relentless short-termism, I feel that’s a pretty long stint. We had a great relationship with them and they showed us real support during the time we were signed to them. However, as with everything in life, all things eventually come to an end and it did feel to us that we needed a change, something to add some new energy and impetus to the band.

Prophecy, is, of course, a label who needs no introduction in this genre – their catalog, artist roster and aesthetics speak for themselves. The opportunity to align with this and work with them to continue to deliver our art, of course, represents a significant step into a new realm for us. For me, it really has validated the single-mindedness we have put into our art and vindicated the many sacrifices we have all made to commit to this band. Prophecy is hugely respected and has the reach to really help propel awareness of Fen to another level. Performing at Prophecy Fest 2019 underlined this emphatically to us – we finally met all of the team and really felt a connection there, not only with those guys but also the other artists on the roster. There was a fantastic sense of camaraderie, conviction, mutual respect and support which underlined once and for all that we can stand up in that kind of company.

It also helped that the festival was fantastic – an incredible venue, excellent atmosphere and with some superb lighting/sound to take the ambience to the next level. So, in summary to the question – this move represents for us an opportunity to spread our message further, to add fuel to the fire of our creativity and hopefully reach more individuals with whom our music resonates.

Dead Rhetoric: As your career progresses, are you more conscious of business matters and how they impact the band?

The Watcher: Absolutely. It’s a necessary evil for anyone who wishes to make music and – in some small way – engage with more than a handful of listeners. As a musician or band, every single time there is any sort of transaction that involves any amount of money in any way, you have entered into the sphere of business. Whether you like it or not, that is a simple fact and it really, really pays to wise up on this as soon as you can – otherwise, you only stand to lose out.

It’s an undeniable fact that a lot of bands, musicians and artists – especially when starting out – do not like to talk about money or “business.” There is a perception that this somehow “pollutes” the purity of creativity, that it sullies the unfettered authenticity of artistic expression. Noble conceits for sure, but if you firmly adhere to that principle, you are living in a dream world. If you step onto a stage and the people in that room have paid any amount of money, you’re in the business world. If you put up a recording on Bandcamp – and even if you set the fee to the minimum ‘name your price’ amount – you’re engaged in business. This is inescapable.

So it pays to learn this. It pays to realize that if you don’t value your own art, others will exploit that fact. You need to stand tall – particularly if you have any sort of fanbase or interest, you do no-one any favors by selling yourself short (well, you’ll be doing a massive favor for the promoters or label guys who WILL do well out of your unnecessary generosity). We have learned the hard way on this – playing for free whilst promoters walk off with armfuls of cash, providing whole backlines as openers just for the privilege of playing a 25-minute set at 5.30pm – all that sort of exploitative awfulness that still regularly takes place within the scene.

Of course, if you’re just starting out and need the exposure then you’ll do whatever it takes to get in front of people. Nevertheless, there comes a point whereby opportunities and exploitation becomes blurred – you HAVE to go into any arrangement or discussion with your eyes open and your armour in place. Sure, there will be a lot of talk about creativity, ‘the fans’, all that sort of stuff – however, if you have a semblance of an audience and you truly believe in what you are doing, it’s imperative you stand up for yourself. It’s all part of the trajectory of life I guess – experience, awareness and learning from mistakes made. There’s still a long way to go of course but I genuinely think one of the most important things an artist needs to do is properly engage with the business side of things. It’s hard and it feels at odds with the fundamental instinct to create art, however to NOT do so simply opens the door to undermining – and even destroying – said art.

Dead Rhetoric: You ventured back into full-on atmospheric territory with The Dead Light. What made you head back into this direction? Was it a natural step?

The Watcher: That wasn’t actually the intention if I’m honest! We consciously took a look at where we had gone with the previous album (Winter) which was rooted in a weighty, earthy, dense sound and decided we wanted to create something a little sharper – more concise, colder, focussed. We are firm believers that atmosphere is a key building block of the music we make but there wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to focus on this aspect with The Dead Light. True, we wanted to conjure up material that was perhaps more ‘spectral’ – even ethereal at times – but balance this with some proper riffs and rage.

I guess the production may have something to do with this – it’s really glittering and clear (as was intended) and I think really lends the album that ‘spectral’ quality as alluded to above. And certainly, there are some tracks which really plow the more ambient furrows on the record – ‘Witness’ for example. Nevertheless, with songs like ‘Breath of Void’ and ‘The Dead Light’ we’ve also put out some of the most intense and riff-heavy songs we’ve yet written so I’d like to think that the balance is very much there.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you think this style suits Fen best? It seems like you churn out your best stuff; i.e. “Consequence,” “Spectre” and now “Nebula” and “Rendered in Onyx” when going atmospheric.

The Watcher: Again, it’s a question of balance – and I’d argue that “Consequence” certainly sits in the heavier side of what Fen represents. “Rendered in Onyx” also certainly has moments of tranquility interspersed with frenzied blasts and relentless double-kick work. So, whilst the quieter, cleaner, more ‘overtly’ atmospheric sections are of course hugely significant, it MUST be balanced with intensity, fury and ‘heaviness’”

That’s always been important for me – we are a heavy metal band, ultimately – so ensuring that we don’t lose sight of this is absolutely key. Careful juxtaposition of dynamics, tones and the ebb and flow of a song is how one can try to ensure each change and each passage hits as hard as it should. And of course, there are times when sticking to one concept can also reap dividends – “Spectre” (from our third album, Dustwalker) for example, is almost completely clean, without any real trace of extreme metal. For me, it works very well both as a standalone song and also at the point in the album in which it appears. However, an entire record in that style or adopting that soundscape could be too much – it could dilute the impact of such an approach.

I am intoxicated by both approaches, personally – so many metal bands pay little head to clean sounds or tones but it’s of paramount importance to me as a musician. I’ve spent days working on tones, experimenting with different combinations of delays, EQs, reverbs and modulations to ensure each atmospheric section has the right flavor and feel. It’s great to get completely lost in this for sure, to soar away on a billowing soundscape of cascading chords and reverb. But lest we forget, it all comes down to riffs ultimately. Whether searing, single-string tremolo-picked patterns or straight-up chugging, the riff has to be king. So Fen will always represent the ongoing quest to strive to fuse, balance and integrate these ideas as effectively as possible.

Dead Rhetoric: While on the subject, the ending to “Rendered in Onyx” is one of your most poignant moments to date. Can you speak to that part, as well as the overall song’s creation?

The Watcher: That’s interesting to hear as it’s certainly a section for us that really hit the spot when we started looking at it in rehearsal. It really speaks to the ideas about balance I was talking about in the previous question – the end section is actually the same chords/melody lines as used in the main blastbeat riff that kicks in earlier in the song. It, therefore, goes to show that it’s not only melody that’s important when writing/arranging a piece but also delivery – HOW something is said being as important as WHAT is being said.

“Rendered…” was actually one of the first songs written for the album and was one that I had worked up over a fairly long period of time, actually. I think I had about three sections of it existing in various states and spent some time compiling it together to bring about a full, coherent song that had its own “voice.” I wanted this to have a fairly “epic” feel – big, sweeping melodies nonetheless underpinned by a real sense of melancholy. Whilst there are some more intricate moments within the piece, I wanted to overall ambiance to be relatively spacious – redolent of the void and the cold sorrow of the unknowable vacuum.

The ending section was very important – recalling the central melancholic theme from earlier in the song and utilising clean, delicate single coil guitars with layers of modulated delay/reverb. Grungyn’s bass counter-melody was very much the icing on the cake – when we first looked at that section in rehearsal and the layers came together, all three of us could really feel the poignancy flowing through us. It enveloped us with a sense of regret and reflection at a really fundamental level. The natural harmonics over the end were something that I improvised and worked so well to channel that sense of ‘disappearing’, fading forlornly into nothingness. It was one of those organic, stirring moments in the rehearsal room which really underlined why we all do this.

Dead Rhetoric: For a trio, both in the studio and live, you have a very full and enveloping sound. How is this accomplished?

The Watcher: Thanks for saying so and that really does vindicate the effort all three of us put in. In the studio of course we can layer up guitars, vocals, all sorts of textures as much as our hearts desire – so in this sense, the limitations on what we can do to achieve a full sound are not particularly restricted. The temptation of course is to run wild and we always need to be cognizant of what we would do to replicate such a soundscape live. Not only this, but time is of the essence in the studio and there are only three of us – it can be tiring, believe me. Twelve hours of non-stop guitar tracking can take its toll on a man! So with that in mind, you have to be sensible.

In terms of representing the material live, that for us is the bigger question – how DO we do this live? We are only a three-piece and we really want to keep it this way for when we are onstage if we can help it. I’ve seen too many bands enslave themselves to backing tracks or ranks of bored-looking session musicians which, whilst adding a bit to the general ‘fullness’ of the sound, still creates additional issues. Indeed, the whole ‘backing track’ obsession that seems to running rife within the scene at the moment is a particular issue for me. Fine, if you’ve lathered your album in layers in the studio and are determined to render them live, you’ll need to use them – but seeing so many bands running guitar lines, keyboards, vocals, bass, whatever, off of a laptop doesn’t really float my boat. It always feels like it creates distance and inauthenticity – and in a scene that hinges on the very essence of authenticity, that’s a problem in my eyes.

We take a more traditional approach – three guys with their instruments doing their absolute utmost to deliver both sound and performance that does justice to our paying audience. No hiding behind ranks of musicians or laptop-pumped Wav files – just the band members, totally exposed and putting in complete effort to express the songs. All three of us engage in vocals at points and both myself and Grungyn use a wide variety of effects pedals to add richness, dynamics and tone to our instruments. I run my guitar in stereo to widen the sound and enable even greater variation in dynamics and space. Fine, this more stripped-down representation of the songs means that some layers that appear on recordings may be sacrificed but I feel it enables us to more than make up for it with a committed, organic performance. It’s a rawer, more direct expression of Fen but one that is totally in keeping with our ethos.

Dead Rhetoric: What does The Dead Light album title represent?

The Watcher: It is a very specific reference to the cosmic phenomena of stargazing at entities that may have long been extinguished. As we know, the speed of light – whilst vast – is still finite and many of the entities we can see in our night sky are thousands of light-years away from our earth. With that in mind, the quanta that bombard our eyes and render the image of these beings before us may be showing us an image of something that is extinct – said quanta being the last desperate throes of illumination from the entity in question.

This was the initial notion that commenced the wider concepts that the album looks at. It came quite early in the writing process and it resonated with me quite deeply – the idea of ‘dead light’ still traveling through the void, delivering messages and images to observers in an almost futile, sorrowful fashion. The rest of the album’s concepts kind of springboarded from there – essentially, the album deals with mankind’s relationship with the cosmos, how considerations of the wider universe have dovetailed in with human thinking since the dawn of civilization. How the depths of the vast voids in which we exist have represented the forefront of knowledge, exploration and even philosophy as we desperately search for our own truths, our own reasons for being.

All of this still felt like it fed into the idea of ‘The Dead Light’ – it struck me as a powerful metaphor for many things. Shattered truths; the death of enlightenment; the power of false logic; it could mean many things for many people and we always state in Fen that much of what we have to say lyrically is very much open to the listener’s own interpretation.

Dead Rhetoric: Lyrically, are you at all influenced by the current (and perilous) state of the world?

The Watcher: Not openly of course – we would never speak so directly of current affairs, it simply isn’t how we go about things conceptually. We would rather take a more esoteric, philosophical view of reality when composing our lyrics – to address things from a more existential, metaphysical perspective in which we look to delve into the essence of humanity and our own personal journey through the minefield of our own existences.

Nevertheless… it’s impossible to ignore the wider world and I have no doubt that developments within the emerging global socio-economic paradigm have filtered through to our subconscious and influenced a more negative, despairing miasma creeping into what we write. I don’t doubt that at all. The species looks to be regressing day by day, shunning enlightenment and collaboration on the altar of aggression, tribalism and self-preservation. It is all carefully controlled and steered of course by those who stand to benefit from a tightening of the current hegemony and from the directed fervor against ‘others’ engendered by the politics of polarisation.

It is a dangerous game of course but as a species, we have been here before – time and time again. The vast destructive power in the hands of our paymasters, of course, is a cause for concern and doubtless feeds into our (and I suspect most people’s) subconscious as a never-ending, simmering background radiation of cold dread and uncertainty. Again, as intended – to keep us afraid, to keep us in a mild state of obedient, existential terror. Every single one of us walks through life with the constant awareness of the fact that this planet could be reduced to a scorched, radioactive dustbowl within the space of a few minutes should the whims of our increasingly erratic overlords so choose – and this I feel creates a uniquely dissonant worldview.

I feel this forms the backdrop to so many of the world’s current malignancies – the ever-increasing rise of fascism, the denigration of compassion, the shunning of intellect, the self-important (and ever more dogmatic) entrenchment of monotheism. All this and more besides I feel is little other than the terrified scream of a feeble species staring into a future that is little more than an inevitable abyss of self-inflicted extinction. At least, that’s how I see it these days – there are tendrils of this thinking on ‘The Dead Light’ but it is an avenue I believe will be explored more thoroughly on the next album.

Dead Rhetoric: What will the live show approach by for The Dead Light? Do you ever foresee Fen as a band who tours for great lengths at a time?

The Watcher: It depends on your definition of “great lengths!” We did tour for a month with Agalloch back in 2013 which was a great experience but was quite some time ago now. We’ve all grown older and tireder since then of course! As I explained previously, playing live is very important for us and it is something we really enjoy doing – however, this needs to be balanced out with ensuring that the shows and tours we engage with are the right fit for us. We all have increasing responsibilities now so we do need to make sure that we are playing the right gigs for the right audiences – long gone are the days when we would trek in the back of a van to the other side of the country on a Tuesday night to play in front of four people! We are far too old for that sort of carry-on now.

On the tour front, it’s something we always look at and of course, playing a well-organized and structured tour is something all of us are keen to do. Again, we are all in full-time work so to look at taking two or three months off to tour is not realistic for us (unless the band becomes a full-time career which – let’s face it – is not a reality for all but a handful of bands!). As ever, we’d always need to assess the opportunities presented and the practicalities of the scenario – so this year for example, we are undertaking our first ever headlining tour of the UK and Europe. It’s about two weeks which feels right for us at this point in time.

Who knows where it could end up though? If we somehow defy all sense of reality and reason by becoming a full-time bunch of rock star bastards playing to thousands of people a night, I’d gladly be on the road for months at a time. It’s a passion and a calling after all, why would I want to restrict that if I don’t have to? It would certainly beat slogging in an office for 9-10 hours a day staring at spreadsheets and faking professionalism.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s your take on the U.K. black metal scene at the moment? And, do you still see Fen as fitting in?

The Watcher: The scene here is really good I think – it’s absolutely rife with new bands, promoters and eager individuals doing their bit to contribute. It feels like there’s a real momentum happening currently with a lot of new energy being injected into the scene all the time. Every time we play a show we speak to people we’ve never met before who are forming bands or projects, or are doing artwork for bands or who are putting on shows – it’s a really engaged, collaborative and mutually supportive environment right now.

It’s a far cry from the grim, aloof days of the early 2000s where everyone bitched about everybody else behind each other’s backs, no-one gave a fuck about anyone else and ultimately, not a lot of material of any lasting value was really created. It’s been a long, chequered road for the UKBM scene at points – despite of course some standout acts along the way like Cradle of Filth (of course) and Anaal Nathrakh. However, it does now feel as if the scene is in a position to stand alongside some of the more respected scenes from elsewhere – in Winterfylleth, A Forest of Stars and Saor we have three respected, popular acts who deliver music on a par with any of their peers globally.

These guys have really led a surge in our scene here with a great number of newer, younger and less well-known bands stepping up – there’s Aklash from the south coast who for me are the most exciting band we have currently with exemplary atmospheric BM songwriting; there’s also Abduction, Necronautical, Wolvencrown, Deadwood Lake, Terra, Cistvaen, Vehement and plenty of others building names for themselves. We also have some veterans who are putting out their best work yet – Craven Idol, Void and Scythian for example. So it’s in real rude health right now.

As for us fitting in? Yes, I think we have our place and our niche. We started up around the same sort of time as Winterfylleth and Wodensthrone – I’d already been playing in the U.K .scene for a while at that point so Fen was (and still very much feels like!) a ‘new’ thing for me. It’s hard to believe it’s been over thirteen years! We are very much seen as veterans in this scene now which is a really odd feeling – but nevertheless, a lot of people we speak to cite us an influence in some way which is really heartening. It is odd to think that songs and ideas you noodled away at in your bedroom nearly a decade and a half ago are encouraging people to create and start bands. If we have helped lead a resurgence of the UK scene in some small way over the last ten years or so then I think I can allow myself to take a tiny modicum of pride in that!

Dead Rhetoric: Finally, how’s 2020 shaping up?

The Watcher: It’s early days yet I guess but not bad, thanks. On the 11th March we head on tour with Frostmoon Eclipse for two weeks which is really exciting for us – every time we’ve toured it’s been as a support act so it will be quite an experience to be able to indulge ourselves each night and play a full-length Fen set for our audience. We have a few other things simmering in the pipeline but I can’t really go into significant details on this just yet – best to keep an eye on the usual outlets for updates and news as/when it becomes available.

Other than this, thoughts inevitably turn towards the next full-length album – I’ve been working on new ideas for a while now, honing riffs, songs and material with a view to the next chapter in our career. I know the last album has just been released but the writing process for that was concluded nearly 18 months ago now – with that in mind, one has to look to the future and start fleshing out the next release. I can say that the flames of creativity have been burning away – it never, ever stops…

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