Like what Winterfylleth did with last year’s excellent The Threnody of Triumph, Fen figures to do the same with Dustwalker, their third full-length overall. Guided by striking, dissonant chords, and a lush, out-of-this-world acoustic piece (“Spectre”), Dustwalker has nary a flaw, quickly emerging as one of the year’s breakout black metal releases. We snagged guitarist/vocalist The Watcher (who couldn’t be more eloquent) to wax on the band’s progress, the new album, and much more…
David E. Gehlke: We've spoken to your countrymen Winterfylleth about this, but it appears that black metal (and its spin-offs) in the United Kingdom is enjoying a resurgence of sorts. What's your take on it?
The Watcher: I think it’s great that this country is finally being recognized for its contributions to the genre. Admittedly, we haven’t had a huge amount to be proud of in the past, but it is refreshing to see some of our home-grown acts achieve international recognition. The reason for this is pretty simple – they are good. What it does mean however is that people will be tempted to delve into the underground of U.K. black metal also.
There are some amazing bands here that are more obscure which really deserve more international attention such as Ghast, Towers of Flesh and Throes and if the prominence of our more well-known acts brings more recognition to bands such as this then it is even more exciting.
Ultimately, the standards here are improving all the time and it is good to see this is finally being acknowledged! Of course, you’ve got the old die-hard ‘black metal died in 1993, nothing good comes out of England, Norway uber-alles’ characters that pop up but these people, by and large, are very sad characters.
Your locale, near the Fens, is not the idyllic countryside that so many think of in regard to England. Prior to writing and/or recording, do you visit this area? Does it motivate and/or inspire you?
It is a fundamental inspiration for sure. The landscape is unique, bleak, mysterious, strange. It’s not a barren wilderness – there are numerous examples of human activity but they are unusual; old buildings, abandoned sheds, cars rusting in grass – which all serves to lend an even stronger sense of decay and isolation to the experience. I grew up here between the ages of 10 and 18 and so it had a profound effect on my development as an individual.
The seeds of Fen were therefore sown during this period and in many ways, the band enables us to give voice to the sense of solitude which is somehow embodied by these stark, disturbing surroundings. My parents and old friends still live in this area so I do try and visit there as much as I can – it does indeed provide a real burst of inspiration. There’s nothing like a sturdy walk across the twilit fens on a cold autumn evening to set the flames of inspiration burning.
Black metal also seems susceptible to the most criticism out of any style in metal. At what point over the last six or seven years did you stop caring about its various rules and conventions?
Black metal has invited most of the criticism leveled at it, let’s face it. Even aside from the surface-level ‘OMG, men in makeup and spikes!’ reaction from many quarters, the conventions, infighting and posturing from those within the genre itself deservedly invite scorn. I appreciate fully that for many facets of the genre, it is fundamental to project an air of menace, misanthropy, hatred and disgust.
But it seems a fallacy to define this within such banal terms – I find it ridiculous that individuals so committed to misanthropy and a disregard for all things human get so pathetically worked up about what other humans do or say. Surely these scions of Satanic thinking are above such notions?
In addition, for a musical form so defined by individuals – indeed, for something that has championed individuality and a rebellion against conventional thinking – to frame itself within a “code of practice” is a ludicrous oxymoron. It’s embarrassing, frankly, and something I have long since lost interest in.
Of course, in Fen we’ve had the gamut of insults: hipsters, fags, fakers, wimps, you name it. I honestly couldn’t care; the type of character who comes out with this stuff clearly isn’t the sort of person who is going to embrace what we are doing, so it is of no real concern. They’ll either grow up one day or spend the rest of their lives in their parents’ spare room spending money via Paypal for Von bootlegs.
Since the release of The Malediction Fields, progress for the band has been steady. With Dustwalker, it appears you've ascended to a new level altogether. When piecing the new album together, what was the resounding sentiment in regard to the songs? Did you find they were better from the start?
There was a real sense of determination when we commenced work on this record. We were coming off of the back of a tough period of the band – the departure of two members (one a founder member), lack of live opportunities and so on – and it was important to us to make a statement that the band had not been wounded. Indeed, we wanted to make a statement that far from being damaged, our resolve, commitment and ability had only been strengthened.
The material, therefore, flowed quite quickly. We decided very early on we wanted this to be a starker release, each track more defined and with its own identity. Rather than having a number of songs with heavy/soft sections, we wanted the transition between light and dark to be exemplified by the songs themselves. This was part of the plan to give the album more of a contrasting sense of peaks and troughs, to enable each section to compliment the next.
All of these factors combined I feel enabled us to compose and record our most focused release to date. I think we have matured considerably as songwriters and arrangers since our first release and this album in my opinion underlines this.
What sort of significance does the title Dustwalker have? It's the first title of yours that doesn't have a literal interpretation.
It’s an anthropomorphic representation of a sense of detachment, of feeling dislocated and distant from the reality in which one finds oneself. In this, it could be considered a consolidation of existential concerns. It summarizes a period of time whereby I felt somewhat… not ‘isolated’ as such, but disconnected, somehow incapable of interacting properly with the world around me. A bit like a ghost or a revenant perhaps, trapped between worlds, yet truly belonging to none.
This was such an overwhelming notion that it forms the basis for many of the lyrical concepts and compositions for the album. In this, like all of our full-length releases, there is a definite overarching concept running through the whole record. It represents a journey once more, this time through a landscape of hazy light and stark shadows, of half-formed figures and cold, empty black spaces.
"Spectre" might be your boldest move to date. It's both fascinating and lush, along with some slight nods to Pink Floyd. What's the origin of this song?
“Spectre” did indeed feel like taking something of a risk. We’ve always utilized clean guitars and vocals; they have become an increasingly important aspect of the Fen sound. Nevertheless, to include a song with no harsh vocals and very little distorted guitars did feel to us like something of a step into a different world.
The song originated from an acoustic instrumental that I put together a couple of years ago. This was just a piece I had recorded in my bedroom late at night with a glass of whisky, at that stage nothing more than a simple notion to while away an evening. When we were putting the material together for the album, I listened back to the piece and realized it could make for an interesting song. I presented the idea to the band and thankfully, they were totally on board.
Of course, we had to work on the song a fair bit in the rehearsal studio – the original recording for example culminated in a gentle piano outro which we evolved into the lengthy instrumental crescendo in the song. Ultimately, I think it turned out very well indeed and I think is one of the strongest songs we have committed to tape. It certainly opens the door for us to experiment further along this path.
Furthermore, "Spectre" gives you the longitude to do more experimentation down the road. Do you have anything else similar in mind? (i.e. more acoustic songs?)
Definitely. As I stated above, we’ve always utilized cleaner guitars, acoustics and clean singing, but this song has represented our first ‘proper’ album track which is purely clean. If I’m honest, I’m really enjoying experimenting with clean sounds and tones right now – most of my writing is done on the acoustic guitar – so it is very likely that we will continue to walk this path in future releases. I think the use of pedal steel guitar played by my friend Nils in the song was an interesting move also and we may well seek further guest contributions in future.
It is strangely liberating to work on material like this, free from the shackles of perceived “extremity.” When the amp gain is cranked and the throat being shredded, one can easily slip into routines and patterns – therefore, to strip things back to the purity of a clean guitar is wonderfully refreshing and creatively inspiring. It is definitely something we will continue to explore.
Are you still recording things by yourself? The album sounds very organic, which is fitting for the music.
By and large; for both Dustwalker and Epoch we did the main instrumental tracking at my friend Barry’s studio near the fens. It’s great, he has a massive, echoey live room which enables us to capture a really big, spacious drum sound. He is a great help actually – he’s not really into extreme metal as such but he understands music and perhaps more importantly, the ethos of this band. With this latest album, as we’d worked together before, we knew exactly where we stood and what we wanted to achieve so it flowed very smoothly.
Apart from Barry and the three of us, no one else is involved in the process. The overdubs, vocals and mixing are done at my home on my own (relatively minimal) set-up. I know full well that this isn’t a professional polished sound, but it is the sound we feel is very important to Fen – expansive, organic, real. If we were to put out something that had been edited, auto-tuned, quantized and subjected to the myriad trickery of modern studios, it would sound wrong somehow.
On a non-music note: My girlfriend's parents have recently relocated to England from the United States. Can you suggest some good places to visit that are not in and around London?
NOT in and around London? Well, there are plenty of nice places to explore outside the capital. In terms of cities to visit, York is a lovely place, full of medieval history and with well-preserved city walls. Excellent pubs as well. I’d also recommend Canterbury in Kent and Ely in the middle of the fens as they both have excellent cathedrals – you can actually get the train from London to Ely in an hour and that takes you to the heart of the fens.
For more traditional landscapes, Devon/Cornwall in the southwest of the country is awesome as well (Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor are awesome landscapes). Snowdonia in Wales, the Lake District in Cumbria, The Cotswolds in Gloucestershire, these are all lovely places to visit.
Finally, what's on the agenda going into 2013?
Fingers crossed, a lot. We are hoping to play a lot of live shows on the back of Dustwalker. We’re hoping to arrange some festival appearances for the summer. We’re also in discussions for a tour in the late spring. It isn’t confirmed yet, but if it does come about, will be a very exciting venture indeed.