Path To A Cathartic Revelation
Story online since: 21.02.2013 / 12:34:07
Fen are undoubtedly one of the best atmospheric black metal acts worldwide: their recent full-lenght Dustwalker showed us a band capable to push itself in the proverbial moment of thruth only to become more mature and poignant than ever. Interviewing Frank Allain, a.k.a. The Watcher, is certainly one of my most pleasurable ”tasks”, so you are warmly invited to join our conversation, also featured on Wyrd’s Flight, the blog I run alongside my AGM contributions.
At the time of our interview for Avantgarde Metal (Spring 2011), in concomitance with the release of Epoch, you were just beginning to sketch the skeleton of new songs: "The initial developments seem to be increasingly ambient and spacious sounding – less dense, more stripped down and ‘glacial’ as opposed to the misty, layered, churning regret that typified much of the last record”. Looking back at those early explorations, how complex (or perhaps effortless) was the path that led to achieving the starker, more incisive sound of Dustwalker?
It wasn’t really a complex path, more a determined one. Mid-2011 was a testing time for the band – perhaps the most testing time we had faced in our history – with two members leaving in quick succession and little in the way of live shows happening. I’d always had the intention of stripping things back a little on the follow-up to ‘Epoch’ and these challenges added a sense of forceful purpose to working on a new record. We wanted to make our mark, to come back unbent and undimmed from strife.
We were very driven, worked hard, spent a lot of time with Derwydd (who was something of a revelation). Indeed, he brought to us a new-found sense of purpose and steely drive which was instrumental in forging the work that became Dustwalker. Whilst not actively involved in the core compositional process, his approach to drum arrangements and overall hardworking, self-empowering ethos really gave us a momentum that pushed this newest material forward.
The keyboards have disappeared (Grungyn plays the synth on the instrumental "Reflections”) and the overall result is soberer: the problems with finding a permanent keyboard player turned out to be determinant in shaping the sound of the album, in a very positive way! How pleased are you with the overall impact you achieved?
This was perhaps the biggest decision to make – to proceed without keyboards. When Aethelwalh left it gave us an opportunity to step back and reassess where we were. Don’t get me wrong – I think the keyswork on Epoch is outstanding – but it was something I could feel myself drifting away from. Myself and Grungyn were experimenting a lot more with effects processing around this point and it felt like an opportunity to make a change for the better.
I always say that in art (and indeed, in life in general) restriction forces innovation. There is something invigorating about working within confined parameters and the challenge to create enveloping atmospheres with guitars, bass and drums was a thrilling one for me. ‘Dustwalker’ represents a real step forward upon this journey and it will certainly be one we are continuing if the ideas we are working on at the moment are anything to go by! There’s a really open-ended, experimental feel in the Fen rehearsal room right now.
The endeavor to clean-up the sound also applied to the several quieter moments scattered across the album, making them sound less surrounded by mist and more like a crispy cold night. Your clean vocals are as confident as ever, and the entire range displayed is as mature as the music itself. The higher degree of expressiveness in your unmistakable voice surely stems from (increased confidence and experience aside) the same desire to push and refine your music?
Well, we have received criticism in the past for our clean vocal sections so this time, we wanted to make sure they were fully and completely arranged/worked out before committing them to tape. Confidence and experience cannot be overestimated in terms of their impact on delivery – we’ve been naïve in the past, I recognize that – but equally, true passion will always shine through.
Vocally, I am very pleased with how this album has turned out. I think it stems back to this sense of drive and purpose I referred to earlier. The material is harder too, which helps lend weight to vocal delivery. I always aim to push myself further and further with each record (possibly at the detriment of my vocal chords!) – the voice is the most naked expression there is when recording so its only natural that it’s the element that’s closest to the emotion at the heart of the music.
The level of maturity achieved across the board is impressive: the already highly recognizable Fen sound, placed by many in between Agalloch and Alcest, has become far more focused and yet one can still envisage almost limitless possibilities for the future. Right now you are busy with sorting out some European dates, but have you been able to sit back and enjoy the rewards of your endeavors for a while or are you unable to turn off the "writing mode” button?
We’re always writing. Always. The prospect of resting on my laurels terrifies me, there are too many bands where it is obvious that the creative flame has long been extinguished who languish in a zombified, musical half-life. I cannot allow that to happen – the minute the well of inspiration runs dry, this band is over I fear. For me, the compositional process – forging new ideas, hearing melodies and themes come to life and evolve – is the fundamental driver of being in a band. Everything else, no matter how enjoyable, is secondary.
Thankfully, I feel we are in fertile creative times. The writing process is ever-flowing and we already have a wealth of new material and ideas that have come together. If I’m honest, I think I am borderline obsessed with writing, one of my ambitions for 2013 is to learn to relax a little. I can’t sit still for a moment, I feel guilty if I spend more than 30 minutes without having worked on one idea or another – it’s driving my girlfriend mad so I definitely need to factor in some down-time! It’s important though I think to have quiet time, to recharge and reinvigorate one’s inspiration. Balance and moderation between one’s interests are key to keeping them healthily maintained. Obsession can be productive but it can also be dangerous and creatively stunting if left unchecked.
Dustwalker takes off abruptly, aggressively but soon your trademark melancholy sweeps in, giving such powerful "soul” to the music: if the themes revolve around the fragility of our existence and ultimate resignation to a nullifying fate, the power of melody, which permeates all your songwriting, and the organic yet shimmering (flame-like) production gives me the same kind of solace and energy as a roaring bonfire in the midst of a sharply cold, moonless night: I cannot help finding it heart-warming!
Thank you and I agree that there should be a sense of cathartic revelation within the despondency. I hark back to the song ‘Bereft’ from our debut album in this – that song really relates to a sense of elation at accepting one’s fate, acknowledging a place in the universe that may not be the most satisfying existence yet the understanding of this brings with it some relief. It is the unknown and the misunderstood that brings fear and trepidation into our lives – knowledge and understanding, even if it points towards bleakness & misery, does bring solidity.
It isn’t so much resignation to one’s fate – it is understanding and the resolve born of that understanding. There are times when this can overwhelm, when it can lead to an outburst of rage or despair – at other times, there is a manifestation of the serenity of this acceptance reflected in the quieter moments.
Dustwalker feels to me a reflection on death. "Hands of Dust”, "Wolf Sun” and "The Black Sound” in particular make me think of my recently passed-away father. As we removed ourselves from living in direct contact with the cycles of nature, we became detached from the reality of death, seen now as an unsightly, unacceptable flaw that should not tarnish humans’ busy existence. Now that I have actually touched, smelt human flesh consumed by death, seen the shocking stillness and emptiness of the eyes, I have to agree with what once Bowie said: "Confront a corpse at least once. The absolute absence of life is the most disturbing and challenging confrontation you will ever have”.
Death is a powerful theme for sure, however whilst it may float at the indistinct periphery of our subject matter, it isn’t really the main driver. ‘Hands of Dust’ and ‘Wolf Sun’ are about being insubstantial, a feeling of disconnected, fading sensations and disassociation from the world – whether subconsciously this is a rumination on death, it is hard for me to say although it maybe that something subliminal has come through here.
It’s a mental state rather than a physical one, the metaphor of physical disintegration alluding to that of a psychological state. ‘The Black Sound’ is perhaps more direct, very much a representation of depression embodied by looming, crushing inevitability. Again, we touch upon that sense of insubstantiation, of a spiritual yearning to transcend one’s current state – to escape, to flee – and the gnawing, ever-growing knowledge that this will never happen.
I guess death remains the ultimate driver behind all of this – indeed, the last line of ‘The Black Sound’ (‘…to shed the anchor of a slowly rotting tomb’) alludes most clearly to the final fate in store. Death makes a mockery of all of our thoughts, hopes and ruminations, therefore marking most clearly the endpoint for all of this.
"Consequences” takes me to humankind’s last regretful moments, whilst in "Wolf Sun” the hopeful line "I’ll hold on to this sun” is followed by a half-chocked "I can’t save myself from fading”… Finally, you conclude the album with "Walking the Crowpath”. People like Killing Joke and Amebix, both absolute masters of an apocalyptic sound and vision that continues to inspire countless bands (including black metal ones), believed - and still do to this day - in finding the hope and strength to change ourselves and the world… How far removed are Fen from the 80s fighting spirit?
I can only speak from vaguely recollected memories as a child in England in the 80s but it did strike me as a decade of conflict, pessimism and shifting values. The rampant contradictions of the decade – the overarching stark terror of the nuclear-powered cold war versus the shiny technicolour of rampant consumerism or (closer to home) millions of manual workers forced from their jobs and left destitute whilst an emergent middle class bray Thatcherite soundbites into brick-sized mobile phones – even if not fully comprehended, lent a sent of dissonance to one’s perceptions. ‘Something’s not quite right’ I guess you could say is how an eight-year-old might interpret it!
For me, coming from a working-class background, the struggles were palpable and the need to fight against it, to battle against the emergent oppression (both economic and psychological) was instilled in many. This again is something that is a subconscious driver to the band – we don’t of course directly reference such concepts in our music/lyrics but without a doubt, such experiences have help shaped my outlook and it’s inevitable that this will creep into any works I am involved in.
In Epoch too, in exploring the cyclical life of the universe as mirror of our own cyclical nature, you inevitably focused on the end of the cycle. I often ask myself why it is that during the short blitz of time in which we exist as individuals, the mind-blowing power of nature around and within us (people underestimate the amazing complexity of their own body: most don’t even know how it functions and what it’s made of) are rarely enough to find pride and strength, to find a sense to our existence - in itself an utterly exceptional event across the known universe!? If anything, it’s a goddamn crazy adventure…
If you look at the existence of the human race in terms of the timeline of this planet, we’ve existed for a mere blink of an eye. As a species, we’ve evolved incredibly quickly and I think at the core of it all, many people struggle to deal with their own sentience. We’ve barely learned to comprehend the world around us, let alone the myriad mysteries of our own minds/bodies.
As you say, it’s a crazy adventure – however, I’d go further and say in many ways, it’s a crazy existence. We’ve evolved to learn how to ponder the mechanics of our own being yet lack the development of our faculties to truly understand it. This is a powerful dissonance that underpins our existence – we can question it, explain elements of it to a degree but comprehension and meaning lies outside of our powers of comprehension. Everyone chooses their own way to deal with this – some shelter in materialism, others rebel through nihilism/cynicism, many close their eyes and hold to religion, others (like myself) get lost in speculation and the search for something more spiritual.
Whichever way you slice it, the human condition is something that affects us all and there is no ‘right’ answer. I suspect it will be many evolutionary steps down the line before we start to really come to terms with ourselves as a species.
Rock music began to explore the dark side in the 60s: it was the fruit of a rebellion that, no matter how bleak and nihilistic the outlook became (80s punk), was still very much about searching for new values. Today we see either a complete lack of ideals, or weird, self-important displays of D.I.Y. fundamentalism through the recuperation of a whole range of Masonic types of esoterism. The pagan scene, with its fervor towards salvaging noble traditions from the (not always wholesome) past, seems to offer the only pro-active "alternative” (in fact not too dissimilar from the hippy-punk idea of being self-sufficient outside the consumerist society). In practical terms, in Italy for example – where unemployment is rife - we see more and more young people returning spontaneously to the very fields which were abandoned by their grandparents. Perhaps an injection of humility, honesty and empathy is all we need?
Well, a lot of the pagan scene – and the esoteric/occultist scene really – is about escapism isn’t? In which case, we find ourselves in a similar situation to that which we discussed in the previous question. That is, the inability of the human mind at present to cope with the concept of its own sentience. All acts of rebellion and of ideology stem from this coping mechanism I feel. They are still in place today – you assert that we either see a lack of ideals or a retreat into deliberately obscure mindsets – however, they are different sides of the same coin.
When people speak of a ‘lack of ideals’ they are generally referring to values which bear little meaning to them – materialism, short-term self-gratification, that sort of thing – but this is still a refuge from confronting the self, as is shrouding oneself in esoteric mysticism which is so detached from the visceral experience of day-to-day life that it too is an escape. As much it may pain those of us who purport to be more ‘enlightened’, given the limitations of our own senses and reason, we really aren’t in a position to judge.
You ask for honesty but as beings enslaved by our own egos and sentience, such an approach is practically impossible. All I can do – and I do not expect this of others – is to do my best to act in a way which I feels supports what I consider to be a rational world-view.
Everybody needs to escape from reality and we all have our favorite way(s) to alter/exit the day-to-day. I think deep down we know that most of our chosen forms of escapism are simply (often useless, often self-harming) palliatives, but surely Music – despite its power to completely transcend reality, is a worthy passion to indulge in because it engages your inner self with so many different aspects of the physical and metaphysical and, most of all, it makes you grow familiar with the spectrum of your own emotions. Ultimately we love art because it makes us feel alive…
Again, as you have stated, music is in many ways a form of escapism – however, it is a more abstract escapism in that it enables one to externalize and communicate on a fundamental level. Indeed, I would argue that ‘pure’ music (i.e. creating sounds/melodies, free from lyrics/concepts and in solitude) is less about escapism and more about catharsis. It’s a tonic, a need to bring something to life – the creative impulse is I feel quite a primordial drive and can in many ways be the very opposite of escapism. It’s about truly connecting with an insubstantial aspect of the self, about confronting those elements of ourselves we do not fully comprehend.
Of course, at the next level, when one brings artwork, playing as a band, live performances, lyrical concepts and the like into the mix, then we move further towards the territory of escape. Nevertheless, it’s a ‘positive’ form of escapism in my eyes (though I would say that!).
Fen’s music is a very fertile ground for experiencing an array of emotions. I am curious whether your own music moves you in the same way as music written by others does. Obviously you invest a lot of yourself in anything you create, but sometimes a creation (in my experience, when it begins to assume a truly universal significance) becomes something else and it feels no longer "yours”, almost taking its own direction, its own life.
I only write what I personally am interested in listening to. This is the ultimate test for me – would I choose to listen to this? That was the goal from minute one with Fen and this has not changed at all. Of course, having been working on Fen for over seven years now the band concept has very much evolved to take on its own identity – however, this is always driven by what myself and Grungyn feel is musically appropriate to deliver via the vessel of this band.
In essence, the band is a vehicle, an entity to deliver a certain atmosphere and to draw the listener into the ‘Fen’ journey. Nevertheless, this is a journey that we too as creators are on also.
I want to mention your brother Grungyn’s artwork for Dustwalker: in Epoch it was more ethereal and had a grim link with the present, while this time we see no strident signs of human presence within the landscape. The symbolism he used is very powerful, taking us to the heart of our ancestral relationship with nature, and I love the fact that every track has its visual symbolic counterpart. Like with the music, the artwork appears more focused, the impact on the subconscious is more immediate and it’s up to the individual to dig through the layers.
It was Grungyn’s idea to create a symbol for each piece on ‘Dustwalker’ and I think this has worked wonderfully. It is true that ‘Dustwalker’ deals with less tangible concepts than Epoch – it is a reflection upon one’s place in the material universe and an expression of existential… confusion? It’s hard to find the correct word – not ‘anguish’ necessarily but a lack of belonging, of being disconnected in some way. A ghost if you will. There are elements of human presence in the artwork panels of the new album but these are faded, indistinct, incorporeal – which is in keeping with the overall concept.
This analogy of ‘not belonging’ runs through a lot of more nature-themed expressions of black metal (and music in general) – harking back to times of yore, of a time when mankind would have been closer to nature. For me, this skirts a little too close to romanticized escapism for comfort. As much as I find a winter’s walk through the deep forest invigorating, cleansing and spiritually uplifting I am also self-aware enough to know if I were alive in the Dark Ages, it would NOT be a druidic, meditative experience – it would be dirty, vicious, a daily battle to survive.
Thus, the sense of yearning that much of this music is shot through with here relates less to a defined sense of ‘yearning for a better age’ as opposed to a yearning for understanding, a yearning to comprehend one’s true place.
"Spectre” is a beautiful example of folk-tinged post rock/black metal which shows us the more ethereal side of Fen. There are different sides to you as a musician: currently you have an outlet for giving vent to a more aggressive, straight-forward type of black metal (Virophage) and of course the De Arma project for which you sing and write lyrics. Andreas Pettersson’s band debuts at the end of February with the album Lost, Alien and Forlorn, released through Trollmusic. Your collaboration started with the beautiful split Towards the Shores of the End for Nordvis in 2011. Andreas has been incredibly prolific since he burst into the black metal scene with Armagedda: are you a long-standing fan of his music explorations (amongst which Whirling, Lönndom and the hot new arrival Stilla)?
Thanks for the comments on ‘Spectre’ – it was a risky move for us to record such a song but I think it is one that has worked. I’m personally very satisfied with the final result, I think it captures perfectly the atmosphere that we were trying to go for – in terms with tying in with the overall album ambience, it is perhaps this song more than any of the others that truly encapsulates the ghostly, disconnected feel of the concept.
As for Andreas’ work, I am a big fan of the last two Armagedda records – ‘Only True Believers’ is a great, no-nonsense ‘fist in the face’ black metal album whilst ‘Ond Spiritism’ is a real classic. Haunting, dark, spiritual, it’s an album I keep coming back to. I also enjoyed Lönndom a lot as well so when Andreas approached us with regards to working together, it was something I was very keen to do. He’s a man that has a clear understanding of what he wants to achieve with each of his artistic projects – he is prolific, certainly, but that only serves to enhance the quality and purity of that which he creates.
With De Arma, the concept here is defined, it’s clear and it’s obvious that he and I are operating in very similar musical territories and so it came together very naturally. We communicate regularly and I think we’re certainly on a similar wavelength.
The split showed a very close affinity between Fen and De Arma, especially with the haunting "Noemata” that sees you on vocal duties. Was this aspect in any way concurrent in the decision to have mostly clean singing on the album? How rewarding is it for you personally to be able to find such a strong outlet where to concentrate just on the singing?
It was actually Andreas’ idea for the album to be predominantly clean. ‘Noemata’ was mainly screaming but I guess it was the clean vocal sections that carried the most impact. I think it was the right decision but it was also a challenging one – I felt quite a lot of pressure to deliver something that would live up to the quality of the music. I really wanted to ‘nail it’ so to speak, not only in terms of performance but in terms of composing vocal lines/melodies that really hit the spot.
I had done some clean vocals before in Fen but these were few and far between, laced with reverb and generally quite distant. Andreas wanted the De Arma vocals to be much more prominent, clearer and louder which again increased the pressure to deliver! After feeling nervous & uncertain to begin with, I really got into it by the end – I have to say, it is very rewarding to compose clean vocal sections, layer harmonies and generally finalize the ‘character’ of a song so to speak. I’m happy with how the vocals have turned out on this record but now I am more comfortable working this way, I think much better is to come.
How did you find the inspiration for writing the lyrics for Lost, Alien and Forlorn? Were you given guidelines, discuss a central topic before hearing the music, or did it all flood in after listening to the beautiful and melancholy music penned by Andreas first?
Andreas left me to it if I’m honest – he gave me free reign in writing lyrics, defining concepts and coming up with themes. It’s quite interesting actually as I have gone down a very urban, claustrophobic path with the lyrics for this album – Andreas lives in a tiny village in the Swedish countryside so it might be hard for him in some ways to empathize with some of the concepts!
I jest, but for me I felt a profound sense of urban desolation from the music – cold, detached, droning, the soul of the city seeming to exhale in despair. I also wanted to work on ideas that were very different to Fen – Fen is about a spiritual yearning, external landscapes acting as a vessel in which to channel the internal. The lyrics on L, A & F are more direct – indeed, they refer to a rather ghastly period of my life where I was in the midst of some massively intense issues with a past relationship. This only served to enhance the sense of a soulless, soot-stained prison of a city. I guess in this sense, the external metaphor idea comes into play here also, though channeled via urban as opposed to rural landscapes.
They seem to be very intimate and personal lyrics… Can you enlighten me on the mysterious (to me) but very effective vocal samples which are found in the album?
Indeed, they are very personal lyrics – definitely the most personal and raw I have ever penned. Again, I was a little nervous about this but felt that the time was right to try and give voice to thoughts and issues that had been gnawing away at the corners of my consciousness for several years. The samples on the album however were not of my doing – these were Andreas’s idea and he implemented them. I haven’t actually asked him what they are actually, I really should do I guess! Whatever their source, they definitely aid in sustaining the reflective, bleak ambience of the record.
Do you appreciate A.’s choice to publish De Arma’s debut on a noble DIY label Trollmusic so far known more for the uncompromising principles of his amiable (self-proclaimed) trollish boss?
Trollish boss? That’s the first time I’ve heard this but I’ll take your word for it! I think it’s a great idea, I think Thor will promote this album well, he’s shown a lot of support for the project as its been going along and all in all, it’s the perfect choice. It means a lot for me to work with people who feel a genuine connection and involvement with their artists. We shall see how long it takes for the ‘trollishness’ to manifest itself…
LA&F is a very emotionally intense album: drenched in melancholy and sorrow very much rooted in humanity in its flesh and bones and its earthly condition. Scandinavians, accustomed to survive in harsh climate conditions, seem to be very concrete people, even in their mythological vision…
In my experience, there’s certainly an uncompromising hardiness to the Scandinavian way of thinking – a real focus and sense of purpose. This I have noticed and it is something I respect. It may well be born from harsher climes but I think it is no coincidence that the Scandinavian music scene (well, metal scene at least) is so prolific and produced so many works that are high-quality. It goes back to this drive, this committed focus and lack of compromise.
In relation to this De Arma album, I think that Andreas has aimed to tap into something primal and reflective musically, however it has been left to me to put the conceptual ‘flesh on the bones’ so to speak. It IS emotionally intense for sure – the layers of inference, metaphor and analogy in which I normally tend to wreath lyrics have been stripped away and many of the ideas here are quite ‘open’ and raw. The sorrow here is certainly rooted in the human condition – flesh and bone as you say but mired in a choking environment of humanity’s own creation. A self-imposed prison, a concrete and glass oubliette shutting out the light and condemning all within to murky misery.
I believe that humans intrinsically struggle with the city – a mere 4-500 years ago, most of us lived in villages and I don’t believe that our minds have evolved to keep pace with the ever-changing nature of our environments. At some primeval subconscious level there is a fundamental dissonance chiming away at the back of the brains of all city-dwellers – depression, hysteria, addictions, all of these I believe can be exacerbated manifestations of a fundamental unease. We need to belong, we need to be comfortable with our ‘place’ and if not, despair can arise.
For me, L, A & F is as much a rumination on this as it is a rumination on my own personal issues – in many ways inextricably entwined with this condition.
Time changes perspectives and boasting Viking ancestry apparently makes you cooler these days! Allain is apparently a Celtic name: are you interested in the origins of your family and your ancestors’ traditions?
Well, it is of interest to a degree but not something I have taken the time to fully explore. Allain is from my mother’s side and I believe the ancestral heritage from that side originates in France. My father is half-Ukranian so it is an interesting mix. I believe he has started to show some interest in genealogy so it may be that I might start getting more information with regards to my heritage so who knows?
Hopefully I shall see you in Europe with Fen, but could De Arma ever be tempted to do some live shows?
It was mentioned briefly but given the distances involved and how much my time (and traveling time) is tied up with Fen right now, I’m not sure it will happen in the near future. I did suggest to Andreas I might be able to head to Sweden once every 3-4 months and do bass/vocals (with himself on guitar and Johan doing drums) but he would like another guitar player for live purposes. So yes, it is something that has been mentioned – I think it would be an interesting challenge/experiment but it could be a bit of a fantasy at the moment. Who knows though?
In the meantime in May Fen will embark on an amazing journey as only support band for Agalloch on their much awaited ”Lucifer Over Europe 2013 Tour”: a truly unmissable event which many, myself included, have been fantasized about for a long time!
Prepare your soul to be awashed with sublime emotions...