The Watcher: “The sound I have in my head when I think of Fen is always evolving, always expanding. The quest to realise these sounds is a constant one, a journey that I feel will never truly be fulfilled, as it is a quest to achieve something that is fundamentally unachievable.”
Recentelijk verscheen het zesde album ‘The Dead Light’ van de Engelse band Fen, een ware parel doordrenkt met de grimmigheid van black metal, het beklijvende van post metal, het vernuft van progressieve structuren en heerlijke atmosferische passages. Hun intrede bij Prophecy Productions laten we niet zomaar voorbijgaan en daarom richten wij het woord aan zanger/gitarist The Watcher (Frank). Zijn eloquente antwoorden over de streek waar hij opgroeide, het immense universum, filosofische bedenkingen en het nieuwe album zijn al even boeiend als de schitterende muziek van Fen!
Vera Matthijssens Ι 10 december 2019
Congratulations with the new album ‘The Dead Light’ which is a mighty epic stunner! How are you doing at the moment?
Many thanks for the kind words on the album Vera, that’s great to hear! We are all OK at the moment – just waiting for the release of the record which is only a few days away now. It will be good to finally see it realised in a physical medium and see what the wider world thinks of it – we’ve been living with it for about 8 or 9 months now so for us, it is something very familiar. With that in mind, it’ll be very intriguing to see how people react or what our listeners think after their ‘first contact’ with the album!
Other than this, we are just preparing for our final few shows in 2019 and making plans/preparations for more live gigs in 2020 to support The Dead Light. And – of course – we are already making deep inroads into the writing, conceptualisation and atmosphere for the next full-length. It never stops…
Fen has always been an exceptional band with signature sound, being a blend of atmospheric black metal and post metal, but I think this sixth album ‘The Dead Light’ marks a new chapter at several levels. For instance it is the first album for Prophecy Productions after your long time cooperation with code666. How did this cooperation come into being and what are your thoughts about this new bond?
We worked with Code666 for nearly ten years and released five albums with them – by any measure, that is a long time and represented an amazing period for the band in terms of support and growth. Nevertheless, all things eventually come to an end and when we were approached by Prophecy, it felt like a natural point for us to part ways. We are always looking to challenge ourselves, to progress and step forward – I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a band to dwell in a ‘comfort zone’ for too long – so the opportunity to work with Prophecy really felt like the right thing to do for us. Not only this, but it kind of goes without saying that Prophecy are a label that really aligns with our outlook, aesthetics and ambience as a band. In many ways, Prophecy is more of a collection of like-minded artists than a ‘label’ in the traditional sense and our experiences at Prophecy Fest 2019 only served to underline this. I have been aware of Prophecy for many, many years and the opportunity to be part of this collective feels like a massive privilege. Of course, given their stature within the genre, it places more pressure upon us to excel, to deliver ever-more engaging and compelling art. But as I said earlier – why bother being in a band if you are not willing to rise to challenges? So for me, I am really excited as to what the future of this partnership holds. Working with Code666 was great and we would not be the band we are today without their support, however we are now all looking forward to the next stage of where this journey goes in collaboration with Prophecy.
The musical direction was also slightly expanded, going into a more direct way with proper heavy metal riffs and heavier approach. Also more epic at the same time. But how do you, as the creators, see this development on ‘The Dead Light’?
‘Direct’ is definitely one of the key words we started to throw around when the initial compositions began for ‘The Dead Light’, certainly. The previous record (‘Winter’) was a deliberately involved, indulgent, lengthy opus – we set out with a mission to create the most involved and dense record we could. I think we certainly achieved that and so when it came to start work on a follow-up, we all agreed that we didn’t want to simply ‘re-write’ the previous record and indeed, that the next record needed to adopt a markedly different approach. We quickly realised that we had really taken the long, winding approach of ‘Winter’ about as far as we could on that record, so we wanted to look at an approach that whilst still being intrinsically ‘Fen’ was also markedly different from ‘Winter’. And so from there, words like ‘direct’ and ‘concise’ began to circulate – to write songs that were more focussed, less winding, more taut. Atmospherically, we also began to think about where we wanted to go as well. ‘Winter’ was very earthy – dark, rich hues and a weighty production to match. This time around, we wanted something colder, sharper, almost ethereal in feel. So with these key considerations in mind, the material that you now hear on ‘The Dead Light’ began to take shape. Of course, there are riffs in there – we are a heavy metal band after all and with that in mind, riffs are essential! However, we’ve also looked to weave some distant, spectral elements in amongst the more raging passages, to weave together dark and light into a more coherent whole. This for me is the crux of the development in our material on this record.
Yet I think in the – mostly quite lengthy – songs one can still find all those elements of progressive skilfulness and soaring post rock melted together on a blackened foundation… Can we say that the sound of Fen has grown closer to the one you always had in mind?
That’s a difficult question to answer – the sound I have in my head when I think of Fen is always evolving, always expanding. The quest to realise these sounds is a constant one, a journey that I feel will never truly be fulfilled as it is a quest to achieve something that is fundamentally unachievable. That is, to give voice to something indefinable, to fully channel the creative impulse within into something coherent and tangible. For that is the creative journey is it not? To render an impulse into something that communicates, that delivers something internal in a form that manages to express and bridge the gap to an external observer/listener. With this in mind, with everything we write, record and create, we’re always seeking to produce the ‘perfect’ Fen album (whatever this may actually be!), something that delivers a wholly absorbing experience, that draws the listener into our world and takes them on the journey with us. Ultimately, my view on what the sound of Fen should be is always changing – subtly evolving and developing depending on my own thoughts, feelings and views. As it currently stands, with ‘The Dead Light’, I am content with how we have managed to translate our sonic/aesthetic visions into a record and in many ways, it is a remarkable achievement for us to translate those initial, nebulous inclinations as discussed above into a complete experience. However, there is always room to improve – always further to go, more avenues to explore and things left unsaid. This is the drive that compels us to create.
Even theme-wise the album explores new territories. Far away cosmic matters… What can you tell about your fascination for the universe? Did it already appear in your youth? How did it grow?
I think most children are fascinated by the night sky, by the stars and the limitless possibilities of a near-endless universe. Many people of course focus on other things as they ‘grow up’, becoming obsessed with careers, wealth, material goods and other such distractions. For some however, the fascination with the immensity of a reality beyond the confines of this tiny rock upon which we dwell continues to grow. For me, it has waxed and waned – I actually did study some elements of astrophysics at university so have some very limited understandings of the ‘basics’. However, for me, the fascination is something deeper – more ‘elemental’ if you will, a kind of philosophical ‘agoraphobia’ that grips me when gazing upon the endless depths of the night sky unburdened by light pollution. It’s something which has captivated mankind from the very primacy of human civilization – to the earliest tribes here in the UK constructing stone circles, to the Egyptian dynasties, the Aztecs – all looked to the heavens to seek their truths, to seek answers and understanding. I totally understand this – when one begins to think through the implications of the fundaments of our universe, that all matter and energy we perceive was essentially born in the heart of a star, that matter and energy are equivalent, that space/time is the key driver of many of the forces that underpin all we experience… I can’t fail to see how one could NOT be fascinated by it!
It is a theme which invites you to have philosophical thoughts I guess. If you start thinking about the futile role of mankind in the bigger scene…
Absolutely – the more one ponders upon such things, the deeper into the rabbit-warren of conjecture and speculation one can fall. As for mankind’s future position in the universe as a whole… who dares guess? The smart money of course is that in the next 50-100 years, we’ll end up eradicating ourselves – either through nuclear catastrophe, some sort of environmental meltdown or nano-technology recombining every molecule of matter into ‘grey goo’. Technology continues to gather apace after all and as it is invariably weaponised, I can’t see how some sort of techno-driven extinction event WON’T happen in the next century. If it doesn’t however – and the human race continues to evolve (and manages to do so intellectually/morally as well as technologically) then the future of humanity could evolve into something VERY different. There are so many disparate theories as to what the human race could look like in 10,000 or 100,000 or 10 million years – most lines of thought suggest a separation from the limitations of a physical being, that our consciousnesses will be essentially ‘uploaded’ into quantum computing systems that can extend out into the reaches of the universe. Indeed, there are very definite lines of thought that insist that such evolution will be necessary for a civilization that looks to expand into the realms of galactic occupation – energy needs will require whole systems of stars to be somehow harnesses and the restrictions of faster-than-light travel will require a complete overhaul of the very nature and ‘form’ of life itself. It could be that mankind essentially ‘evolves’ into simulations of consciousness, run on quantum-computing mainframes powered by whole stars surrounded by Dyson Spheres. At this point, the line between human machine becomes – perhaps irrevocably – blurred.
The vision of looking into the past when you see starlight is really fascinating (and so true of course)… in this respect the question: are there also movies or books that have an influence on your art?
Well, not really I have to be honest. Whilst I enjoy a good film, I have to (rather shamefully) admit that I mainly watch films to let my mind take a bit of time off – so whilst I can certainly appreciate the artistic achievement of many well-regarded films, for me, I use film as a bit of an escape. So I generally tend to wallow in watching rather superficial stuff. Certainly, there’s very little from the world of cinema that influences my work in Fen. Reading-wise, it is a little different. Traditionally, I have drawn a fair bit of inspiration from the metaphysical and existential realm of philosophy – so Kant, Hume, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein and so on… have all played a part in informing some of the deeper considerations behind the lyrics that appear on our records. For this album in particular, there is a rich well-spring to draw upon – indeed, the many theories and speculations that surround the universe, it’s composition, the future, it’s endpoint and all the surrounding philosophical implications are an endless source of inspiration. For some specific reference points for this album, I was quite taken in by Tipler’s ‘The Physics of Immortality’ which, whilst obviously outlandish at many stages, puts forward some interesting theories that tie together religious eschatology, the afterlife, resurrection and the ‘endpoint’ for humanity. David Deutch’s ‘The Fabric of Reality’ was similarly an intriguing read addressing (principally) quite similar concepts. Quite honestly though, a cursory dip into astrophysics, astrophysical philosophy and a number of associated topics will quickly inspire the open mind.
But Fen was always known for being inspired by The Fens, your marshy ground of birth. Can you tell a bit more about that as well?
Well, to correct you a little on this, I wasn’t actually born in the fens – we moved there when I was ten years old, so it’s probably fairer to say I grew up in the fens. It’s a very strange place for sure and quite unique in some ways. Much of it used to be under water until it was drained in the 19th Century to create areas of arable farmland. It’s incredibly flat – the skies are huge and loom over the dark, peaty soils, whilst evidence of humanity is pretty scattered. The odd farm, the occasional industrial warehouse and every now and then, an isolated village. It’s not ‘traditionally’ beautiful – no rolling greenery or stone walls, the villages by and large are fairly functional and robust. It’s not an area for tourists – it’s for locals and stoic wanderers only. Growing up there as a teenager, I really resonated with the sense of isolation and loneliness the landscape emitted, it felt powerfully emblematic of my own feelings. That said, there is a special kind of beauty to the fens – in the murky encroaching twilight, as the mists seep across the flat soils and spindly copses of trees reach up like claws to the clouds, it kind be unusually evocative. So when the time came to form this band, to try and deliver a form of more reflective, personal black metal, it made complete sense to try and channel these sensations within the music – to invoke these unique atmospheres and transport the listener to these distinctive, lonely landscapes.
The next new challenge was recording with Chris Fielding at Foel Studios (a well respected man). While’ Winter’ still happened to be eternalized still at Orgone Studios. What about this switch and the cooperation with Chris?
It was part of our continued drive to do things differently, push ourselves and seek a new side to our sound. Working with Jaime at Orgone was an amazing experience and the sound he achieved for us was exceptional for the themes we were exploring on the ‘Winter’ album. For ‘The Dead Light’ however, we spent a lot of time examining our options before ultimately deciding to work with Chris at Foel. There was just something about our communications with him and our desire to produce something a little more ‘ethereal’ that made sense. He was completely on our wavelength, understood exactly what we wanted to achieve and really helped shape the album in many ways. In addition, I’ve always wanted to record an album at the legendary Foel premises – it’s almost a part of recording folklore these days, this remote, rustic, character-full outpost in the depth of the Welsh countryside. The idea of being able to camp out there, free from any distractions, surrounded by the wilderness and truly focussing on our work was a very enticing one. It enabled us to really, truly focus on what we were doing – indeed, we probably ended up getting a little obsessed at points (indeed, we did need to take a break to the pub in the nearest village at one point, just to ‘come up for air’!). Nevertheless, I think the results really underline the value in the approach we took.
The title track is made up of two parts (and that’s not new for Fen). Can you tell a bit more about the creation of this double track?
The title track is an interesting one – it’s very riff-heavy and quite jagged. It starts off without compromise and I think is quite a statement of intent for this whole record. Indeed, it’s probably the song I have been the most nervous about in terms of how our listeners might react to it, given that is probably the furthest from the generally-accepted ‘post/gaze black metal’ sonic template people have come to expect in 2019. Nevertheless, making it the title track was again sending out a bold, definitive message for us, to underline what we wanted this latest record to stand for. That is, we have no intention of simply ‘churning out’ post/gaze BM by numbers, the usual chords, melodies and phrases – we always intend to do things OUR way and this track was the strongest example of that. As for breaking it into two pieces… I guess part 2 is very much a ‘coda’ to the main song, however when we worked on it in rehearsal, it felt like a fairly natural break point. Whilst it retains the central 5/4 rhythmic theme that underpins the first part, the ‘feel’, the atmosphere and the expansiveness is actually very different and quite ambiguous. Part 1 is pretty bleak, jagged and negative – the second part perhaps adds an expansive touch of light, hope and optimism to the piece. With this in mind, it felt like a natural development to separate these two parts of the song into distinctive components.
Another song I would like to hear some more thoughts about the writing and intentions of is the epic ‘Labyrinthine Echoes’. This really has a fluent infiltration of all kinds of your sound…
That’s a spot-on assessment – it really is very much a classic Fen ‘epic’ with all of the hallmarks of our sound that we have developed to date contained in one song. This track was pretty much written solely by Grungyn and I think he really pushed himself to look at encapsulating the whole sonic spectrum of the band in a single piece. It’s almost a Fen ‘best of’ you could say! It took quite a while to make sure the dynamics of the piece really held together – all three of us spent a lot of time tweaking the pacing and feel of the components of this song to ensure it flowed seamlessly between the many sections it contains. It was definitely one of the more challenging tracks to realise. As a result, I think the ebb and flow – the relentless march towards that final immense ‘build’ – works really well. Lyrically, this track deviates a little from the central themes of the album – it’s really a study of decay and degradation but really filtered through the substrate of human experience. What happens as our minds begin to deteriorate? Our brains are the filters through which every single element of experience are processed and relayed – what happens when these perception mechanisms betray us and begin an inexorable slide towards total failure? It makes for grim thinking and probably informed some of the more desperate vocal performances on the album (indeed, Grungyn handles the lead vocals for most of this track and I think the pain being delivered is palpable).
And ‘Nebula’ is graced with a video clip. What is your attitude for making video clips? Are you going to shoot more visual experiences?
We’ve not made many videos as you can probably see. We did a self-made video clip for one of the songs from ‘Winter’, but that really has been it. For this record, we really wanted to release a ‘single’ before the album if you will – a calling-card song that would pave the way and set the scene for the full-length to follow. To support it, we really felt a video of some description would help us – so we turned to our good friend Alex from Morbid Angle to help us with this. Time really was against us – these things always creep up on you after all! – so I really do have to applaud how much work these guys managed to get done in such a short space of time! They did a fantastic job at channelling the feel and concepts of the piece whilst managing to keep it engaging. OK, so it’s a shorter song by our standards but it’s still seven minutes of extreme metal with a few twists and turns, so for the guys to put together such an engaging video for this and one that moves along with the song’s various passages is very impressive. At the end of the day, for me personally, I am no expert on making videos and it isn’t something that holds an enormous amount of fascination to me. However, I still think they are a valid and useful medium for supporting musical releases, for helping consolidating aesthetics and for really acting as a great way of engaging with new and existing supporters alike. With this in mind, we do definitely have plans to create more videos in the future – in an ideal world, we have the time (and budget!) to shoot a fully-developed narrative video for a track that really aligns with the message we are looking to convey.
Remaining in the visual aspects: the artwork is done by band member Grungyn. Can you go deeper into the creation and possible symbolism?
I always work closely with Grungyn when it comes to formulating the artwork for our releases. For this record, the concepts came together quite quickly – we were both of the opinion we wanted a colder, starker, quasi-monochromatic colour palette and a visual depiction that was at once both striking, rich and yet shot through with the overwhelming bleakness at the heart of the record’s message. I think he has absolutely nailed it if I’m honest, even if I am biased. The cover art exudes dread, beauty, fear, destruction, coldness and vastness – all of the sensations that thrums through the human mind when it allows itself to dwell for too long on the hidden depths of the void. It’s strangely compelling but is also thematically linked to previous releases too – there are hints of the soils and landscape of ‘Winter’ within the cover art and again, this is a very deliberate and symbolic link to that album also. ‘Winter’ looked to the earth for meaning, solace and truth – and when only death and entombment is found there, our search turns to the skies, seeking revelation within ‘The Dead Light’ that pours from countless billions of hopeless celestial entities.
In September your entrance at Prophecy Productions was celebrated with a gig at Prophecy Fest. What are your memories of the event and how do you look back at playing at this special location?
What can I say? It was a truly amazing event and one of those experiences that makes all of the sacrifices and frustrations of being in a band feel worthwhile. We thought it would be good – we’d spent some time looking at pictures of the venue, doing our homework – but we really weren’t prepared for the overwhelming scale and atmosphere of it at all. It must be said that the Balver Höhle venue is truly unique – it simply oozes ambience, it’s the perfect setting in which to perform intense, atmospheric music. The lighting, the acoustics, the ‘feel’ of the whole place are just perfect. Just to stand in that venue is stirring enough, but to step onto that stage in front of hundreds of respectful, knowledgeable enthusiasts… incredible stuff indeed. Playing alongside – and getting to know – some excellent artists was also a fantastic experience. Alcest, Vemod, Darkher and many others, it meant the whole weekend was hugely enjoyable. Ultimately, it was an honour to perform there and it was one of those live shows that I will look back on with pride until my final days.
Can you tell something about Fen as a live band… what about your live activities in the past? Enough chances in your opinion? Any highlights until now?
As we have been in existence for quite a few years now, we have played a fair few shows in our time. Playing live for us is something that has always been important – indeed, it’s fundamental for us that we are able to render our material in the live environment – however, I’d like to think the Fen live experience is suitably different from Fen on record. There are only three of us and we like to keep it that way – the albums of course are hugely layered with multiple guitar lines, vocals, acoustics e.t.c. but live, we are committed to a more direct, visceral representation of our art. After all, it’s LIVE for fuck’s sake – we want to get back to the essence of what live rock and metal music is all about. Volume, passion, power, performance. I’ve no interest in trying replicate the effect of listening to the CD loudly – what the hell is the point? Too many bands these days enslave themselves to backing tracks, pumping layer after layer through a laptop into a PA. It leads to a deceptive, sterile experience in my view – every time I sit in the audience and see the tell-tale black wire leading into the drummers ear, my heart sinks. So with the Fen live experience you WON’T see laptops, headphones and hear layer after layer of MP3 files pumping out of the PA – nor will you see a bunch of bored looking session guys playing some barely-audible guitar lines. What you WILL see is three guys giving it 110% – digging as deep as possible to deliver a captivating, faithful representation of their art. With three guys and no backing tracks, there is nowhere to hide – each of us has to give their absolute all to do our art and crucially, our audience, justice. If we don’t leave the stage utterly drained and exhausted then we haven’t done our job in my eyes. As for highlight gigs we have played, Prophecy Fest is obviously high on the list for sure! Playing an early edition of the Summer Sonnewald Fest in 2011 was remarkable also – performing on an Austrian mountainside as beacon fires are lit against the night sky in front of you is a pretty special moment. The European tour we played with Agalloch was also a really enjoyable adventure, as were the shows we have played in places such as Moscow, Canada and the US. Whilst we don’t seem to be on the radar of the big festivals, we have certainly received support from smaller, more enthusiastic ‘DIY’ promoters across the globe which is really heartening.
And what are your plans for the near future, for playing live or at any other level?
Well, we can’t really go into any specifics at this point, but we are working hard at bringing a headlining ‘The Dead Light’ tour to Europe in the Spring of 2020. If it all goes to plan, this will be our first ever headlining tour so it’s something we are really looking forward to.
To occlude: the album will come out in various formats, that’s also a pro at Prophecy. Are you close connected with all those different issues? I mean, are you a fan of physical purchase yourself?
Absolutely. I don’t use Spotify or any of that stuff – the furthest I’ll go is checking out a few records on Youtube whilst typing up some documents for work – so high-quality physical renditions of releases are really important to me. A well-pressed, beautifully-presented vinyl is a thing of wonder to me which is why I am always very engaged with our labels to ensure that this is something that supports our albums also. I love buying LPs I have to say – I’ve had to cut back a little as life just gets more and more expensive, but if it’s a significant release, I’ll certainly treat myself to a deluxe vinyl package if I can! Thankfully, Prophecy are also aligned with this thinking and you can just tell by a cursory glance at their webstore that they are committed to putting out excellent physical versions of all of their releases. True to form, it looks like they have done an excellent job with ‘The Dead Light’ and I really can’t wait to finally hold it in my eager hands!
Can you tell a bit more about the bonus CD with three extra tracks?
We wanted to support the album with a deluxe double-CD book edition of the album, so it made sense for us to present some additional music for a bonus EP. Two of the songs were recorded as part of the album sessions – ‘Monochromatic Ossuary’ and ‘Searching’. The first is one of the earliest pieces we wrote for the record – I think it’s a great song but as the rest of the material came together, it just didn’t seem to ‘fit’ in the overall atmosphere of the album. ‘Searching’ is an instrumental shoegaze/post-rock piece that almost acts as an outro/coda to the whole album – quite honestly, I think it’s a wonderful way to actually conclude the whole album experience and indeed, has inspired us to look at developing more songs along these lines. The last piece is a re-working of ‘Walking The Crowpath’ from our third album, ‘Dustwalker’. It’s a bit of an experiment – a shoegazey/folky reworking of what is originally a very long, involved song. We’ve taken some key sections and turned into something more ritualistic, mantra like and gentle. I think it’s a successful experiment myself!
If there is something you’d like to add, please feel free to do it right here…
I think we’ve pretty much covered everything here – thanks for the in-depth interrogation and glad to hear you like the album!
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