Grazie alla disponibilità di Frank (a.k.a. The Watcher) ho potuto approfondire ancora una volta ciò che da vita e suono a una delle mie band preferite, i Fen, che si confermano, anche sotto il punto di vista relazionale, una delle realtà artistiche più interessanti incrociate negli ultimi anni, nel mare magnum della musica pe(n)sante….
A couple of years ago I’ve interviewed you for “Dustwalker”, underlining its many aspects and characteristics, as a very heterogeneous album. Now with “Carrion Skies” you display a somewhat darker and bleaker mood, both music-wise and lyrics-wise, combined in a more homogeneous and uniform work. What impulse and aim are behind this relative focus shift?
It was indeed a very deliberate shift of focus. As soon as “Dustwalker” was completed, we started work on newer material which saw us moving further down the path of shoegaze, guitar-wave and post-rock. We were quite excited about it at the time and things moved quite quickly. It was only when we returned from the “Dustwalker” tour in April/May 2013 and started picking this material up again that we realized that it was not of the required standard. Quite simply, we had allowed ourselves to become distracted, to become overly-excited by wandering down increasingly ‘non-metal’ paths.
Now there is nothing wrong with this in essence, however for us, we realized it was to our detriment and that regardless of how ‘different’ we thought we were being, the quality was suffering. The tour was a real eye-opening experience for us – playing night-after-night, really getting to know your material intimately. Not only this, but to play with a band with the status and professionalism of Agalloch, to witness the reception they were getting each show, we realized we needed to raise our game considerably. So, we forced ourselves to reassess the material as objectively as we possibly could. We realized that meandering further away from metal in a self-satisfied fashion would have been an error at the stage we were at – granted, the atmospheric/post-rock/shoegaze elements present in our songs defined a big part of our sound but it HAD to be tempered with the juxtaposition of ‘proper’ metal. We all felt unified in a drive to create something darker, fiercer, more ‘earthy’ and ‘solid’ than the ethereal nature of the previous album. The material we had written was pulled apart, re-worked, sharpened, honed and re-formed into something far more appropriate for where we were mentally at that time. We forced ourselves out of our own comfort zone and by pulling ourselves back from the precipice of resting on our laurels, created what I personally feel is our most considered, focused and intense work to date.
Looking back to Fen’s previous releases, I’ve always appreciated the way you depict the uniqueness of every album, using your music like photographs to record emotional moments of your life, each one with a particular mood and colour-palette. Is that so, also with “Carrion Skies”?
I think that’s a fair assessment – each album has had an overarching atmosphere to it, reflected in a combination of imagery, sound and theme (“The Malediction Fields” – autumn, browns, dead leaves, “Epoch” – twilight, water, mist, etc…). “Carrion Skies” meanwhile relates to the elements and more ‘earthy’ topics – primarily stone and soil, fire and smoke belching in grey skies charged with the stench of humanities relentless follies. There is also a direct – and challenging – addressing of human society, culture, psychology and the myriad cycles of failure that plague it. This manifests itself in the atmosphere of the album too – concepts of sacrifice, conflict and worship, all powerful drivers of the human condition, these too are explored and embodied in within the intermingling of sound and imagery.
Does your relationship with your local country have changed, with the passing of time?
Not really – with age comes an increased level of understanding and cynicism but I would argue that this always been there within me. Maturity simply provides me with the mechanisms to express my thoughts either to myself (or others, should they ask!). If by ‘country’ you are asking in terms of my relationship with my nation, nothing has changed there – it is the land of my birth and a culture I am familiar with. Many of the trappings of ‘english life’ I still enjoy – the countryside, evenings in the pub, the dry reserve of the English people – although concepts such as ‘english pride’ and over nationalism are something of an anathema to me. I feel no need to aggressively trumpet some sort of perceived superiority of the nation of my birth. As I have said, there are many aspects of English culture which I appreciate, however the same is true of practically every country I have visited and I am sure if I lived in Germany, Belgium, wherever, I would enjoy that just as much. The political situation in the UK I will not comment on as it has no bearing on this band. If by local country, you are referring to the landscape in which I was raised – the fens – then again, this is something that remains unchanged by the passage of time. It is still a hugely important thing to me, it embodies something deep within my essence, spending time in these landscapes is a massive tonic – at once calming, cathartic and hugely inspirational. It is a hard mentality to accurately put into words – I realise that to outside observers, it is not a particularly interesting place, just lots of flat landscapes and the odd thin band of trees. Nonetheless, for me, the winding, reed-choked waterways, black peat soils and huge skies are a tonic, a source of endless motivation. It channels the bleakness within. Indeed, if anything, as time passes I feel MORE connected to this area, the resonance between man and landscape echoing ever more strongly.
Before this last album, one could loosely describe your material like “the sound of the dark and misty moors, cold and damp seemingly endless nights”. But now I feel a new, stronger connection to the unworldly, immaterial world, just like if the “Carrion Skies” took the place of the “Malediction fields”, in your focus. Is that so?
Personally, I actually think “Carrion Skies” is more connected to the material world than the last two albums – particularly “Dustwalker” which was an album rooted in the incorporeal, the half-formed and the ethereal. Carrion Skies is an attempt to deliver something rooted in the earth – reminiscent of ancient granite megaliths anchored in soils once drenched with the blood of the sacrificed. Indeed, earthier, bloodier lyrical subjects and a more overtly black metal approach certainly position this album closer to “The Malediction Fields” than any of our other records. This is not to say that it represents some sort of ‘back-to-the-roots’ cliché, backpedalling away from the journey we have made so far. It is a long way from this – certainly musically – however, there is definitely some thematic resonance with the debut for sure. Again though, this in itself embodies the cyclical nature of humanity.
Let’s focus on the title, “Carrion Skies”. What meaning or thought you want to convey, choosing this particular word?
The title comes from a line in the first song, ‘Our Names Written in Embers’ – the line in question is ‘carrion seas and vulpine cries’, an embodiment of the essence of conflict, the wolves circling and howling around oceans of the slain. The overarching theme of the album relates to the relentless destructive cycles of man and the ‘Carrion Skies’ in question represent the blood-drenched, corpse-strewn, smoke-stained horizon that is the inevitable future for this doomed species should we continue this inexorable march towards self-destruction.
During our last interview we talked about Paganism and traditional religions, and you told me that any form of worship is something not pertaining to the Fen. All this considered, how do you explain a song like “Menhir – Supplicant”?
My position still holds and whilst this song in particular deals with concepts of worship and sacrifice, it is most definitely NOT an endorsement of such impulses! Humanity across the ages has always been compelled towards worship for a variety of reasons – fear, the unexplained, the delegation of responsibility, sadism, masochism, a variety of impulses that have driven societies towards desperate supplication and debasement in the name of piety. It is a constant source of bemusement to me – of course, we could at this juncture address the many-headed hydra that is organized religion but this is a scourge for which we do not have the space to discuss in this interview! Suffice to say, the manipulation of the poor, the hopeless and the downtrodden in the guise of monotheistic salvation has been one of the elite’s most profound, long-running and successful devices. “Menhir-Supplicant” instead addresses worship and sacrifice at a more prosaic level – what is it that drives humans towards worship, towards an almost masochistic desire to self-flagellate? What flaw is it in the psyche of our species that has meant that even within this so-called technocratic age of enlightenment, we still prostrate ourselves before arbitrary altars and imaginary Gods long since twisted beyond recognition from the allegories from which they originated? I have no answers to this – no one does – but it is a powerful question indeed and one that causes me endless frustration that only intensifies as I get older.
Could you tell me something about the concept/story behind “Our Names Written in Embers”?
As I have alluded to earlier, this relates to another timeless human compulsion – conflict. Whether it be a straightforward tussle for resource appropriation or something more primordial (a way of channeling the inner beast, the primeval desire to triumph over one’s rivals), the human animal has shown a relentless propensity – nay, lust – to slaughter his own, to manufacture reasons for conflict and delight in inflicting misery. The song was broken into two parts – at first, this was a musical decision as it was felt there was a very definite shift of tone, however this began to dovetail into the lyrical element as the concept was expanded upon. “Part 1″ deals with the fervor and enthusiasm for conflict. Humans and society have such short memories, barely have the dead been put in the ground and the mourning completed before the drums of war begin to pound once again. ‘This time will be different – right is on our side and this time triumph, glory and victory will be our!’ – time and again, each side spins these lies to itself and the slaughter commences. It is only then that the reality hits, that the paper-thin duplicity of what has been sold unravels in a slew of body parts. “Part 2” is the desolate aftermath – a shell-shocked populace, heaps of the slain, nothing gained save for the puppet-masters who instigated the whole gruesome affair. And so the period of mourning, introspection and solemn vows to lessons learned begins… until the next clarion call for battle is heard. And so it goes on. Across the ages, across civilizations, the cycle has always been thus. It is not for us to discuss the manipulations of those who stand to gain from these ventures, again this is a discussion that could take all day. Instead, the lyrics of this song address the baser impulse – why are humans so readily compelled to fight? What is the motivation for the deep-seated lust for conflict that simmers so close to the surface of most people? Why is it so easy for those with power and so much to gain find it so easy to stir the masses to bloodthirst and sadism? Again, I don’t have the answers to this but like with “Menhir – Supplicant” these are considerations that have been plaguing me with ever-increasing intensity. This song acts as my catharsis of this despairing reflection.
I’ve saw you live, with Agalloch (17/05/2013), a memorable night, and I was amazed by your guitar-style. Even though it seems that you do not use a huge amount of pedals, and/or effects, your sound is deep, complex, yet straightforward and ever-changing…
Thanks, that’s nice to hear as I have spent a lot of time developing my guitar sound since we slimmed down to a three piece. Given that we are playing relatively layered music that is intended to be as immersive as it can be, it presents quite a challenge given that there are only three of us. It means that each member of the band has to maximize what they can deliver with their respective instrument and for me, that means doing my best to make a single guitar fill as much of the sonic space as possible. I actually do use quite a lot of effects – my pedalboard has grown considerably over the last 3-4 years and now includes several delays and reverbs as well as a number of modulation effects (chorus, phaser, etc…). Pedal collection has become something of a minor addiction which I’ve had to control a bit this past year or so! In addition to this, as much as possible I run the guitar in stereo into two guitar amps. This way, each amp can be panned left and right to create a wider, more enveloping sound. It also enables me to experiment with having a clean and distorted sound running simultaneously at points for added texture. I also try to use wide chords as much as possible, often tremolo picking across four or more strings – again, this is with the goal of achieving as big a sound as I can. It can be an effort, particularly under hot stage lights and with the pressure of doing vocals as well but I think it is an essential part of the Fen sound these days. Thanks for your comments though, it is heartening to acknowledge that the hard work is appreciated!
I’ve bought the wooden box edition, because I think that, especially nowadays, the only way to survive, for all physical formats, is to offer something more, something unique, the digital world cannot never reach. Do you agree?
Absolutely. I have been saying this for years that particularly for niche music such as extreme metal, ‘tangibles’ are so important – it isn’t just about the music itself but the ‘supporting elements’. Good artwork, physical items such as patches, t-shirts, even packaging that is artistic within itself (such as the wooden box for the most recent album). This is definitely the way forward for smaller labels to convince people to actually invest in the music they profess to love. It is a little bit of a sad state of affairs that so-called music lovers have to be almost ‘bribed’ into investing in art but that is the situation in which we currently find ourselves. Nevertheless, personally speaking, I can sense a shift back towards the satisfaction of the physical side of music ownership – the excitement the listening public initially experienced at the proliferation of pirated digital music (‘Hey! There’s all this music out there and it’s all free!!!’) is waning I feel. It’s an empty process, a mouse-click, some files downloaded, there you go – there’s no ‘soul’ in such a process, it’s simply a stockpiling exercise. The ever-increasing sales of vinyl over the last 4-5 years to me suggests a shift back to ‘proper’ musical appreciation – not in a sense of fetishizing material goods but instead in a sense of dedicating quality time and energy sitting down and LISTENING to music. This is something I support wholeheartedly. I am a vinyl lover and there really is no better way to properly appreciate music than to be sat in front of the turntable, inlay/artwork/lyrics nearby, whisky in hand. If I sound like a snob then I make no apologies I’m afraid – it is just good to see some signs of life within this long-running digital desert.
From years on, you’re in the roster of Code666 Records. Are you satisfied with this dimension, or you’re looking forward to a greater label, with greater means of promotion/distribution?
Code666 have shown us immense support since we first signed to them back in 2007-2008 for the release of our debut album. They always invest 100% in each of our albums and ensure that each one gets the right level of promotion and support. Not only this, they are massively committed to producing impressive special editions of each new album – these versions always represent the ‘true’ version of each record featuring as they normally do appropriate bonus material and packaging that befits the atmosphere of each record. So yes, this is a relationship we are very happy with. They have also began to issue each album on vinyl as well – Carrion Skies was released on DLP simultaneously with the release of the album itself and plans are afoot to issue vinyl versions of both ‘Dustwalker’ and ‘Epoch’ which, being the vinyl enthusiasts that we are, is quite exciting for us.
What are your feelings and thoughts when you get to know that your music helps people to forget about their problems, or to go through a tough phase?
That is always humbling to hear. The very idea of people independently enjoying our music is always something that inspires me so the concept of people actually finding our music as a helpful way of progressing through a difficult period in their lives is moving indeed. As musicians, we invest ourselves 100% in the music we are creating and speaking from my own perspective, Fen is a very personal creative endeavor for me. It is something that is a catharsis of a lot of my own negativity and acts as a conduit for the difficulties that I also encounter – therefore, for others to experience a similar sense of catharsis when listening to our music generates a powerful sense of empathy. Ultimately, our goal with Fen is to take the listener on a journey with us through the bleak landscapes of existence via the medium of our music and for people to actually join us on said journey is the truest validation of our creativity.
Nowadays there are many web services that helps promoting music, such as Bandcamp, Spotify, Deezer and so on. What are your views concerning this matter?
My thoughts are very much mixed but I don’t think it’s fair to lump all of these services into one bracket. Bandcamp for example I think is an excellent tool for connecting new/up-and-coming artists/labels directly with their audience. It feels to me like the natural evolution of Myspace and represents a legitimate portal through which artists can control the flow of their music to the public at large. The ability to link it to merch sales, the ability to provide access to physical releases, the ‘clean’ look of the site and ability to style a page (albeit in a limited fashion) to your liking make it a great tool. And indeed, if a band wants to release their album for free to download over the internet, that is their decision that is under their control. With this in mind, I think it is a very useful promotional tool. Streaming sites on the other hand are a different ball game to me. Deezer I don’t know but Spotify… hmmm. I’m no fan of this service, to put it bluntly. For me, it embodies the worst of the ‘consumer culture’ approach to music whereby songs should be free ‘files’ to be accessed at any stage in the lowest possible quality and for the maximum convenience of whomever wants it. There’s no real sense of connecting to the artists in question, no implication of investment in the music being obtained. Simple, fast-food culture musical tidbits to be delivered to the distraction generation for the most part. The remuneration to artists is pitiful and it exists almost solely as a platform for delivering advertisements and making the shareholders of Spotify money via advertising revenue. Go advert-free and they still get money – money that could be invested directly in a new band who have just released their self-funded debut EP for example, rather than being shoveled into the bank account of a corporate behemoth. Yes, being featured on Spotify is doubtless useful for artists in terms of exposure but given they have no control over how their music is presented, delivered or remunerated, it is something of a Faustian pact. Yes, it’s true that promotion is valuable to ANY artist but it is always worth considering the long-term impacts of such businesses on music as a concept, full-stop. What seems to be a wonderful solution to the listener can come back to bite the artist hard – and if you have a foot in both camps, it could be worth stopping and thinking about what impact such rampant consumerism is having on your OWN art.
“Carrion Skies” reached the first position in my top ten 2014. What are your favorite albums from the past year?
2014 was a year of incredible quality: Nightbringer “Ego Dominus Tuus”, Yob “Clearing the Path to Ascend”, Ascension “The Dead of this World”, Blut Aus Nord “Memoria Vetusta 3 – Saturnian Poetry”, Dirge “Hyperion”, Ghast “Dread Doom Ruin”, Dead Congregation “Promulgation of the Fall”… the list goes on. The last Primordial album was great, Pallbearer put out a good one, Agalloch’s “The Serpent and the Sphere” was possibly their best yet. 2014 really was a strong year, so many excellent records from both established stalwarts and exciting newcomers. I’m honoured you have given us top spot amongst such company!
Ok Frank, this was my last question. Thanks for your time and congratulations for the album. I look forward ti see you soon again live on the road.
Thanks for the insightful interview and for the support, most appreciated.