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FEN & FELLWARDEN INTERVIEW

FEN & FELLWARDEN INTERVIEW
(The Lockdown Diaries part 2)
by Dayal Patterson, 2020. 

The Watcher. Photo by Tom Huskinson

Edging closer and closer to ‘official veteran status’ within the British underground metal scene, Fen have been crafting sublimely atmospheric, emotive songs since their late-2000s inception, its members having played in various bands for a further decade before that. Releasing a very respectable six albums (not to mention a handful of EPs and splits), the group has matured like a fine wine (or if we’re going to keep in line with the members’ own tastes, an expensive malt whisky) frequently blurring the fine line between traditional atmospheric black metal and more post-black metal explorations.

Like many such bands, the natural world has bled through much of Fen’s back catalogue, though it must be said that they have often approached this theme in a less overt and literal manner than many of their contemporaries. Though the band has always been situated in London, its founding members – brothers The Watcher (vocals and guitars) and Grungyn (bass) – originally hail from the East of England, near the coastal plains known as The Fens, and this unusual location not only impacted upon the group’s choice of moniker but also some of their artistic direction.

Fen's sixth album The Dead Light.
The band’s latest opus, Dead Light, deals with nature in perhaps its broadest sense, reflecting on the cold indifference of the cosmos and its impact on the human condition. Such feelings may be resonating with the group’s members particularly acutely at the moment, since Fen were directly affected by the current pandemic, their recent European tour plans grinding to a halt after a few dates due to travel restrictions. We caught up with The Watcher himself, to get his thoughts on these challenging times…

Dayal Patterson: Hello sir! Can you begin by telling us how lockdown life has been treating you this last month or so?

The Watcher: “Same as it has most people I guess; it’s kind of an unusual paradigm in many respects, and obviously being cooped up in a pretty tiny flat in North London takes its toll every now and then. That said, we’re luckier than some: We have a small outside area for a start, a few parks nearby that mean we can take our allocated exercise near something vaguely resembling wild space, and we’re not having to occupy or home-school any children! So it could be worse.”

Is there any upside to all this for you? Have you found this period to be artistically beneficial for example? I assume you at least have more time to work on your many musical projects without the daily commute and nightlife temptations otherwise consuming your time?

“It’s a bit of a double-edge sword creatively. Of course, ‘full band’ activities (rehearsing, gigging, recording) have had to be put on hold, but there are also a lot of opportunities given the time that’s now available. No distractions in the form of an active ‘out of the house’ social life means that I have suddenly been gifted with this massive plateau of free time to write and work in my home studio. Which is, in some respects, something of a dream come true; as soon as the day’s work ceases  – for I am still working from home in my day job – I can immediately pick up the guitar or fire up ProTools and start working on things...”

Fen in Highgate Wood, London. Photo by Dayal Patterson.

“…However, I am also feeling a slight sense of creative ‘ennui’ – that is, I’m always acutely aware of balance and juxtaposition. Stimulus and experience are essential components of creativity I feel, and the lack of alternative ‘energies’ (for want of a better word) I’m encountering due to lockdown are starting to drain me a little. Put simply, as the samey days pass, it gets harder to draw on the inner wellspring of inspiration.”

Do you think you would always want to work full-time in a field other than music for that reason? Is it difficult balancing a serious, long-term career with your many musical and creative projects?

“It can be hard – as we get older, the natural evolution is for work/career pressures to intensify, for responsibilities in the workplace to increase and the expectation that it will be prioritised over ‘frivolities’ such as bands and other outside work activities. What the last couple of months have shown me nevertheless is that – as much as a full-time career in some sort of musical capacity is something I still distantly aspire to – it wouldn’t be a ‘magic bullet’ cure-all to turn my life into endless halcyon days of enjoyment and satisfaction. Maintaining focus, inspiration and drive is absolutely key, and as twisted as it sounds, dragging ourselves into the gruelling, sterile ‘nine to five’ slog of some arbitrary, pointless job does provide that. It’s an element of counterbalance.”

“That said, it’s too much in many ways; burning 10 to 11 hours a day, five days a week, just rips the guts out of your time. Trying to squeeze genuinely inspired creativity into a snatched hour here and there in an evening or into (inevitably hectic) weekends is a huge challenge. In an ideal world, I’d be able to rebalance things in some way... but as is painfully evident, we do not live in an ideal world.”


Fen live in Glasgow, UK. Photo by Ross Elder.

Let’s move onto a more positive subject, namely the most recent Fen album, The Dead Light, released late last year. How have you found the reception has been from both fans and critics thus far? And more importantly, how do you feel about that album now that a little time has passed and perhaps afforded you a little more objectivity?

Quite honestly, I think the reception was decent but relatively muted. We got some good feedback for sure and some people really got into it. Nevertheless, I do fear that we were perceived as playing it a little safe from certain quarters. And I can see that in some respects – obviously, the record beforehand [Winter, 2017] was hugely OTT in terms of song lengths and it was a very deliberate decision to step back from that: to put out material with a greater degree of self-editing, more direct. For self-indulgent gits like us, that’s actually a huge challenge! We really worked hard on refining our approach and trying to communicate in a more focussed, concise fashion. But maybe we went a little too far on that, it’s hard to say.”

“I’m my own worst critic it must be said, so I’m always looking for the flaws in what we’ve done, where we can improve, all that sort of thing. For example, as much as I think the opening track is a really strong piece in terms of the vocal layering, the tones etc., kicking an album off with a slow build up again could be seen as a bit of a conservative approach. And maybe the vocals are a touch too low in the mix. But it was the album we needed to make for sure – the production generally is sublime and I do think there is some really great stuff on there. It takes time for these things to really find their place I think – ask me again in a year’s time!”

Can you tell me a bit about the lyrical themes on the new opus, including the inspiration for the title? And speaking more generally, how do you feel the lyrics have evolved thematically and stylistically over the six albums?

“‘The Dead Light’ itself derived from a rumination on the cosmos – namely, that the night sky is in many ways a window into the past of the universe. That many of the celestial entities we observe may in fact be long-extinct, that the stars we see may at the precise moment in time have gone into supernova and now resemble little more than floating, cooling dead spheres of iron in the deep void. Or may have even collapsed into black holes. Or gone nova and sterilised entire solar systems.”

“It got me to thinking on a number of levels – if we are observing the nova of a star in a solar system which includes life-bearing worlds, are we witnessing an act of extinction? The quanta of photons that strike our eyes to play out the image of what we see – emitted from the throes of a dying celestial being – this is the ‘dead light’ itself? So this started me on a journey of considering where mankind stands philosophically in respect of the universe, deep space and the cosmos. We can see from archaeological finds that is has fascinated mankind for millennia – and why shouldn’t it? Stonehenge is said to be an ancient temple aligned for cosmological significance. The pyramids of Giza have astronomical elements contained within their structure. The Aztecs were aware of the procession of the equinoxes. So these sorts of considerations are nothing new, and this idea of mankind seeking its truths in the multiverse became a central premise for much of the album.”

“In terms of the actual writing, I have been working on improving the language used – really crafting metaphors for maximum impact. Imagery is absolutely key for me in getting a certain message or atmosphere across; using unusual references for effect can really throw a different slant on a passage.”

Fen: Havenless, The Watcher, Grungyn. Photo by Dayal Patterson.

I think the last two albums have been the band’s most sophisticated and, dare I say, mature works to date, and it’s perhaps reassuring that there is appreciation for such slow-burning and, on the face of it at least, challenging music. The Dead Light was your first release for the sizeable Prophecy Productions, after a quite remarkable run of five albums for the label Code666. You of course appeared at last year’s Prophecy Fest in Germany, but have there been many other changes for the band with this move?

“I definitely think it has cemented our self-belief somewhat. We’ve always felt a little at the periphery of the ‘scene’ in some ways – you look at the festival circuits, the more established bands and the support networks they have around them; management companies, booking agents, soundmen, a wide framework that goes into a smooth running, professional engine. We’ve always really operated on our own in that regard; three guys, doing what they can under their own steam. The move to Prophecy – and indeed, Prophecy Fest itself – was something of a watershed moment for us. It felt like vindication of everything we had done in the 12 to 13 years prior. We felt connected to a wider ‘family’, if you will, of like-minded artists, peers and music enthusiasts. We didn’t feel so much like ‘outsiders’ peering over the fence!”

I wonder if this feeling of being outsiders to the industry might be because as a band you have tended not to push yourselves as strongly in terms of promotion and business as a lot of other bands.

“There’s certainly an element of truth in that. But let’s go back to the conversation earlier – when you’ve spent eight hours in an office negotiating contracts, dealing with invoices and essentially up to your nostrils in ‘business’, it’s hard to summon the energy to dig into that in your spare time on something that fundamentally is supposed to provide some semblance of enjoyment! I just want to pour a whisky, pick up the guitar and submerge myself in riffs. However, the importance of band business cannot be overstated and it is something I have been working harder on recently – particularly the ‘selling’ side. Maintaining social media, all that stuff. It’s not something I'll ever be comfortable with, but it absolutely needs to be done - and done well.”



Alongside Fen, you’ve had a fair number of other bands and musical projects over the years and one of the more notable of these, Fellwarden, is about to release a second album on Eisenwald. Can you tell us about that and about the band itself for those not familiar with this black metal outfit?

“Fellwarden is a project I have been maintaining for around five years now. I’d always wanted to put together an ‘epic’ black metal solo project and, as with most of these things, it always ended up being something to do ‘tomorrow’. So I eventually got my finger out and got on with it. The first album Oathbearer was released in 2017 and featured [Fen drummer] Havenless – he was actually working with Fellwarden prior to joining Fen. The second album Wreathed in Mourncloud is due for release at the end of June. I’m really proud of this record – it takes every element of the debut and ramps it up a notch. More layered, more stirring, more epic (an overused word for sure, but it feels appropriate). Havenless once again supplies the drums and the cover art has been created by the legend that is Kris Verwimp – it’s a seriously impressive piece and really captures the ambience of the record.”

Fellwarden certainly feels more rooted in traditional second wave black metal than latter day Fen to these ears. Would you say there are different musical and lyrical inspirations between the two projects?

New Fellwarden album Wreathed In Mourncloud.
“Absolutely. There are of course some similarities with Fen in as much as it is in the atmospheric black metal style, but the approach is very different – Fellwarden features synths and a more bombastic, cinematic approach to songwriting. Fen is also exploring more abstract and philosophical paths lyrically – it just seems to be getting darker and darker if I’m honest. Musically, we are always looking to push ourselves further forward, utilising ever more progressive concepts, rhythmic patterns, light/shade. And we’re quite happy to keep pushing down that path. Some ‘post’ black metal has become a little too sanitised and too ‘nice’ – we want to up the extremity somewhat, ramp up the abstraction, retain some sharp edges and challenges. There will always (hopefully) be a kernel of cold beauty at the heart of what we do though.”

“Fellwarden perhaps takes a more romanticised approach; it speaks of ancient sacrifice, the splendour of landscape and a lament for ages long forgotten, and the inspiration is primarily taken from the powerful landscapes of the north-western fells of England. Musically it reflects this – sweeping, orchestrated, layered. I’m really proud of how Wreathed... has turned out. It’s one of those albums which truly hits the brief one sets oneself when starting out to make it. It’s the sort of thing a 15-year-old me would have been awestruck by!”

Despite you perhaps having had a certain degree of distance from the rest of UK scene historically, both Fen and Fellwarden could be said to be quite characteristic of English black metal in a conceptual and aesthetic sense at least.

“I think we’re fairly close to the UK scene now to be fair, and we have forged good bonds with bands like Winterfylleth and Aklash. But yes, there does seem to be an alignment with the general ‘direction of travel’ within the UKBM scene for sure. It could be because we were one of the first of this newer wave of bands to start taking steps back in 2006 and 2007 – we do meet people who tell us our first couple of releases were a big inspiration for them when starting their own bands, so arrogant as it sounds, it could be we helped in some small way to define some of the characteristics of this ‘new wave of UK black metal’.”

We’ve obviously discussed this over many pints during the last two decades, but it’s worth asking again I think; how do you view the underground metal scene in the UK, both in terms of artistic merit and international success? I think we can at least agree that things are in a much better place than they were in the 2000s.

“Absolutely. 2001 to 2005 was the absolute doldrums for the UK scene in my eyes. No acts had really broken through, the whole scene was shot-through with infighting, bitching, self-congratulation and a worrying influx of NS tendencies. There was the odd bright spot now and again, but it still felt as if the UK scene was trapped in the throes of an identity crisis. Fast-forward 15 years and it’s in rude health. A strong, mutually supportive and serious collection of artists up and down the nation now provide the UK with a platform of output to be proud of. It’s great that we have internationally-lauded acts like Winterfylleth, A Forest of Stars and Saor, who provide a wellspring of inspiration and support to whole new generations of bands/projects. Every time we play in the UK, we meet new, young folk who are absolutely brimming with focus, commitment and determination to make music. Very little in the way of empty posturing, hollow, fake ‘misanthropy’ or wannabe rockstar moves – just guys who want to contribute and express. It’s great to see - and it’s getting stronger.”



(OFFICIAL FEN: THE DEAD LIGHT SHIRTS AVAILABLE HERE)


(FEN AND THE WATCHER ALSO APPEAR IN THE BOOK
 'BLACK METAL: EVOLUTION OF THE CULT', AVAILABLE HERE)