Frank Allain (Fen) interviewed

** UK black metallers Fen have plied the marshes of greatness since debut album, The Malediction Fields. But on new album, Carrion Skies, Fen are out of the swamps they’ve called home and they’re into the wild (dark) urban streets. They’ve gone above and beyond on Carrion Skies, reducing their ethereal qualities to bone-breaking effectiveness. Read on as Frank Allain (aka The Watcher) explains Fen’s unexpected journey.
Fen mixes a few different musical styles. The result is Fen’s DNA. How would you describe Fen to first-timers?
Frank Allain: It’s always tough to try and summarize one’s own musical output, but I normally describe us simply as ‘atmospheric’ black metal. Of course, numerous commentators use expressions such as progressive, shoegaze, post and so on—that’s fine, but I prefer to keep things simple when talking about Fen and let the listener make up their own mind as to where it fits within their own listening spectrum. If pushed for more detail, I would say Fen describes a journey across a desolate musical landscape—the soundtrack to a windswept trudge through the fens in the grip of a harsh and unforgiving wintry evening. The fens themselves are redolent with the cold beauty of untended nature, the legacy of untold human tragedies, a genuine sense of loss and emptiness—it is this ambiance that Fen ultimately aims to invoke through the medium of black metal. We embrace elements of other styles—post-rock, doom, ambient – but always at the core runs the spirit of extreme metal. Certainly on Carrion Skies we wanted to underline the metal fundament of the band more explicitly than ever before.

Carrion Skies is a bit more focused musically than Dustwalker. And Dustwalker more so than Epoch. Would you say Fen is still discovering itself, where its boundaries are, and what it will sound like a few albums from now?
Frank Allain: Definitely. Continual self-discovery, evolution and change are a key part of the musical development of any band/artist. The minute you become ‘settled’ and lose the drive to challenge yourself or push ideas ever-forward, a core component of the creative impulse is lost. We have no desire to stand still. Even now I have been contemplating new ideas, experimenting with where the band could venture next. More dissonance perhaps, elements of improvisation or abstract soundscapes. It will always in essence sound like Fen as it the same core compositional duo writing the songs, however the method of delivery may change—we are not ruling anything out. And it is this, frankly, that makes the process of musical creation so intoxicating.

What didn’t you want to repeat on Carrion Skies? Musically or thematically.
Frank Allain: In all honesty, we wanted to move away from the more ‘post-y’, ‘shoegazey’ territories we had explored in some depth on both Dustwalker and Epoch beforehand. I enjoy both of these styles of music and we had spent a lot of our time weaving these influences into our soundscape, however with Carrion Skies we wanted to switch the focus away from this somewhat. This was born from two impulses—one was simply to challenge ourselves to create a more overtly ‘metal’ album whilst simultaneously retaining the Fen atmosphere but the other was to avoid falling into a trap of ‘post black metal’ self-celebration, simply rehashing old ideas to ‘maintain our position’. We were exploring some very non-metal ideas after Dustwalker was released and I guess it can be easy to get swept up in the excitement of exploring other genres and bringing sounds from very disparate musical styles into the rehearsal room—nevertheless, I think it is too easy to get distracted by this, too tempting to meander off at a complete creative tangent which actually undermines the essence of the band. We were looking at some very ‘non-metal’ guitarwave-type material earlier last year and we had to force ourselves to take a step back and really assess what we’d composed. Have we just written a load of stuff that sounds like a second-rate Sad Lovers and Giants with a bloke yelling over it? Quite possibly. Brutal self-assessment is sometimes essential. Thematically, I wanted to move the conceptual basis to a more externally-reflective angle. Dustwalker—like Epoch before it—was a very personal album, many of the lyrical themes focusing on a metaphorical presentation of something internal. With Carrion Skies, we have a more direct addressing of fundamental flaws of the human condition—a contemplation of the failings of human ritual, society and civilization. I feel that the personal, internal -> external angle was taken pretty much as far as it could be taken on Dustwalker so it was a very conscious decision to shift emphasis with Carrion Skies. This overall narrative is therefore more of a projection, an assessment of the cyclic nature of humanity and our propensity to be doomed to repeat the same mistakes time and time again. The Carrion Skies of the album title therefore reflect the brooding, leaden, corpse-strewn horizon that represents the future of our species.

I really like the use of repetition and atmospherics. At what point do you say to yourselves, “OK, we’re done here. This song is complete.”?
Frank Allain: There’s no fixed rule, really—the song just ‘feels’ complete. We never set out to write tracks of specific lengths, things just evolve to a point whereby there is an organic, unspoken sense of resolution—that themes have been properly explored and that the journey has reached its end. “Our Names Written in Embers” for example was due to end after the period of dissonant noise at around the 11 minute mark, however in one rehearsal Derwydd launched into a driving beat that suddenly opened up a host of new avenues and directions in which to take the song which then evolved into the fully-realized second ‘part’. It is moments like that which cannot be planned and represents one of the joys of finalizing the songwriting/arrangement process within the rehearsal room.

Is there a song on Carrion Skies that speaks to you?
Frank Allain: Out of all of the tracks, “Menhir – Supplicant” is the one that for me, embodies where Fen is at this moment in time. I’m not normally one to pick ‘favorites’ but this is a song that is shot through with the most prominent sense of both of rage and despair that thrums throughout this album. A contemplation of the notion of sacrifice within human culture/thinking, it’s a damning piece that addresses the human instinct to bend the knee, to accede destiny to the hands of a perceived higher authority and thus condemn oneself to an existence of groveling servitude. Whether this be physically, emotionally, spiritually, in whatever guise, human culture has shown a propensity to cultivate this notion throughout history and doubtless carry it forward into the untrodden paths of the future. From a musical perspective, there is a directness and an intensity about this track which really works for me—it is a real experience to play live, the dynamics of the piece really getting the adrenaline flowing, the ebb and flow developing a real sense of momentum and climax.

Fen’s lyrics use allegory. Do you find allegory more fitting for Fen than being more direct?
Frank Allain: There is something shadowy about the fens themselves, a half-formed, misty ambiance that is redolent of things forgotten, of things hidden. In this, I find that wreathing our lyrics in allegorical delivery and metaphorical imagery is far more powerful—a strong image can relay a concept with much more impact than addressing something in a more mundane, materialistic fashion could ever hope to achieve. This is the true power of language in the context of art—to evoke, to inspire, to set light the touchpaper for a host of emotions and considerations within the listener. Allegory is the perfect medium for this. For a band such as us, lyrics certainly shouldn’t be a vessel for a bland, surface-level delivery of a message, an essay-like relaying of facts or some form of condensed ‘storytelling’ prose. It is very important that our lyrical content has both meaning and its own aesthetic value—particularly on this most recent record where we have worked hard to develop moments of real impact within each song. It is imperative these are delivered with the appropriately evocative language—language that enables us as a band to really channel the feeling contained within the song, to deliver the underlying message with true passion. As the primary vocalist, the strength of the words and the feelings they inspire are imperative to lending conviction to the delivery.

Tell us about The Fens. What are they and what do they mean to Fen?
Frank Allain: The fens… it’s a stretch of Eastern England where both myself and Grungyn grew up. They are an area of reclaimed land—once predominantly underwater, boggy, swampy with reed-choked waterways and occasional islands poking up from the murk. In the 1800s, large swathes of the area were drained for agricultural purposes leaving huge, flat empty tracts of land with a distinctively black, peaty soil. It is an unusual area – massive skies, bleak landscapes, very scarcely populated – nevertheless, there is an unusual and mysterious beauty to it, the implied ancient mysteries lurking within the less-explored corners of this genuine wilderness. There are other parts of the UK that are similarly wild and remote—the Lake District, the Peak District, the moors of the South West—but these are renowned as areas of natural beauty and are highly visited by walkers, people on holiday, etc. The fens are not—they are a ‘working’ part of the country, the complete antithesis of a ‘visitors’ place. I lived there with my parents from the age of about 10 until 18 and the unique atmosphere of the region had a deep impact upon me. It is not friendly; not awe-inspiringly beautiful; it isn’t redolent with the ‘green, rolling hills of England’; it is, however, stirringly bleak, hugely spacious and simmering with mystery and ambiance. In this, it is a deep source of inspiration for the music and atmospheres of the band. In many ways, the music of Fen is an attempt to convey the sensation of traveling alone through the fens in late autumn as the crepuscular cloak of twilight descends.

The collector’s edition of Carrion Skies looks beautiful. The label went all-out to impress with the packaging. Did you give them much direction on what you wanted?
Frank Allain: I have to be honest, the overall concept was the idea of Code666—we developed the imagery that was utilized and came up with the album artwork, however the actual idea of the hand-carved wooden box was theirs. I think that it looks great and is a really impressive way to present the album—we had a lot of bonus material earmarked for this release (over 30 minutes worth) and taking this into account, it would have to be delivered as a separate bonus CD. Rather than just releasing a double CD version, the label made the inspired choice to incorporate this within a complete package. It is the definitive version of the album for sure (aside from the limited to 5 copies ‘Maniac Edition’ out there which really acts as an overall summary of our career so far)—the bonus CD consists of two songs recorded exclusively in this session (“Coffin Soil” and “Trilithon”) as well as an older song “Twilight Descends”. It could well be considered an EP in its own right but of course also represents the perfect coda to Carrion Skies. Being limited to only 300 copies as it is means that not many will get to experience this package, however such is the nature of collector’s editions.

Do you think elaborate packaging is the answer to a world of “free” music?
Frank Allain: I don’t think anything within the industry is the ‘answer’ to downloading but it is an avenue that can be explored for artists and labels to recoup some of their costs. Putting my business head on for a moment, as we all know, music is now a ‘free’ commodity within the world—as much as many within the industry may not like this, it is simply a fact. So it is therefore down to the artists and labels to think of ways of monetizing their product—in a sense, providing something that can’t simply be downloaded from the internet for free. In this, physical ‘tangibles’ are of course key—it simply isn’t possible to download a t-shirt for example! Limited, special packaging, physical enticements (patches, posters), beautiful vinyl releases—this is the way forward now for the metal scene (and really, any non-mainstream genres). The days of feeble CD pressings with 2-page black and white inlays selling in their droves have long since passed—those involved need to understand that and work within the new paradigm or they risk being left behind, moaning themselves into oblivion. As to whether such monetized tangibles are an adequate replacement for sheer sales volume? It’s hard to say—not really, I fear. It can help but ultimately, if the ‘core’ product is being distributed free of charge, it is very difficult for costs to be recouped. Certainly, the days of ‘mid-tier’ bands making any kind of a living from this stuff are well and truly over. The world of bands has changed and the days of most established bands being full-time, committed musicians is over. Studios, tours, instruments and rehearsals cost, sometimes considerably—if there’s little return on that investment, then the band can only be a glorified hobby, a side interest maintained outside of the hours of work irrespective of how seriously the members take their music. Economic pressures will always bite eventually and for us—all men now in their thirties—we aren’t in a position to sacrifice everything in the hope of ‘making it’. There is no ‘making it’, anyone playing extreme metal still clinging to that hope needs an immediate reality check. Nevertheless, if through inventive packaging, hard work and commitment we can at least recoup some of our costs and break even on what we as individuals have spent on the band, then that is great for us.

The UK black metal scene had a second awakening not to many years ago. What do you think attributed to that? And what do you think makes UK black/extreme metal unique, if I may?
Frank Allain: It is kind of odd—around 2006, we suddenly saw the emergence of several key bands that have gone on to spearhead this ‘second awakening’ as you put it. Winterfylleth are the most recognized example I guess, but Wodensthrone, , Ghast and A Forest of Stars are not far behind. I think it was a sense of ownership, individuality and defiance that really typified this movement---looking at the names above, they are all very different in their approach and take their inspiration from disparate sources of influence. The UK black metal scene was somewhat mediocre up until this point and I guess this sudden explosion of inspired projects was born of a desire to do something different, to sidestep the usual meat-n-potatoes ‘black metal for black metal’s sake’ stuff that was the usual inspiration for British bands and do something a little more daring. Putting an emphasis on quality music married to coherent, defined aesthetics is a real recipe for successful, considered black metal and all of the above achieve this. As to what makes the UK black metal unique, I guess I have alluded to this above---individuality and a spirit of adventure. The latter I do not mean as an inclination to the avant-garde (although some acts do explore such paths) but more in a sense of doing one’s own thing and exploring one’s own path. There is certainly no defined ‘UKBM sound’ as you have in other scenes such as the Finnish scene or the Cascadian scene---and I see this as a strength. Some may find it off-putting as they want to know what they’re going to get but for the listener who isn’t going to be satisfied by stumbling across dozens of bands who sound more or less the same, the UK scene has a lot of riches to offer.

** Fen's new album, Carrion Skies, is out now on Code666 Records. It's available HERE in a few ridiculous formats, like wooden boxes and such.