Interview: Fen

I’m holding a mirror up to myself a lot of the time. I’m also holding a mirror up to the observer and to the species. I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to suggest that myselfor Fen are some kind of active commentator on the state of the world. I’m not getting on a soapbox, or seeking to lecture, but I’m expressing what I think and feel, and that may resonate with some people.

Black metal has always had a close relationship with the landscapes that birth it. Just as Norway’s snow-flecked forests and the vast Cascadian mountains of the US have seemingly become intertwined with the cold sounds emanating from them, so too have the landscapes of the British Isles. Maybe the best example is Fen, who borrowed not only their name but also the murky, mysterious beauty of the Fens of East Anglia, shaping it into an amalgam of progressive splendour and harsh extremity. Their latest album Monuments To Absence leans much more strongly towards the latter side of the spectrum, still grand in its ambition but with a sharper, more biting message at its centre. David Bowes spoke to Frank Allain a.k.a. The Watcher to learn a bit more about its creation and what lies next for the band.

E&D: Hi Frank, it’s a pleasure to speak to you and to hear new material. How long has it been in the works?

Frank: We actually recorded this material in June of 2021. As soon as we’d released the last record, we were working on material for it. When in comes out in July, it’s probably going to represent four years of the band but really, the material itself was probably written over the course of a year or so. We took our time with it. We really wanted to dig deep into it and refine it. Some of the song ideas took form quite quickly and then it was a matter or refining and developing them. We got our new drummer on board in 2020 and obviously, that was during lockdown. Gigs were an absolute no-g. We did have a rehearsal space that we had access to so we put all of our energy into focusing on working that new material, and absolutely honing it in rehearsal. Then we went to record it eight months later, and the results will be seeing the light of day soon. It’s taken a long time to get released because of label backlogs, and due to vinyl pressing backlogs. It’s been in the works for what feels like a while so it’s going to be great to get it out there.

E&D: It’s a very aggressive album, especially coming off the back of the last couple of records. Were you always intending on taking it in this direction?

Frank: We actually wanted to put a bit more intensity into The Dead Light. Winter was very big, very progressive and expansive. That said, I’d still argue that there’s a lot of extreme metal in there – we are an extreme metal band, aggression and intensity is a part of that. I wanted to turn that dial up a bit with The Dead Light but for whatever reason, it just became something different, a bit colder, more spatial and dare I say cosmic, but with this album it felt right. On the material we were writing, the aggression and intensity came naturally. I don’t know if it’s the energy of having a new drummer join the band, or maybe the atmosphere that we were channelling, but across the album I’d definitely say it’s our most intense album to date. That was deliberate. It was something we wanted to do, it felt natural, it came naturally, and we let it free.

E&D: How did you tailor the lyrics to match that? They’re very blunt and unflinching this time around.

Frank: They go hand in hand, in many respects. The music is the first part to take shape and then the lyrics and ideas start to feed into that, and the two things just accentuated each other. As the music got darker, the lyrics started to get darker, and then as you start to verbally express certain feelings and emotions then that creates a feedback loop. That fed into the music, which became more intense and intricate. The two go hand in hand. The lyrics are very much in the style of how I always write, I can’t really write any other way. There’s a lot of abstraction in there, there are general themes and thrusts. It perhaps mirrors elements of Carrion Skies, our fourth album, reflecting on humanity and the failures of humankind. We’ve cranked the dial up on this one a bit. It is unflinchingly acerbic at points. Like you said, it’s very direct. It doesn’t leave a lot of room to doubt how I feel about certain things.

E&D: There are a lot of sentiments on the record regarding mankind’s tendency towards destruction, and to self-annihilation. Was that written with an ecological basis in mind or a social one?

Frank: That’s part of it. The rate we’re going, we’re going to leave this planet a scorched dustball. For me, at the risk of sounding horrifically pretentious, it’s more of a spiritual thing. The intrinsic, repeated failings that we as a species just seem obsessed with repeating. It’s only going to go one way. It’s interlinked to selfishness, self-absorption, hubris – it will result in ecological disaster. That’s just part of the inevitable extinction endpoint which is where we’re headed.


E&D: You took on the name The Watcher. Do you still see yourself an observer or commentator, or are Fen taking a more active role these days?

Frank: Art is observation, isn’t it? It’s an observation of, and a reflection on. If I’m honest, the pseudonym was something that I just chose because it sounded kind of cool and mysterious. Let’s cut down to brass tacks! It does say something, though. I never wanted to be a storybook band. It works for some bands – Iron Maiden are about novels, ancient history and telling stories, basically; but for me it’s always been something more personal. I’m holding a mirror up to myself a lot of the time, I’m also holding a mirror up to the observer and to the species. I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to suggest that myselfor Fen are some kind of active commentator on the state of the world. I’m not getting on a soapbox, or seeking to lecture, but I’m expressing what I think and feel, and that may resonate with some people. Who knows?

E&D: A lot was made on the press release of the art direction for this record. In the past, you’ve typically gone for more muted, earthy tones but instead there’s an abundance of this vivid red. How did that work out?

Frank: Once again, the art was done by Grungyn, our bass player and other vocalist, and he’s always done our covers. Once we have about half an album written and it’s starting to take shape, that’s when we have the cover conversation. By that point, an album title has started to form and we have a general feel of where the album is going to go, and we’ll talk colours. Sometimes it just comes down to “this could be a brown one, this could be a blue one…” That’s all part of the discussion. Red is a colour that we haven’t played with before and I think you have to be careful with something that bold, that striking because there are subtexts to it. Our thought was that we’re a metal band, we wanted to do quite a metal cover. We were thinking that those those are the Archgoat colours – red, white, black. Those are the classic Hell’s Headbangers colour palette, and I have no problem with that. I’m not ashamed of being a heavy metal band – in fact, I’m proud of it. Bringing red into it was something that we’d talked about and Grungyn was keen to do that. We had a general theme of how we wanted the album to look and I had an idea in my head. He ran away with that, came back, and my first thought was, “Bloody hell, that’s a statement!” The more we sat with the music and listened to it with that image in mind, the more we thought that was it. Obviously, red is the common element there, it’s the colour of anger, of rage, and heat… there’s that monochromatic, stark palette, and it reflects the desolation and barrenness of life, and of colour. We really sought to fuse those two elements together there. Yes, the red is striking and absolutely perfect for what we’re saying with this.

E&D: How are you feeling about trialling the new material? Is there ever any worries about how that will sit In relation to established songs in a set?

Frank: I know you’ll hear this from bands all the time but I am personally not worried at all. I think it’s the strongest material we’ve ever recorded and I can’t wait to play it live. If I had it my way, I’d just play the entire album on stage but I think that might be a little indulgent. Maybe Iron Maiden could get away with that but I don’t think we’d be able to. We’ve been sitting on this material for three years so I’m just pent-up with anticipation of playing it. It’s going to be great. We wrote it with our new drummer JG, he put his own stamp on it in terms of playing and he’s like a caged animal now! We can’t wait. Some people will probably hate it, and that’s absolutely fine. I’m used to it. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you can never please everyone and if you start playing that game, chasing approval, you’re just going to end up sacrificing the integrity of your work. We always have to do what we feel is the right thing to do so I stand 110% behind this material. I like to think it does sit well with our old material as well. I think the essence of what Fen is is there, just through a different lens, but then it has to be. There’s no point repeating yourself again and again. I utterly stand behind it. Even though the material was recorded about two years ago, it still excites me to listen to it. It’s very easy to get jaded when working on a record because you hear it so much; you hear it in rehearsal, you hear it in the studio, you hear it through mixes and masters. You can get fatigued with it, but I still love the little details. It’s the most prepared that we’ve ever been going into the studio. I had pages of notes on which pedal I’d use for which section, it was really thought through and it was a joy to record it in that sense. Because we just knew exactly what we were doing, because we weren’t stressing and rushing through, it gave us scope to experiment, to add detail and texture. All of that feeds into the overall experience.

E&D: How do you typically construct your songs? There are times when there’s a sense of fluidity but even when it’s like that, there’s a really meticulous streak. How do you go about combining those two sides?

Frank: Most of it, the bones and riffs, are constructed in isolation. I’ll sit in my little music dungeon, crack open a whisky and start playing. Sometimes things flow quite naturally, other times you’ll work at it, and then I’ll send those ideas to the rest of the guys. We’ll sit in the rehearsal studio and sometimes, songs can arrive fully-formed almost immediately and others, we move around to get a better flow. Once you start filling in drums, bass and vocals, you start to realise that things need to be changed. Tempos might need to change, or a drum beat will come up that wasn’t what you had in your head but actually works a lot better, so there is that organic element. We didn’t do a lot of jamming on this one. On some older records, there were some songs that literally came from just us jamming. There are some little bits and pieces but I think because we wanted to up the intensity but keep that progressive element, keep it interesting on that musical level as well it was quite meticulously planned out. There were some sections that were really quite considered. I think the next one we do, we’re going to try and push that jamming, organic element. The three of us just sitting and going through things, taking riffs and letting us see where they go. I think jamming and extreme metal can be a dangerous thing. There is a danger of slipping into familiar patterns and grooves if you’re not careful. I’m sure it sometimes feels good but sometimes it’s better for you, the band, than it is for the audience. We’ll look at experimenting more with that approach on the next record but this one was meticulously planned.

E&D: How did you come to work with JG?

Frank: I’ve known him for ages! I remember seeing his first band at some pub in Stockwell about 12, 13 years ago. He’d booked us a few times in the past as he puts gigs on in London, he’s quite a successful promoter, and he reached out to me at some point about playing some melodic black metal. The timing wasn’t very good but then we were offered a show supporting Vltimas in 2019, our drummer wasn’t able to make it and we asked JG if he wanted to fill in. We had enough to do a couple of rehearsals and it was really good. The vibe was great and he was a fan. He was saying how great it was to play this material and that enthusiasm was quite nice, it was quite infectious. When the time came that we needed to find a new drummer, his was the first name in the frame, to be honest. He fitted in seamlessly, and because he had played with us previously there wasn’t any need for introductions. It was a weird time because of lockdown so the discussion wasn’t, “Oh, we have a gig next week.” The discussion was, “There’s fuck all else we can do, let’s work on a new record.” We had this stockpile of material that was just burning a hole away that we needed to do something with, so we just absolutely woodshedded on that for eight months. It was great. Normally when you recruit a new band member, you have that pressure to get the songs done because you have a gig in a few weeks, or a tour in a couple of months. There’s no chance for them to put your own defining take on material because there’s a head-on rush to get them up to speed on the existing stuff and then we might have the luxury of working on a new record in a couple of years. This was almost the best of both worlds, as they did know all the old stuff. If we do get a gig we can just brush the cobwebs off but we don’t need to worry about gigs anyway, so let’s just get on to the new album. It was a unique set of circumstances and a unique time. Again, that plays into why I feel this album is so focused. It’s because it was all we could focus on. It’s an interesting lesson and one that I think we can’t lose sight of. We have to remember that level of focus and how it came to be because it was a good energy.

E&D: There was discussion a while back about a Fen beer. Will that ever happen?

Frank: We were talking about it as we knew quite a few people who brew but we just never got our backsides in gear, and now it just feels like one of those things where it’s like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Everyone and their dog has their own beer now.  In a flight of madness, I was thinking of getting a Fen-branded whisky but that’s maybe a bit too far. If we were a bit bigger and had more money to play with it might be something to look at but right now, it’s not something that’s really in the realms of reality, unfortunately.

E&D: What style of beer were you going to go for?

Frank: I think we were just going to go for broke and do a barrel-aged imperial stout or something. Like peat bog imperial stout, really latch onto that Fenland, peat-soil atmosphere. Black as the peat bogs of Sedge Fen!

E&D: So, what’s next? Gearing up for the tour and rehearsals?

Frank: Just preparing ourselves for the reception of the album. We’ve been a bit quite for a year and a half, two years. We’ve been playing shows here and there but we haven’t been pushing it hard. The gameplan now is to really start getting the album out there, supporting that, gaining some interest in it with the view to getting some good shows lined up for the second half of the year and next year. We’ve got a little bit of a hiatus from doing rehearsals because our bass play has just had his first child so JG and myself are still rehearsing in terms of working on new material but we probably won’t be able to play live until the second half of this year anyway. So yeah, the Harakiri tour, getting the wheels in motion for other shows and, I’ll be honest, getting materials ready for album number eight. Monuments To Absence isn’t even out yet but to us, we closed the door on that creative process in June 2021. We took some time out, decompressed for a little while but that is a big focus now. Getting that material worked on, getting it rehearsed and to a demo stage, so we can hopefully do a recording next year.

E&D: That’s great to hear that you’re already pushing ahead.

Frank: It feels fast externally but for us, a lot of the material on Monuments To Absence was written around 2019. We’ve got new stuff to say and I want to really think about the direction of the new album. I don’t want to just do new songs for the sake of it. It’s got to be its own thing, its own entity.

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