What does the church on the cover have to do with the content of “Winter”?
‘Winter’ very much represents a journey or quest and as such, the cathedral symbolises the as-yet undefined endpoint of this journey. It symbolises a destination or a goal who’s true nature still remains unknown by the traveller. In essence, it represents that which we seek – the specifics of what it is we are seeking is open to question and this is left to the listener/observer’s interpretation. On this record I speak of a personal journey, however the work is intended to resonate with any observer and frame it through the references of their own experiences, their own thoughts.
And so, solace, redemption, peace, glory, death – whatever drive it is that lurks at the utmost foundations of our being – the endpoint of this seeking is embodied within the fabric of the cathedral. In this, a religious building such as this provides powerful symbolism as religion often posits itself as providing the resolution to such yearnings and proffers to know the answers to many of the existential questions that have plagued mankind for millennia.
I believe that at the core of all of us thrums a pulse of yearning, an unspecified throb of unfulfilment that causes us to seek something to provide our existence with meaning. Modern man (and by ‘modern’ I basically mean sentient) by and large is unable to keep pace with society and technological advancements which leads to a fundamental dissonance at the centre of our being. It is this that drives us to seek resolution– or to flee from our fears and failings.
In a more prosaic sense, the image is also a reference to Ely cathedral which is located close to where myself and Grungyn grew up in the fens. It is a strange structure – it looms large over the flat, desolate mires of the fen lands and creates a powerful sense of ominous foreboding. Again, there is a palpable sense of symbolism here and indeed, it was during a cold winter’s walk through the fens that the central concept of this album began to take shape.
Why did you choose to number the songs in addition to their one-word titles?
Originally, the album was conceived to be one single piece – and indeed, it still very much is intended to be absorbed as a single entity. In this, all of the songs have been composed to flow into each other as well as being lyrically linked. With this in mind, each track is really a chapter in a continuous narrative and therefore, simply numbering them made the most sense to me. The one-word titles are simply ‘subtitles’ if you will – a single-word summary that outlines the basic premise of that step of the journey being described by the album. The subtitles therefore are a useful indicator as to the theme being explored by that particular chapter, however ‘Winter’ really is intended to be absorbed as an entire entity. Of course, in today’s increasingly busy world, I appreciate finding them time to listen to a 75-minute record in one sitting is simply not possible for most people!
Could you imagine setting the other seasons to song as well?
It’s unlikely, at least in the context of this band. Fen has always had themes of bleakness, loss and sorrow rooted at its core and therefore, the seasons of Spring and Summer – which are traditionally linked to hope, warmth, happiness and comfort – would not be appropriate at all. That’s not to say that I as a person do not enjoy elements of these times of the year (few things beat the joys of sitting in a beer garden on a summer’s day enjoying a fine pint!) but these are sensations that are simply not compatible with our aesthetics or atmospheres.
Autumn I guess shares many traits with Winter and indeed, there can be a sorrowful nobility in this transitional season as summer dies, the days grow shorter and the leaves fall from the trees. My only issue with this is that these ideas have been explored so many times and been laced with innumerable romanticisations from a variety of bands – particularly doom & goth bands. I’d want to try and avoid the ‘obviousness’ of this, of melodramatic homages to the depths of autumnal gloom. Again, that’s not really what we’re about. There is something stark, defined and unforgiving about Winter – and that’s why I really felt driven to work with the idea.
How did the fact that Derwydd leave the band change your interpersonal dynamic?
It was sad to see him leave if I am honest – he was a good friend and an excellent musician. I totally appreciate his reasons for leaving and there are no hard feelings between us – as you may be aware, his exit from the band was pretty much a consequence of a complete change in his circumstances, moving far away from where we were based and essentially starting a new life. It simply would not have been practically possible for him to have continued with the band to the level of commitment required so he made the decision to leave.
We were quite lucky however as Havenless stepped into the breach almost immediately. He was an old friend of mine who I’d known for about fifteen years and I already knew he was a very capable drummer as we played together in Virophage (a more orthodox black metal side project of ours). He had been following Fen for a while and it was clear the music was something he really enjoyed – therefore, it was a logical step to ask him if he wanted to try out for the band as Virophage was on something of a hiatus. He was more than up to the task so it was quite a seamless transition really which I am very grateful for indeed!
I prefer to work this way – to work in bands with people I know personally, bands essentially being an extension of existing friendships. Some bands do not recover from the loss of a key band member, however Havenless has fitted in very well indeed. We all share a number of interests and our thoughts regarding the band are all aligned so the interpersonal dynamic is united, focussed and strong.
The sequence of songs, to me, is a bit odd, judging from the titles alone: A person being on his or her ‘Pathway’, learning to do ‘Penance’ for something must actually feel relieved from ‘Fear’. ‘Interment’ before ‘Death’ means the person is buried alive, eventually getting enlightened through ‘Sight’, suggesting an afterlife; where did I get it wrong?
There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to interpret the concepts here – this is our expression, however as with any artistic release, much of the value of what is being expressed is down to the interpretation of the observer. Do remember, the subtitles are simply straightforward summaries of the facet of this journey the track represents so are only really an indicator as to the ideas being explored there.
Nevertheless, sequentially there are a number of ways in which this journey flows from one part to another, the relevant chapters dealing with each stage of discovery. ‘Pathway’ is obvious, the commencement of the journey with the initial steps being laid before us – even if the true nature of our goal is not obvious, the pathway to it is normally revealed with some form of clarity.
Penance follows inasmuch that this is initially a journey towards redemption – absolution of guilt and failure sought through the purgatory of penance. It is a human trait to catharsise one’s regrets and one’s perceived failings through further pain – penance therefore represents this figurative transformation. But it is too much – we are forced to confront our ‘true’ selves, to face the reality of the ‘I’ that lurks within all of us. From this we, will surely flee and this is the nature of fear. Not fear of penance itself but fear of what that penance may reveal about ourselves and the reality of our nature.
The desire to flee and shut ourselves off from the torment of our thoughts/senses drives us to seek oblivion – in this instance, Interment is one expression of this, the impulse to submerge oneself in a mire of numbness and close ourselves off from our own senses. It is metaphorical way of expressing a descent into a self-imposed oblivion – and of course, the logical conclusion of this is death. Again, this can be a viewed metaphorically as a conclusion/endpoint though in the context of where this placed within the album, the depiction is actually quite literal.
And finally sight – a release from the baggage of the physical/material, a freeing of the chains of dissonance and confusion. Essentially, the rewards of a redemption achieved through the ultimate sufferance of self-discovery and self-imposed oblivion. Only when we can observe without the prejudices that the weaknesses of our humanity impart to us can we truly see with clarity.
How does this all connect to the alleged winter concept?
Taking all of the above into consideration, the album could be said to be an allegory of a form of spiritual alchemy, of discovering the true self and ascending beyond the trappings of a flawed entity. This is a positive way of looking at it I suppose. Personally however, I am not enough of an optimist to fully embrace such a view – I feel such an experience would be too much for most, that the associated trauma of laying one’s soul bare to oneself would irrevocably consume almost anyone who attempts such a voyage. Nevertheless, we are compelled to seek – inexorably drawn to something that may likely destroy us.
Therefore, ‘Winter’ comes to embody an inevitable endpoint – a distant yet inevitable fate, the dark clouds bunching upon the horizon which, against our own apprehension, we feel compelled to move towards, step by step. Winter itself is inexorable – the hope of spring and the warmth of summer MUST give way to the encroaching darkness, the biting coldness – much as a descent into oblivion, madness or despair is inevitable for those who seek without true understanding.
”Winter” addresses death as the main motif more than ever, you say (and I assume with a personal instead of a global view on it), whereas “Carrion Skies” was rather focused on mankind as a whole with its diverse potentials and habits. Could the next step be a synergy of both, placing the subjective perspective into the broader setting of humanity?
‘Carrion Skies’ was indeed taking an externalised view – really, for the first time in the band’s history, though there are certainly elements of this on our debut, ‘The Malediction Fields’. ‘Winter’ was intentionally a return to the core principles of the band, both musically and conceptually and hence, much of the thematic considerations of the new album are taken from an individualistic point of view. Nevertheless, in terms of presenting a synergy of both, I believe this is already the case – there is a very definite and deliberate ambiguity in the way a number of these concepts have been presented which do not only encourage but demand the interpretation (and hence participation) of the listener.
To put it more simply – the concept of ‘Winter’ and what it represents applies to us all, even if there are those among us who have not yet managed to acknowledge it to ourselves. In the most basic expression of this idea, we will all one day eventually reach our own winter. Our existence will end – this is inevitable, it haunts each of us from the moment we become truly aware of the subject – and therefore, for each of us, it is a concept that must resonate, even if in a subconscious fashion.
Therefore, whilst the lyrics address a very personal rumination on the subject, it is something that I believe is universal, that applies across the entirety of human experience whether we choose to acknowledge this to ourselves or not.
In ‘Interment’, during the cleanly sung passage, the lyrics go “I have nothing more to live, extinguish me”, which made me think of yearning for death as a natural cause because of old age and its accompanying ailments; are we eventually back again with the cyclic developments you tackled on your last album? is winter the end of life with a potential for rebirth?
That’s definitely one way of interpreting it – the desperation for release, the freedom to escape the relentlessness of one’s own ennervating existence, to shrug off the shackles of weakening flesh. The ageing process is alluded to on Winter for sure – the strength of the allegory to the winter of one’s life is very potent – and indeed, it forms one of the key themes with the second chapter, Penance. It’s almost as if the torment (for torment it is) of ageing and decrepitude is part of our penance for our existence.
The potential for rebirth meanwhile is an apt way of describing it – nothing is certain. With wisdom and age, there is the potential for ascension and enlightenment but could it be that at the point of ending, free of the weight of the flesh, that true awareness strikes? Could it be that at the very point that life is about to depart, we as humans reach our own ‘omega point’, akin to a spiritual rebirth? Of course, it is impossible to know, however this is one possible philosophical interpretation. Hence the use of the word ‘sight’ in reference to final piece of the album – it can mean vision, understanding, finally achieving that which was sought at the outset of the journey. Even if this is just the cold release of oblivion, it is the finality of the understanding of this release which brings closure.
Could you ever make an album which is not bound to a certain overarching topic?
It doesn’t appear to be the case at the moment! Maybe it’s just me but I can’t just sit down and write a slew of disconnected song lyrics about whatever I’m vaguely interested in at that point in time. That’s not what an album is to me I’m afraid – yes, I get it, essentially an album is a ‘collection of songs’ but I feel there surely has to be more consideration given to it than that. It’s a singular entity, surely it should be approached as such? Even if it is just a loose connection across the tracks, there must be something that draws everything together, that lends meaning to the record as a whole.
That’s my take on it anyway and certainly my take on how I approach the writing process for Fen. For me, it becomes a far more meaningful, satisfying creative challenge to work within a linked, structured concept. Of course, it’s less important for some genres and indeed, the furrow of ambient, lengthy black metal-based music we plough lends itself to all sorts of pretentious, high-handed concepts but even so, I would feel like it would be a bit of a cop-put not to produce something which is making an ‘overall’ statement as it were.
This was particularly important with Winter – the idea of making it a continuous, flowing piece musically was floated quite early on in the compositional process and with that in mind, it was the only logical choice to take the same approach with the lyrics.
Given that you toyed with the idea of making “Winter” a one-song album, how did you, in the end, separate it into six tracks?
Practicality I guess. Not only that but whilst the pieces were intended to segue into each other and have elements of thematic linking, we still wanted them to have some form of ‘standalone’ definition. Again, I can only really liken them to chapters in a continuing, flowing narrative. We did nevertheless come close at one stage to seriously presenting the album as one song, however I fear that we could have been in danger of perhaps allowing ourselves to get a little bit too wrapped up in the depth of the concepts we were exploring! And on a more straightforward level, it would have been irritating for a lot of listeners – it’s a long, long record and very few of us have the time to sit down and truly digest these things in one go. With all this taken into consideration, dividing the album into chapters made a lot of sense in the end.
What can you tell me about the bonus tracks on the second CD of the special edition? Their titles are quite evocative, and ‘Sight (Reprise)’ insinuates it belongs to the main concept.
‘The Keening Soils’ was recorded during the album tracking sessions and was written specifically to be a standalone piece. It is at once separate from the narrative of Winter yet has some overlap – it is again rooted in the ambience of the fens and tells a tale of a soul wandering across the fens who eventually succumbs to the whispering voices of the lost spirits carried upon the winds. I guess you could say that this is a more traditional concept for a Fen song (and indeed a black metal song in general) and this also extends to the composition of the music which again is intentionally different to the rest of the material on Winter. It is a little more direct and traditionally melodic – I actually think the song presents an interesting, compelling counterpoint to the winding journey of Winter.
The other three songs were recorded live as neofolk pieces and are our first recordings to feature Havenless on percussion. Primarily instrumental, with choral vocals and no lyrics, the titles act more to create imagery within the mind of the listener, to evoke a sense of time and place at once ethereal and yet suggestive of something more substantiative. The exception is the Sight reprise which takes the main melody of the last track on Winter and interprets it in an acoustic fashion. This is something we like to do on occasion and some readers may recall us doing a similar acoustic reprise of the closer ‘Bereft’ of our debut album ‘The Malediction Fields’ a few years ago.
Has it become a financial necessity to put out these limited releases that lead to an artificial scarcity of music that should be, in effect, available to all of your listeners, if you yourselves deem it valuable enough for publishing, right?
I wouldn’t say it is a ‘financial necessity’, at least not for us as a band – it is possibly more the label’s prerogative as it is the labels that have been hit hardest by the continuing downturn in album sales. Then again, I guess this trickles down to the bands in terms of royalties, advances, tour support and so on. Ultimately, if vast swathes of the metal-listening public are unwilling to actually part with money for the releases of bands that they enjoy then surely something has to be done to incentivise purchase? Labels aren’t just going to sit on their hands and watch their businesses die after all. Bands can go out on the road, sell t-shirts and potentially supplement their income with live shows – labels don’t have this option. And labels losing out means bands lose out (less money for recordings, less money to sign/recruit new bands, less money for tour support) which ultimately means the fans lose out (bands splitting up, poorer-quality recordings, no tours/shows).
Therefore, putting out limited-edition releases with bonus tracks of course is just one way of encouraging listeners to invest in the music they enjoy – you suggest it leads to artificial scarcity of music, however that’s a little disingenuous as we both know everything will be uploaded to YouTube the minute the records are in people’s hands! There is of course a balancing point (and some bands/labels take it too far with ludicrous different ultra-limited versions of the same record), however I feel that metal fans have more of a ‘collector’ tendency than fans of other genres and as long as these fans are willing to invest and enjoy the items they have purchased, then who are we to deny them that?
If someone really is interested in owning the bonus tracks in a tangible, physical format then they will need to ensure they order the appropriate version of the record early enough – if they miss out however, they won’t be denied the opportunity to hear the material as it will doubtless be available online to them.
How do you see yourselves coping in the long run in this environment over ever decreasing sales revenues, resulting in a need to sell more merchandise and play live more frequently? How does the aged musician, which you will surely be at some point in the future, handle this, notwithstanding his or her artistic integrity?
This band doesn’t represent a living for us – we aren’t in that privileged position I’m afraid! – so the ‘need’ to sell more merchandise and play shows isn’t really there with us. Indeed, when I look around me at bands for whom the band is their livelihood and there is this need – bands of a certain age who throw out any old crap every two years as an excuse to tour and sell t-shirts – then there’s a part of me that’s thankful about that. In that position then the question of integrity must be asked – you look at the quality of recent releases from bands like Slayer, Deicide, all these sorts of ‘established in the 80s’ legends and when you get down to it, all they are making is metal-sounding product that’s churned out as an excuse to tour.
It’s a bit sad but that’s where the scene is at some level. For us, we don’t have that pressure. Of course, we have our own pressures – all three of us are in full-time work and the 9-5 grind is something that impacts hugely on how productive and prolific the band is. As much as I can see the prison that the ‘band as job’ scenario can be, it surely has to beat slogging into an office on a daily basis for something that you literally couldn’t give two single solitary flying fucks about. Other responsibilities can impact as we age too – children, homeowning, all of the trappings of so-called ‘normal’ adult life – and certainly, as one gets older, spending so much time and making so many sacrifices for one’s ‘hobby’ becomes harder to justify.
Me, I don’t see it like that. A job is just something that enables me to fund music, that is all it is. Music is my absolute number one priority, regardless of whether I’m making a living or not – it gets harder as we get older, of course – but if driven enough, one can always find the time and energy. Always. Turn the TV off. Get out of the pub/cinema/club. Get off the sofa, pick up the guitar and focus. I cannot envisage this ever not being the case for me. I create, therefore I am.
You have been around long enough as a band to be able to observe the development within the black metal scene throughout the years; do you still see it as a genre ever progressing, or are we reaching the end of the line? How long can you yourselves become inspired by your natural surroundings to create relevant music?
You know, every time I think ‘surely this is it’, someone comes along to prove me wrong and add a new spin to the genre which causes me to sit up and pay attention. Of all the extreme metal subgenres, black metal seems to be the one which has been most open to experimentation, mutation, evolution and change. I think it just seems to attract some of the more open-minded thinkers, those who are unafraid to push the envelope and risk falling flat on their faces. Of course, it’s undeniable that the tenets of the established genre and the tendency to experiment were set quite early on in the early-mid 90s but even so, the continuing progression of the genre has been impressive to observe.
Just today alone, I listened to new releases by Botanist, Inferno and Hertroerzen side-by-side – each of them adding their own twist to the black metal template, each boasting an individual idiosyncrasy without losing sight of the core principles of the genre. Perhaps that is where we are headed now – refinement, honing, gradual and considered change – as opposed to a complete about-face revolution that we saw in 97-98 with Arcturus, Ulver et al rejecting completely the traditional trappings of black metal. Who knows?
I don’t necessarily think it is the consequence of natural surroundings so much any more – though this plays a big part – but instead more ideology or message. We probably have the influx of orthodox ‘For Him’ bands back in the early 2000s to thank in part for this, whereby it was perceived that it was no longer enough to waffle on about some random Satanic babble, you had to come across as if you really meant it. Taking that level of consideration and applying it to the musical perspective also, you can see where a lot of the genre is heading now – elaboration and intricacy, a focus on rich aesthetics backed up by a strong (if somewhat nebulous) blasphemous ideology. And of course, we have the counterpoint to this – an ever more atavistic and barbaric part of the scene, where relentless, riffless, chaotic ‘noise’ is celebrated. When one looks at the bands of real creative spark (not the usual mainstream over-produced shclock), black metal is still as diverse, challenging and relevant as it ever has been.