Friday, 15 March 2013

STILLA - Along Shadowy Trails

STILLA immediately became something special to me, ragardless of whats, wheres and whos... It makes an overwhealming listen, one which I shall not tire of easily. Secular Black Metal represents for me the pinnacle of beauty in this form of extreme music.

Till Stilla Falla, the title track, convinces me that Stilla represent the most powerful dichotomy between the frightening supernatural and the despondently earthly. The lyrics might disprove me, but the eeriness of the music feels bravely, tenaciously human. Perhaps the grim, insane ghosts that haunt the entire album are that of the subconscious mind loaded with ancestral fears and insecurities. Stilla does not seem to look for false solace and protection from imaginary gods but rather it stands bravely on its own, facing the freezing darkness and the loneliness with pride.
Solace and pride are the keywords. The one mind standing resolutely, on its own, in the abandonment of wilderness.  I see no dichotomy or discrepancy between the supernatural and the earthly – it is the rational, secular, “enlightened” which have left the earth behind, where also the supernatural resides. It is human, but it is most importantly solitary, solipsistic – one mind, away from all others. No false theology or ideology to grant a safe passage to the warm embrace of life (or death), but rather choosing a darker path towards our own ends (endlessly marching towards the cemetery gates). 

This track is, in its more atmospheric parts, very reminiscent of Fen at their most haunted, and it is not surprising Frank Allain has become in time a collaborator of Andreas Pettersson: the two artists appear to be on the same wavelength.
Our connection to Fen is in itself somewhat incidental - though perhaps predestined from the nature of our collective souls – as the tracks themselves where written before the Northern half of the band (A. Pettersson and J. Marklund, vocals and drums respectively) were initiated and Stilla became the ultimate entity it is today and shall remain. What you allude to is however correct: though I'm unacquainted with Fen's music, there is a certain resemblance in their aesthetics to what Stilla is about. It is the lure of the unknown hiding in the mists, soaring over the marshland, between the tree trunks or across empty dead fields. The immensity of desolation that is the basis of Andreas' work with Nordvis, where we happen to unite. 

The presskit describes the album as strongly individual yet “continuing the spirit of old bands like…”: absolutely true for once, the glacial grimness of Isvind, the twisted lunacy of Tulus and the feral force of DHG are all there in some form or other, but the songwriting and the individual rendition by each collaborating musician conjures up a captivating style of its own: how long did it take to Stilla to find its sound, in the preliminary phases were there as many debates as rehearsals?
As Pär Stille has said – this is the album he would have wanted to create when he was 15; at an age of exploration, knowing only of the proud heritage of the Norwegians. The sound was there from the start, emanating from our minds; the ideals and symbols we grew up with, it was there all along, waiting to be set free. The specific names you drop are certainly central. Except a few changes, the songs heard on the album are the same as the demos invoked only a year before it was recorded. The inception of Stilla was somewhat in reverse – it began as an idea between me (bass) and Pär (guitars), which we developed, Pär writing the music and I responding to them, adding lyrics, without any proper line-up – nothing more than a vague ambition to simply do something with the music, just to get it done. As things developed, we ended up in Nordvis Ljudstudio a year after the genesis of the Stilla concept, recording the album with Johan and Andreas and in the end deciding that this was a completed line-up. So there were initially only debates, I should say: we have never rehearsed as a four piece. Yet! 

 How did it feel when a long composition such as Aldrig Döden Minnas.. (but I could frankly mention any of the titles here) came to life? The end product that the listener is confronted by is nothing short of  mind-blowing, but how was it for you to see the music grow day after day?...
That song in particular was difficult – initially it had a completely different sound and attitude that never really got off the ground, but it has kept growing from day one and now it is one of my favourites (and a bitch to play). As for creating the whole album: over the course of one week we travelled from a demo project without a vocalist or even an envisioned future, to a fully lined up band with a finished full-length in our hands. It was intense, and immense – a parallel universe we entered where the embryonic songs came to a life of their own. We had honestly not expected such an outcome when we got on the northbound flight to the Nordvis abode.

Fans of Par (Bergraven) and A. (De Arma, Armagedda, Lönndom, Whirling) will be delighted to hear their personal style come through. Can you explain what these two artists represent in the Swedish black metal/underground context?
 In several senses, they represent ideals and attitudes to music that are seldom seen or heard in Sweden. There is an innate darkness in their creations that come from the deepest regions of the soul/forest. What Andreas has created with Graav (of LIK infamy) with Armagedda and Lönndom is completely from another world (Ond Spiritism is one of the greatest black metal albums recorded, in my opinion), as are the recordings of Bergraven. As for their credibility – they are well respected, though I think it's unfortunate how Bergraven has more or less dropped below the radar of the “mainstream” metal consciousness, as it/he deserves much more attention. Armagedda did well to leave the satanic underground circles the minutes before that scene exploded and became a trend, with the W-boys winning Grammies and whatnot. What they ultimately represent is individualism and isolation, and the strength that brings.

You have been playing bass for the infamous Deranged, something I know you enjoy very much, but at the same time it must be extremely satisfactory to be part of Stilla, given your love for black metal in its purest AND most avant form. Your performance is one of the outstanding elements that make this album so good: spill the beans on your interpretation of the incredible Bergraven!
My work with Deranged is definitely all together separated from Stilla, in several dimensions: the purpose of the music, methods of creating and working with it... Any idea of Stilla performing live lies in the deep and hypothetical vaults of the future, whereas Deranged's near-sole purpose is to go on tours and wreck festivals. And as you say, while my blood is stained by death metal, my heart most of all pumps for all forms of pure black metal – be they the ancient masters or the modern and future revolutionaries. On Bergraven IV: after years of silence, things are finally brewing. It will be recorded, but I will not say anything certain yet as for when this may happen. At the moment the discussions are which album we (that is, the members of Stilla, who are all involved in the coming of Bergraven in some way) should focus on. The songs Pär has prepared are superior to all his earlier work with Bergraven, and like a fine ale they have been fermenting for ages now, and are ready to be consummated and consumed.

Stilla stands now proud amongst the old glories of black metal BUT, if one believed in the spinning wheel of karma, one might not be surprised that the culprits of resuscitating the true spirit of black metal are in fact… a bunch of Swedes!
Well, I'm not certain we are actually resuscitating any true spirit: if you look to our immediate west, there are still musicians that manage to recreate what they do best, see for example Nettle Carrier or Burzum. I find the phrase “true spirit of...” quite dubious – according to who is this true? In these days of theological and ideological confusion, everyone holds their truth to be superior, and we have little interest in doing a similar claim. (Note: According to ME this is within the  embrace of “true BM”, Andreas! We are not talking “W-boys” here are we? ;-))

There is a Swedish style that is fully recognizable from the outside which Stilla also carries.  There are parts where the guttural vox with the end-tail echo, and even some of the keyboards’ more deranged playfulness, that take me to other known Swedish bands, which I won’t mention in case you might decide to blacklist me ;-) It is great how different nations and cultures come out with their own individuality in spite of the speedy globalization: I presume that those who feared the leveling of culture to one same melting pot have also undervalued the very essence of art, which is extremely fluid but always a mirror of reality even as a form of escapism.
 I think that what is fascinating, from a sociological and musicological stand-point, about extreme metal, is how it reacts to being globalized. On the one corner you find death metal, especially in its more brutal forms (a scene I've been thrown into via my other occupation), where you can find a band in every semi-industrialized country who sound exactly like thousands of other bands across the globe. You see the same shirt prints and hear the same riffs in Indonesia, Ukraine, Malta and Mexico. And on the other hand, you have black metal, which in its essence draws upon certain regional traditions or mindsets: singing in peripheral languages as Swedish or Romanian et c. As global culture is mainstreamed and commercialized, I think it's natural to invoke alternatives, and also to see how the same type of cultural expression, as it travels across the globe, takes on regional expressions. Of course, it's a special thing to join a subculture when you know it holds up the same values and ideals across the globe. Wasn't Euronymus himself famously eager to connect with comrades from all over?
To return to your (un)question, what is in our music that is particularly Swedish, except of course the lyrics, I will leave for the listener to evaluate. I would go as far to say that we sound Scandinavian.

 Huge kudos go to the production work: the mixing is absolute perfection! Every instrument is clearly heard, and comes forth furthermore at the right time to accentuate moods and passages. This a one of the cleverest black metal albums I have had the pleasure to be captured by, as the “olden spirit” is captured with such passion, skill and intelligence to sound incredibly “new” (given the fact that releases like this come by every few years!).
Well, the goal was for the album to sound like a production from Endless Studios in 1996 – raw and open without losing depth or weight. And I think we managed to get it right: all credit to Andreas and Pär for realizing it.   

The only “flow” for me: initially, the freaky jazzy squirt in Hinsides Dagen. It felt as if it broke the intense, magic flow of that “down to earth” cleverness, which is, in my opinion, one the exceptional marks of this album, embodying  the Scandinavian directness and “uncompromising hardiness” (to steal Frank Allain’s words) - very much the essence of true Nordic black metal. As an early fan Atheist, the first band which brought jazz into extreme metal, I read it as some sort of a “stunt” (no offence), although somehow, like all challenging art, it forced me to make up my own personal reason for it within the context of the narrative… but now I demand the real story! ;-)
You're referring to the acoustic guitar solo, where the electric guitars fall away and only hammering bass and drums remain the foundation, no? This is first and foremost a direct reference that we will leave to listener to decipher. It is indeed a break from the regular flow of the album, but in our ears a needed one. How tiresome aren't albums that keep the same level of intensity throughout? Great music need dynamics, both in timbre, volume and musical approach. As you say, it might challenge the listener, and if it does, that is good. Also, that particular song (title roughly translated to “Beyond the day”) retells of a man haunted by entities from his past: at night, the unexpected and unseen are as natural as anything; the delirious becomes rational. There is the proper place in the narrative for that particular section! 

A.’s vocals are simply outstanding, as all the performances of the individual musicians). I am keen to explore Stilla’s lyrics, if I get the chance, but perhaps you can give us an idea… The song titles are straight to the point, giving an indication of the themes: is there a song that you feel particularly close to in this album because of the lyrical content and why?
It should be noted then that this is Andreas' first proper harsh vocal recording: we hadn't even considered him doing the vocals when we entered the studio, but he tried, and pulled it off without any preparation. The vocal track on “Allt är åter” is more or less a first take. As for the lyrics, let me roughly translate sections that might reflect and relate the higher meaning of not just the album, but the existence of Stilla:
“A dullness in life you cannot escape / A dusky haze along every horizon / Where are roads lead / And dissolve into sand”
“Endless vistas where the contours of reality have been erased / The longing for oceans or mountains where the monotony shall finally be broken”
“Wandering listless, lifeless / Along shadowy trails / Uninvited guests at her court / Hear the laughter of the autumn witch / A smile you will never understand / Woven by a thousand dead trees […] Darkness reigns piously / On the broken throne of life / And everything is once again / Everything is once again silent” 

The monochromatic artwork and its simple, direct content reflects the music to perfection. As I mentioned before, there is a directness and a realism that it is rarely seen in black metal artworks, where you either have the complex and detailed drawings or the classic image of a harsh, majestic landscape. Is the gray wooden house standing strong in the snow a metaphor of the human condition, and what’s inside its external frozen, still walls? Hopefully a warm fire?... 
We wanted something simple and clear. There are no lofty ideologies or fantastic concepts behind the album, simply an emotional state, which the building relates to. That certain house is the fifth member of the band, the vessel in which we created and transformed. And you will find no warm fires there... only harsh desolation and darkness. And empty bottles!

Talking of hope, I am curious to hear from a young, intelligent and cultured member of one of the most civilized societies in the western world if in Sweden there has been an echo of the events that shocked the corrupted political establishment at the recent Italian elections. More than a quarter of the population voted for a brand new movement (not a party) that aims at bringing back democracy and changing a dying capitalistic system by electing “normal citizens” (mostly young and with a degree) in Parliament. Like in ancient Greece, they want civism, not political factions, to be in charge, taking turns through short mandates, with low wages and no privileges. It might sound perfectly obvious to you, but surely also in Sweden politics must have become “a useful career” that must be done within the putrescent parameters of a failed Left / Right ideology not capable to defend the “real economy” (meaning life of a normal family)?... How does a wealthy and fairly just society (not to mix you up with other wealthy but unjust ones) like yours understands and interprets events like this, or the terrible situation that the Greeks are battling against right now, unable to bring food to the table or keep warm during the winter?
 Most civilized? Well if you say so, guess that's the common idea outside of Scandinavia. As for the political situation in Sweden, there is a growing unrest, but after living in wealth and priding (and deluding) ourselves of our dignifying levels of justice and equality in more than half a century, I think what is most obvious is a sense of disconnection from real development and cause/effect in the world. We have our simulacra that we embrace on our expensive screens that we believe show us the world (though that confidence is of course crackling and dissolving, leaving us nervous and all debates extremely polarized and superficial). We really don't have to bother that much, besides about our own problems. Which is very convenient. The social welfare system is becoming more and more privatized and commercialized, as is natural in a system where material wealth is prioritized and human life is measured solely in abstract numbers, and I think more and more are realizing that this might be a problem. But these are my far from erudite personal opinions, which may or might not be echoed within the band, so let's leave the politics for wine-fueled late night debates shall we?

Thursday, 14 March 2013

REVIEW: STILLA - Till Stilla Falla

Reality - larger than mans illusions
or is it me?

You just know when something belongs to the exceptional category.
How exactly exceptional is this release? Is it an album capable to transcend all temporal parameters? The instant goose-bumps and the uncomfortable sweet heartache are normally an unmistakable sign, but I shall sleep on this for a while…

The bass hurts me.
The keyboards haunt me.
The guitar scalds my skin.
The harsh drumming bruises me.
The vocals unsettle me.


Aldrig Döden Minnas.. is the best track I have heard in decades. The keyboards are insanely eerie yet right in your face: never a ghostly entity has felt so tangible…  But the throne is equally shared by all the elements of this architectural masterpiece of quintessential Nordic black metal. In turns, one moment I am blown away by a memorable guitar riff rising from the choral blaze to shred the soul into flakes of icy snow flakes; but then the feral iron fist of the contorted bass lines jumps out to grab me by the hair, dragging me deeper still in a silvery aural blizzard where the drums blast off imperviously like thunder. I feel lost… And alas, the powerful, unforgiving harshness in the voice seems to proclaim that even northern gods do not exist: death swallows all…

Allt är Åter ominously unravels, slowly and proudly, giving me a sense of stoicism borne out of trial and tragedy: to be at the mercy of Nature is as frightening as awe-inspiring.
Askormen: doomingly deranged, stabbed by grimly frightening blasts, its ghoulish melody stirs deep into the guts with snake-like regurgitations from that astounding bass; ominous spells spew from the mouth of the cursed… then a sudden (genius) solitary clean verse thrown in towards the end displaces me completely. Masterpiece.
Hinsides Dagen keeps pressing the fingers around my neck, bruising the already cyanotic skin. The erratic aural movements are arranged to perfection, from a glowing acoustic guitar passage that takes me to high-medieval times to the solemnly tormented Viking choir; but wait, the ghostly gathering stumbles into a schizophrenic jazzy break, suddenly sucked in into a crazy, fathomless dimension for a few instants of brain short circuit... Then it all reappears and the track spirals vertically into a jagged vortex; the vox is like that of a delirious prophet; the keyboards are frighteningly supernatural, while the titanic bass boulders through in the effort to keep a world swirling out of control anchored firmly to the ground, in vain: the whirlwind of otherworldliness eventually takes us away…

Tidlösa Vindar, gloriously juxtaposing acoustic depth to scalding blasts, takes you close to what it must be like to stand in the midst of a spectral storm - take these words literally. As the ominous spell descends upon me, the room transforms into an intricate white icy forest. I am beginning to wonder if this is actually real… A lesson on how to do powerful shuddersome epicness without a mere hint of redundancy! Grim despondency, realism and sobriety, as opposed to suicidal whining, provide a tremendous shot of testosterone, a rare thing in much of today’s weakling/fake (delete as appropriate) black metal.

Till Stilla Falla. The title track alone has enough ideas to fill up the entire discography of some uninspired bands that manage to get deals with aggressive labels churning out useless albums every two weeks. The musical story is bewitching: far more atmospheric than the previous tracks, Mr’s Pettersson’s melancholy mood prevails in the songwriting, bridging towards his De Arma’s sorrowful debut.  Aside this track, overall the album has a Bergraven imprint that will excite many, albeit rewritten with a more spartan attitude, taming the ravenous beast of the avantgarde experimentation for the recuperation of the authentic spirit of black metal proudly howling from the Swedish shores…


My early impressions are fully confirmed: this is a work of rare force, integrity and intellectual honesty and intelligence. One of the best black metal albums I have come across in recent times, one which refuses to play the trump cards of extreme lo-fi and overwhelming, decadent drama, choosing instead the higher path of balancing bleak despondency with stark sobriety. It reflects a smart, down-to-earth vikingness that rejects the lure of tempestuously romantic Wagnerian scenarios, digging deep in the face of a harsh environment, always a metaphor for death and the void beyond it.  In spite of its unsettling ghostly eeriness, what captivates me about Stilla’s sound is a fierce sense of resolve and practical creativity stemming implicitly and inevitably from the constant fight against the elements, always on the edge of madness, always on the edge of survival... Ultimately the Swedes, throughout this bleak, honest, old-school approach imbued with an unmistakable avant feeling that pushes the work above the rest, stare at the ineluctable with a level of self-respect that, lamentably, is rarely encountered.
Till Stilla Falla will keep growing in time, eventually taking its full form when the lyrics will hopefully come forth to me: I am convinced it will be one of the few recent albums I shall go back to whenever I need to restore my faith in music!

Stilla are: Pär Stille (Bergraven) on guitar, Andreas “Vidhall” Johansson (Deranged) on bass, Andreas Pettersson (De Arma, Armagedda, Lönndom, Whirling ) on vox/keyboards and Johan Marklund (De Arma, Sorgeldom, Whirling) on drums.

REVIEW: DE ARMA - Lost, Alien & Forlorn

The split released on Nordvis in 2011 showed us the affinity in spirit and sometimes in form between De Arma, one of Andreas Pettersson’s notable artistic efforts (alongside Armagedda, Lönndom, Whirling and the brilliant newly born Stilla), and Fen, one of the very best atmospheric/post black metal bands around. When news on Frank Allain joining De Arma in the vest of singer-lyricist reached me, I rejoiced, predicting a stunning debut album. A beautiful adventure also has also kicked off for Trollmusic, a DIY label run with rare nobility of intent and good taste, which will become a safe refuge for all of us sincere music lovers, seekers of beauty and honesty.
I have played this De Arma’s album for many weeks before I could bring myself to do what Frank Allain did when he creatively approached the lyrical theme, the story, for Lost, Alien & Forlorn: baring oneself naked. The listener can absorb the content of an album through the ears, appreciating the fine flow of the music, implicitly finding solace in the beautifully melancholy melodies, but there is another level from which one can face music like this, which entails opening the innermost gates of our stream of consciousness to the layered stimulation provided, accepting to awaken some still sore scars…

The most immediate impression is that Andreas has done a sterling job in composing tunes that are haunting yet simple: post rock is the staple of the album, but the Swede’s wide yet homogeneous spectrum of influences are all there so, in a wider context, we can be greeted by a cold black metal blast unleashed over a shoegazingly delicate mood, or a heart-wrenching dark folk passage can lead us to the folds of a sorrowful goth ballad. However it has been clear from the very first listen that the pivotal element of this work is the voice. Frank has outdone himself in providing the best clean singing he has so far produced: I am a long-term fan of Fen and I know how he has successfully rectified his weaknesses through relentlessly hard work, but I must admit I was surprised by the quality of his delivery. Today Frank can be proud of being a complete vocalist; his performances are unmistakable vehicles of a highly intelligent type of wrenching emotion aimed at the recuperation of human dignity. It is fair to say that Andreas, unselfishly, took the right decision in wanting the sorrowful clean singing to be high in the mix to let it became the pulsating core of this beautiful album, with the extreme vocals used as accents to highlight and accentuate moments of exacerbated distress vs. the intense flow of melancholy and yearning. Baring the soul is a tremendously hard feat, and here the perception of how an artist can turn his naked vulnerability into catharsis is overwhelming.
The soul-shattering hurt and regret of a Love lost experienced and lived within a harsh and alienating urban environment provokes particularly deep wounds… This kind of pain is very familiar to me and extremely viral, so – inevitably - my listening sessions slowly morphed into regression sessions that would haunt me for days and weeks… I welcomed the challenge.

The fragile side of the “De Arma sound” cascades down suddenly: swirling snowflakes impact on the gray pavement, melting into a chilly slush; the soul feels soaked through, tears ebb from eyes full of regret: the heartbreak finally releases itself. Sobbing, trembling, waiting in vain to see that loved face again… “I have nothing left to hide” Frank sings obsessively: when true love becomes impossible, it leaves you bereft of all hope; losing “the one” inexorably rips the soul apart. Time goes on and on and on, but the sorrow stays firmly like a bolder over your chest. The curse of lost love slowly morphs you into a wretched ghost roaming within the ugliest, darkest recesses of the city: the emptiness, the misery become unbearable as thousands of footsteps seem to flee away from you, alone in a faceless crowd, suddenly a stranger even to yourself. The tunnels of the underground, with their polluted warmth, became a strange place of solace. Because watching the walls of your entire being come down from your empty bedroom is a nightmare that tortures the mind and every single cell of your body. Painfully cruel are the recurring flashbacks hovering over your mind like crows over charcoaled ruins; unbearable is the sweetness of bygone happy times, once ablaze with hope.  Staring empty-heartedly through the filthy, sticky film over the window panes will make your sore eyes burn: all the sorrowful silences and screams that chocked/lacerated the throats of two lovers irreparably adrift will cruelly demand for tears that your sore eyes are no longer capable to shed. As you sink deep into the mournful quick-sands of loss, the cold uneasiness of urban chaos, deceitfully, becomes your friend because it seems to mirror your soul, even though the awareness of being dislocated, body and mind, haunts you every time your steps follow a familiar route, making you physically sick.
Then, one day, when even the most miniscule particle from the dark debris of your fallen world has finally settled, you will find that a sense of steadiness has suddenly enveloped you. With time, the heart has re-forged itself stronger, wiser. But not anew: the immense hole that made you feel adrift for days, weeks, months, years on end, shrunk, becoming a silent scar that wakes up whenever life will poke at it.

Ultimately De Arma fuses, not too dissimilarly from Alcest (in their own language and content), pure emotion and music with a sort of non-threatening immediacy which welcomes you within a well-crafted melancholy dimension. Yet beyond the fragrant flesh of the darkly melodic partitures there lies a less overt form of consciousness: as soon as you take the plunge into the harrowing tale of bravely revealed personal sorrow, De Arma becomes something else… And Allain’s own artistic approach, where nature and the environment are vivid metaphors of universal emotions, once again achieves stunning results by exposing the most poignant, tormented side of being human, with all the blind errors and regrets, ultimately cleansing both the artist and the listener’s soul.

FEN - Connecting with the unsubstantial Self.

FEN are undoubtedly one of the best atmospheric black metal  acts worldwide: their recent full-lenght Dustwalker showed us a band capable to push itseff in the proverbial moment of thruth only to become more mature and poignant than ever . Interviewing Frank Allain, a.k.a. The Watcher, is always a real pleasure for me, so you are warmly invited to join our conversation, also featured on

At the time of our interview for Avantgarde Metal (Spring 2011), in concomitance with the release of Epoch, you were just beginning to sketch the skeleton of new songs: “The initial developments seem to be increasingly ambient and spacious sounding – less dense, more stripped down and ‘glacial’ as opposed to the misty, layered, churning regret that typified much of the last record”. Looking back at those early explorations, how complex (or perhaps effortless) was the path that led to achieving the starker, more incisive sound of Dustwalker?

It wasn’t really a complex path, more a determined one. Mid-2011 was a testing time for the band – perhaps the most testing time we had faced in our history – with two members leaving in quick succession and little in the way of live shows happening. I’d always had the intention of stripping things back a little on the follow-up to ‘Epoch’ and these challenges added a sense of forceful purpose to working on a new record. We wanted to make our mark, to come back unbent and undimmed from strife.
We were very driven, worked hard, spent a lot of time with Derwydd (who was something of a revelation). Indeed, he brought to us a new-found sense of purpose and steely drive which was instrumental in forging the work that became Dustwalker. Whilst not actively involved in the core compositional process, his approach to drum arrangements and overall hardworking, self-empowering ethos really gave us a momentum that pushed this newest material forward. 

The keyboards have disappeared (Grungyn plays the synth on the instrumental “Reflections”) and the overall result is soberer: the problems with finding a permanent keyboard player turned out to be determinant in shaping the sound of the album, in a very positive way! How pleased are you with the overall impact you achieved?

This was perhaps the biggest decision to make – to proceed without keyboards. When Aethelwalh left it gave us an opportunity to step back and reassess where we were. Don’t get me wrong – I think the keyswork on Epoch is outstanding – but it was something I could feel myself drifting away from. Myself and Grungyn were experimenting a lot more with effects processing around this point and it felt like an opportunity to make a change for the better.
I always say that in art (and indeed, in life in general) restriction forces innovation. There is something invigorating about working within confined parameters and the challenge to create enveloping atmospheres with guitars, bass and drums was a thrilling one for me. ‘Dustwalker’ represents a real step forward upon this journey and it will certainly be one we are continuing if the ideas we are working on at the moment are anything to go by! There’s a really open-ended, experimental feel in the Fen rehearsal room right now. 

The endeavor to clean-up the sound also applied to the several quieter moments scattered across the album, making them sound less surrounded by mist and more like a crispy cold night. Your clean vocals are as confident as ever, and the entire range displayed is as mature as the music itself. The higher degree of expressiveness in your unmistakable voice surely stems from (increased confidence and experience aside) the same desire to push and refine your music?

Well, we have received criticism in the past for our clean vocal sections so this time, we wanted to make sure they were fully and completely arranged/worked out before committing them to tape. Confidence and experience cannot be overestimated in terms of their impact on delivery – we’ve been naïve in the past, I recognize that – but equally, true passion will always shine through.
Vocally, I am very pleased with how this album has turned out. I think it stems back to this sense of drive and purpose I referred to earlier. The material is harder too, which helps lend weight to vocal delivery. I always aim to push myself further and further with each record (possibly at the detriment of my vocal chords!) – the voice is the most naked expression there is when recording so its only natural that it’s the element that’s closest to the emotion at the heart of the music. 

The level of maturity achieved across the board is impressive: the already highly recognizable Fen sound, placed by many in between Agalloch and Alcest, has become far more focused and yet one can still envisage almost limitless possibilities for the future. Right now you are busy with sorting out some European dates, but have you been able to sit back and enjoy the rewards of your endeavors for a while or are you unable to turn off the “writing mode” button? 

We’re always writing. Always. The prospect of resting on my laurels terrifies me, there are too many bands where it is obvious that the creative flame has long been extinguished who languish in a zombified, musical half-life. I cannot allow that to happen – the minute the well of inspiration runs dry, this band is over I fear. For me, the compositional process – forging new ideas, hearing melodies and themes come to life and evolve – is the fundamental driver of being in a band. Everything else, no matter how enjoyable, is secondary.
Thankfully, I feel we are in fertile creative times. The writing process is ever-flowing and we already have a wealth of new material and ideas that have come together. If I’m honest, I think I am borderline obsessed with writing, one of my ambitions for 2013 is to learn to relax a little. I can’t sit still for a moment, I feel guilty if I spend more than 30 minutes without having worked on one idea or another – it’s driving my girlfriend mad so I definitely need to factor in some down-time! It’s important though I think to have quiet time, to recharge and reinvigorate one’s inspiration. Balance and moderation between one’s interests are key to keeping them healthily maintained. Obsession can be productive but it can also be dangerous and creatively stunting if left unchecked. 

Dustwalker takes off abruptly, aggressively but soon your trademark melancholy sweeps in, giving such powerful “soul” to the music: if the themes revolve around the fragility of our existence and ultimate resignation to a nullifying fate, the power of melody, which permeates all your songwriting, and the organic yet shimmering (flame-like) production gives me the same kind of solace and energy as a roaring bonfire in the midst of a sharply cold, moonless night: I cannot help finding it heart-warming!

Thank you and I agree that there should be a sense of cathartic revelation within the despondency. I hark back to the song ‘Bereft’ from our debut album in this – that song really relates to a sense of elation at accepting one’s fate, acknowledging a place in the universe that may not be the most satisfying existence yet the understanding of this brings with it some relief. It is the unknown and the misunderstood that brings fear and trepidation into our lives – knowledge and understanding, even if it points towards bleakness & misery, does bring solidity.
It isn’t so much resignation to one’s fate – it is understanding and the resolve born of that understanding. There are times when this can overwhelm, when it can lead to an outburst of rage or despair – at other times, there is a manifestation of the serenity of this acceptance reflected in the quieter moments. 

Dustwalker feels to me a reflection on death. “Hands of Dust”, “Wolf Sun” and “The Black Sound” in particular make me think of my recently passed-away father. As we removed ourselves from living in direct contact with the cycles of nature, we became detached from the reality of death, seen now as an unsightly, unacceptable flaw that should not tarnish humans’ busy existence. Now that I have actually touched, smelt human flesh consumed by death, seen the shocking stillness and emptiness of the eyes, I have to agree with what once Bowie said: “Confront a corpse at least once. The absolute absence of life is the most disturbing and challenging confrontation you will ever have”. 

Death is a powerful theme for sure, however whilst it may float at the indistinct periphery of our subject matter, it isn’t really the main driver. ‘Hands of Dust’ and ‘Wolf Sun’ are about being insubstantial, a feeling of disconnected, fading sensations and disassociation from the world – whether subconsciously this is a rumination on death, it is hard for me to say although it maybe that something subliminal has come through here.
It’s a mental state rather than a physical one, the metaphor of physical disintegration alluding to that of a psychological state. ‘The Black Sound’ is perhaps more direct, very much a representation of depression embodied by looming, crushing inevitability. Again, we touch upon that sense of insubstantiation, of a spiritual yearning to transcend one’s current state – to escape, to flee – and the gnawing, ever-growing knowledge that this will never happen.
I guess death remains the ultimate driver behind all of this – indeed, the last line of ‘The Black Sound’ (‘…to shed the anchor of a slowly rotting tomb’) alludes most clearly to the final fate in store. Death makes a mockery of all of our thoughts, hopes and ruminations, therefore marking most clearly the endpoint for all of this. 

“Consequences” takes me to humankind’s last regretful moments, whilst in “Wolf Sun” the hopeful line “I’ll hold on to this sun” is followed by a half-chocked “I can’t save myself from fading”… Finally, you conclude the album with “Walking the Crowpath”. People like Killing Joke and Amebix, both absolute masters of an apocalyptic sound and vision that continues to inspire countless bands (including black metal ones), believed - and still do to this day - in finding the hope and strength to change ourselves and the world… How far removed are Fen from the 80s fighting spirit? 

I can only speak from vaguely recollected memories as a child in England in the 80s but it did strike me as a decade of conflict, pessimism and shifting values. The rampant contradictions of the decade – the overarching stark terror of the nuclear-powered cold war versus the shiny technicolour of rampant consumerism or (closer to home) millions of manual workers forced from their jobs and left destitute whilst an emergent middle class bray Thatcherite soundbites into brick-sized mobile phones – even if not fully comprehended, lent a sent of dissonance to one’s perceptions. ‘Something’s not quite right’ I guess you could say is how an eight-year-old might interpret it!
For me, coming from a working-class background, the struggles were palpable and the need to fight against it, to battle against the emergent oppression (both economic and psychological) was instilled in many. This again is something that is a subconscious driver to the band – we don’t of course directly reference such concepts in our music/lyrics but without a doubt, such experiences have help shaped my outlook and it’s inevitable that this will creep into any works I am involved in. 

In Epoch too, in exploring the cyclical life of the universe as mirror of our own cyclical nature,  you inevitably focused on the end of the cycle. I often ask myself why it is that during the short blitz of time in which we exist as individuals, the mind-blowing power of nature around and within us (people underestimate the amazing complexity of their own body: most don’t even know how it functions and what it’s made of) are rarely enough to find pride and strength, to find a sense to our existence - in itself an utterly exceptional event across the known universe!? If anything, it’s a goddamn crazy adventure…

If you look at the existence of the human race in terms of the timeline of this planet, we’ve existed for a mere blink of an eye. As a species, we’ve evolved incredibly quickly and I think at the core of it all, many people struggle to deal with their own sentience. We’ve barely learned to comprehend the world around us, let alone the myriad mysteries of our own minds/bodies.
As you say, it’s a crazy adventure – however, I’d go further and say in many ways, it’s a crazy existence. We’ve evolved to learn how to ponder the mechanics of our own being yet lack the development of our faculties to truly understand it. This is a powerful dissonance that underpins our existence – we can question it, explain elements of it to a degree but comprehension and meaning lies outside of our powers of comprehension. Everyone chooses their own way to deal with this – some shelter in materialism, others rebel through nihilism/cynicism, many close their eyes and hold to religion, others (like myself) get lost in speculation and the search for something more spiritual.
Whichever way you slice it, the human condition is something that affects us all and there is no ‘right’ answer. I suspect it will be many evolutionary steps down the line before we start to really come to terms with ourselves as a species. 

Rock music began to explore the dark side in the 60s: it was the fruit of a rebellion that, no matter how bleak and nihilistic the outlook became (80s punk), was still very much about searching for new values. Today we see either a complete lack of ideals, or weird, self-important displays of D.I.Y. fundamentalism through the recuperation of a whole range of Masonic types of esoterism. The pagan scene, with its fervor towards salvaging noble traditions from the (not always wholesome) past, seems to offer the only pro-active “alternative” (in fact not too dissimilar from the hippy-punk idea of being self-sufficient outside the consumerist society). In practical terms, in Italy for example – where unemployment is rife - we see more and more young people returning spontaneously to the very fields which were abandoned by their grandparents. Perhaps an injection of humility, honesty and empathy is all we need? 

Well, a lot of the pagan scene – and the esoteric/occultist scene really – is about escapism isn’t? In which case, we find ourselves in a similar situation to that which we discussed in the previous question. That is, the inability of the human mind at present to cope with the concept of its own sentience. All acts of rebellion and of ideology stem from this coping mechanism I feel. They are still in place today – you assert that we either see a lack of ideals or a retreat into deliberately obscure mindsets – however, they are different sides of the same coin.
When people speak of a ‘lack of ideals’ they are generally referring to values which bear little meaning to them – materialism, short-term self-gratification, that sort of thing – but this is still a refuge from confronting the self, as is shrouding oneself in esoteric mysticism which is so detached from the visceral experience of day-to-day life that it too is an escape. As much it may pain those of us who purport to be more ‘enlightened’, given the limitations of our own senses and reason, we really aren’t in a position to judge.
You ask for honesty but as beings enslaved by our own egos and sentience, such an approach is practically impossible. All I can do – and I do not expect this of others – is to do my best to act in a way which I feels supports what I consider to be a rational world-view. 

 Everybody needs to escape from reality and we all have our favorite way(s) to alter/exit the day-to-day. I think deep down we know that most of our chosen forms of escapism are simply (often useless, often self-harming) palliatives, but surely Music – despite its power to completely transcend reality, is a worthy passion to indulge in because it engages your inner self with so many different aspects of the physical and metaphysical and, most of all, it makes you grow familiar with the spectrum of your own emotions.  Ultimately we love art because it makes us feel alive…

Again, as you have stated, music is in many ways a form of escapism – however, it is a more abstract escapism in that it enables one to externalize and communicate on a fundamental level. Indeed, I would argue that ‘pure’ music (i.e. creating sounds/melodies, free from lyrics/concepts and in solitude) is less about escapism and more about catharsis. It’s a tonic, a need to bring something to life – the creative impulse is I feel quite a primordial drive and can in many ways be the very opposite of escapism. It’s about truly connecting with an insubstantial aspect of the self, about confronting those elements of ourselves we do not fully comprehend.
Of course, at the next level, when one brings artwork, playing as a band, live performances, lyrical concepts and the like into the mix, then we move further towards the territory of escape. Nevertheless, it’s a ‘positive’ form of escapism in my eyes (though I would say that!). 

Fen’s music is a very fertile ground for experiencing an array of emotions. I am curious whether your own music moves you in the same way as music written by others does. Obviously you invest a lot of yourself in anything you create, but sometimes a creation (in my experience, when it begins to assume a truly universal significance) becomes something else and it feels no longer “yours”, almost taking its own direction, its own life. 

I only write what I personally am interested in listening to. This is the ultimate test for me – would I choose to listen to this? That was the goal from minute one with Fen and this has not changed at all. Of course, having been working on Fen for over seven years now the band concept has very much evolved to take on its own identity – however, this is always driven by what myself and Grungyn feel is musically appropriate to deliver via the vessel of this band.
In essence, the band is a vehicle, an entity to deliver a certain atmosphere and to draw the listener into the ‘Fen’ journey. Nevertheless, this is a journey that we too as creators are on also. 

 I want to mention your brother Grungyn’s artwork for Dustwalker: in Epoch it was more ethereal and had a grim link with the present, while this time we see no strident signs of human presence within the landscape. The symbolism he used is very powerful, taking us to the heart of our ancestral relationship with nature, and I love the fact that every track has its visual symbolic counterpart. Like with the music, the artwork appears more focused, the impact on the subconscious is more immediate and it’s up to the individual to dig through the layers. 

It was Grungyn’s idea to create a symbol for each piece on ‘Dustwalker’ and I think this has worked wonderfully. It is true that ‘Dustwalker’ deals with less tangible concepts than Epoch – it is a reflection upon one’s place in the material universe and an expression of existential… confusion? It’s hard to find the correct word – not ‘anguish’ necessarily but a lack of belonging, of being disconnected in some way. A ghost if you will. There are elements of human presence in the artwork panels of the new album but these are faded, indistinct, incorporeal – which is in keeping with the overall concept.
This analogy of ‘not belonging’ runs through a lot of more nature-themed expressions of black metal (and music in general) – harking back to times of yore, of a time when mankind would have been closer to nature. For me, this skirts a little too close to romanticized escapism for comfort. As much as I find a winter’s walk through the deep forest invigorating, cleansing and spiritually uplifting I am also self-aware enough to know if I were alive in the Dark Ages, it would NOT be a druidic, meditative experience – it would be dirty, vicious, a daily battle to survive.
Thus, the sense of yearning that much of this music is shot through with here relates less to a defined sense of ‘yearning for a better age’ as opposed to a yearning for understanding, a yearning to comprehend one’s true place. 

 “Spectre” is a beautiful example of folk-tinged post rock/black metal which shows us the more ethereal side of Fen. There are different sides to you as a musician: currently you have an outlet for giving vent to a more aggressive, straight-forward type of black metal (Virophage) and of course the De Arma project for which you sing and write lyrics. Andreas Pettersson’s band debuts at the end of February with the album Lost, Alien and Forlorn, released through Trollmusic. Your collaboration started with the beautiful split Towards the Shores of the End for Nordvis in 2011. Andreas has been incredibly prolific since he burst into the black metal scene with Armagedda: are you a long-standing fan of his music explorations (amongst which Whirling and Lönndom are the most current ones)? 

Thanks for the comments on ‘Spectre’ – it was a risky move for us to record such a song but I think it is one that has worked. I’m personally very satisfied with the final result, I think it captures perfectly the atmosphere that we were trying to go for – in terms with tying in with the overall album ambience, it is perhaps this song more than any of the others that truly encapsulates the ghostly, disconnected feel of the concept.
As for Andreas’ work, I am a big fan of the last two Armagedda records – ‘Only True Believers’ is a great, no-nonsense ‘fist in the face’ black metal album whilst ‘Ond Spiritism’ is a real classic. Haunting, dark, spiritual, it’s an album I keep coming back to. I also enjoyed Lönndom a lot as well so when Andreas approached us with regards to working together, it was something I was very keen to do. He’s a man that has a clear understanding of what he wants to achieve with each of his artistic projects – he is prolific, certainly, but that only serves to enhance the quality and purity of that which he creates.
With De Arma, the concept here is defined, it’s clear and it’s obvious that he and I are operating in very similar musical territories and so it came together very naturally. We communicate regularly and I think we’re certainly on a similar wavelength. 

The split showed a very close affinity between Fen and De Arma, especially with the haunting “Noemata” that sees you on vocal duties.  Was this aspect in any way concurrent in the decision to have mostly clean singing on the album? How rewarding is it for you personally to be able to find such a strong outlet where to concentrate just on the singing? 

It was actually Andreas’ idea for the album to be predominantly clean. ‘Noemata’ was mainly screaming but I guess it was the clean vocal sections that carried the most impact. I think it was the right decision but it was also a challenging one – I felt quite a lot of pressure to deliver something that would live up to the quality of the music. I really wanted to ‘nail it’ so to speak, not only in terms of performance but in terms of composing vocal lines/melodies that really hit the spot.
I had done some clean vocals before in Fen but these were few and far between, laced with reverb and generally quite distant. Andreas wanted the De Arma vocals to be much more prominent, clearer and louder which again increased the pressure to deliver! After feeling nervous & uncertain  to begin with, I really got into it by the end – I have to say, it is very rewarding to compose clean vocal sections, layer harmonies and generally finalize the ‘character’ of a song so to speak. I’m happy with how the vocals have turned out on this record but now I am more comfortable working this way, I think much better is to come. 

 How did you find the inspiration for writing the lyrics for Lost, Alien and Forlorn? Were you given guidelines, discuss a central topic before hearing the music, or did it all flood in after listening to the beautiful and melancholy music penned by Andreas first? 

Andreas left me to it if I’m honest – he gave me free reign in writing lyrics, defining concepts and coming up with themes. It’s quite interesting actually as I have gone down a very urban, claustrophobic path with the lyrics for this album – Andreas lives in a tiny village in the Swedish countryside so it might be hard for him in some ways to empathize with some of the concepts!
I jest, but for me I felt a profound sense of urban desolation from the music – cold, detached, droning, the soul of the city seeming to exhale in despair. I also wanted to work on ideas that were very different to Fen – Fen is about a spiritual yearning, external landscapes acting as a vessel in which to channel the internal. The lyrics on L, A & F are more direct – indeed, they refer to a rather ghastly period of my life where I was in the midst of some massively intense issues with a past relationship. This only served to enhance the sense of a soulless, soot-stained prison of a city. I guess in this sense, the external metaphor idea comes into play here also, though channeled via  urban as opposed to rural landscapes. 

They seem to be very intimate and personal lyrics… Can you enlighten me on the mysterious (to me) but very effective vocal samples which are found in the album?

Indeed, they are very personal lyrics – definitely the most personal and raw I have ever penned. Again, I was a little nervous about this but felt that the time was right to try and give voice to thoughts and issues that had been gnawing away at the corners of my consciousness for several years. The samples on the album however were not of my doing – these were Andreas’s idea and he implemented them. I haven’t actually asked him what they are actually, I really should do I guess! Whatever their source, they definitely aid in sustaining the reflective, bleak ambience of the record. 

Do you appreciate A.’s choice to publish De Arma’s debut on a noble DIY label Trollmusic so far known more for the uncompromising principles of his amiable (self-proclaimed) trollish boss? 

Trollish boss? That’s the first time I’ve heard this but I’ll take your word for it! I think it’s a great idea, I think Thor will promote this album well, he’s shown a lot of support for the project as its been going along and all in all, it’s the perfect choice. It means a lot for me to work with people who feel a genuine connection and involvement with their artists. We shall see how long it takes for the ‘trollishness’ to manifest itself… 

LA&F is a very emotionally intense album: drenched in melancholy and sorrow very much rooted in humanity in its flesh and bones and its earthly condition. Scandinavians, accustomed to survive in harsh climate conditions, seem to be very concrete people, even in their mythological vision…

In my experience, there’s certainly an uncompromising hardiness to the Scandinavian way of thinking – a real focus and sense of purpose. This I have noticed and it is something I respect. It may well be born from harsher climes but I think it is no coincidence that the Scandinavian music scene (well, metal scene at least) is so prolific and produced so many works that are high-quality. It goes back to this drive, this committed focus and lack of compromise.
In relation to this De Arma album, I think that Andreas has aimed to tap into something primal and reflective musically, however it has been left to me to put the conceptual ‘flesh on the bones’ so to speak. It IS emotionally intense for sure – the layers of inference, metaphor and analogy in which I normally tend to wreath lyrics have been stripped away and many of the ideas here are quite ‘open’ and raw. The sorrow here is certainly rooted in the human condition – flesh and bone as you say but mired in a choking environment of humanity’s own creation. A self-imposed prison, a concrete and glass oubliette shutting out the light and condemning all within to murky misery.
I believe that humans intrinsically struggle with the city – a mere 4-500 years ago, most of us lived in villages and I don’t believe that our minds have evolved to keep pace with the ever-changing nature of our environments. At some primeval subconscious level there is a fundamental dissonance chiming away at the back of the brains of all city-dwellers – depression, hysteria, addictions, all of these I believe can be exacerbated manifestations of a fundamental unease. We need to belong, we need to be comfortable with our ‘place’ and if not, despair can arise.
For me, L, A & F is as much a rumination on this as it is a rumination on my own personal issues – in many ways inextricably entwined with this condition. 

Time changes perspectives and boasting Viking ancestry apparently makes you cooler these days! Allain is apparently a Celtic name: are you interested in the origins of your family and your ancestors’ traditions? 

Well, it is of interest to a degree but not something I have taken the time to fully explore. Allain is from my mother’s side and I believe the ancestral heritage from that side originates in France. My father is half-Ukranian so it is an interesting mix. I believe he has started to show some interest in genealogy so it may be that I might start getting more information with regards to my heritage so who knows? 

Hopefully I shall see you in Europe with Fen, but could De Arma ever be tempted to do some live shows? 

It was mentioned briefly but given the distances involved and how much my time (and traveling time) is tied up with Fen right now, I’m not sure it will happen in the near future. I did suggest to Andreas I might be able to head to Sweden once every 3-4 months and do bass/vocals (with himself on guitar and Johan doing drums) but he would like another guitar player for live purposes. So yes, it is something that has been mentioned – I think it would be an interesting challenge/experiment but it could be a bit of a fantasy at the moment. Who knows though? 

In the meantime in May Fen will embark on an amazing journey as only support band for Agalloch on their much awaited ”Lucifer Over Europe 2013 Tour”: a truly unmissable event which many, myself included, have been fantasized about for a long time!
Prepare your soul to be awashed with sublime emotions...

24.04.2013 - Erandio / Sala Sonora
26.04.2013 - Madrid / Sala Cats
Friday 17th May - Rock'n'Roll Arena, Romagnano Sesia (NO)