Svalbard frontwoman, Serena Cherry, had every right to curse the social and economic inertia of Covid-19. Her band received rave reviews for their 2020 album and had the momentum to push the Svalbard juggernaut to new levels of critical and commercial acclaim before the world ground to a halt. But instead of engaging in conspiracy theories aimed at Bill Gates and 5G, she used her furlough time to rediscover a love of two things – black metal and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim role-playing computer game from 2011. Wretched Abyss is the art that came out of that period and the LP we have in front of us now. Serena is going back to her extreme metal roots with her Noctule project.
You might be nervous about what to expect from an artist best known for the hyperaggressive post-hardcore of her full-time band. Will her black metal be something to fear or something to ponder? The music leans towards the latter on opener, ‘Elvin Sword’, despite the agonising vocal shrieks. Serena’s guitar lines are of the melodic tremolo style synonymous with atmospheric black metal. She programmes her drums to use blast beats at sporadic intervals and relies on the cold reverb of her voice to give the music its emotional charge. The latest album by Dutch blackgaze trio, An Autumn For Crippled Children, comes to mind here, although she’s not afraid to hack away at her strings with a thrashier palm-muted technique when the music demands it.
“I have always associated Skyrim with black metal. The snowy mountain settings, the morbid themes, the Norse mythology backbone – it just goes hand in hand for me,” says Serena in the press release. You can see what she means on ‘Labyrinthian’ with its heroic harmonised guitars weeping like sorrowful agents of despair. On the title track, you can hear a post-hardcore take on Iron Maiden. The lyrics might depict encounters with dragons, but you care nothing for the concept when the levels of rage are at such cathartic proportions as Harakiri For The Sky. ‘Evenaar’ is even better and more metal. Now we get the mystical acapella vocal harmonies of Miranda Sex Garden and the dual guitar patterns of vintage Paradise Lost. She even lobs a Zakk Wylde lick into the middle section to keep the guitar nerds erect.
With such an illustrative sense of place among winter-topped peaks and snow-filled plains, it’s inevitable that Noctule might also encroach on the same aesthetic as dream pop and blackgaze. ‘Winterhold’ is the song where Serena embraces the lo-fi melodic noise of Deafheaven, but it’s a regressive step for the album. The music is too fluffy and too focused on the cute and luscious melodies of the dark ethereal realm, which would be a positive development if it didn’t change the mood with such abruptness. But this is a black metal album, and there are dragons to be slain. ‘Deathbell Harvest’ recognises this need to get back on track, adding technical rhythms and metallic guitars, but you might wonder how you stumbled into the Brazilian rainforest rather than the winter peaks of middle earth. The answer is an intriguing one: Serena probably had Devin Townend’s Empath on her stereo during the lockdown if the melodious harmonies at 03:23 seconds are anything to go by. ‘Unrelenting Force’ continues with the vocal hysterics and tremolo leads and captures the same hostile beauty as Hulder. ‘Winterhold’ is easy to forgive and forget by the time we reach the instrumental ensemble of ‘Become Ethereal’.
The level of musicianship and song arrangement is high, and the colour palette varies on Noctule’s debut record as Serena Cherry takes us through the ascending levels of Skyrim for the ultimate battle with Alduin the World-Eater. Though the previous sentence may read like a ridiculous metal cliché, this album is no joke – it’s the urgent sound of now. We need escapism and fantasy in these dire times of social curtailment. Wretched Abyss is a fascinating adventure laced with the risk-taking despair of a protagonist who can die at any moment.
Release Date: 28/05/2021
Record Label: Church Road Records
Standout tracks: Elvin Sword, Evenaar, Deathbell Harvest
Suggested Further Listening: An Autumn For Crippled Children – As the Morning Dawns We Close Our Eyes (2021), Æolian – The Negationist (2020), Harakiri For The Sky – Mǣre (2021)