Movies about video games have nearly all been terrible. Thank goodness, then, for music. Plenty of metal bands have written songs and albums about video games over recent years. Throwing her hat into the ring is Serena Cherry, via her solo black metal project Noctule, with the excellent debut album Wretched Abyss.
No, it’s not about Activision’s 1982 Atari platformer Pitfall! (an album to which I’d be intrigued to listen if someone makes one). Noctule is focussed entirely on Skyrim, the best-selling game in Bethesda’s world-famous Elder Scrolls series. Why Skyrim, you ask? Because as she told me herself (read our recent interview here), it’s Cherry’s favourite game ever, and because a black metal album about Halo 2 or Final Fantasy VII probably wouldn’t work quite so well. I’d suggest tech-death and power metal respectively, but we’re straying off-topic.
Skyrim lends itself very well to the aesthetics of black metal. For those of you who have never played it, it’s a huge open-world game set in a frostbitten Nordic landscape with a protagonist destined to fight evil hordes of monsters and, ultimately, a villainous dragon. There’s an argument to be made that it might also suit power metal (I for one would pay good money for this to become a reality), but the immersive gameplay, sweeping epic soundtrack, and beautiful Nordic aesthetics of the game definitely lend themselves more to black metal. Thus, we have Wretched Abyss.
And what an album it is. Cherry has crafted an excellent one-woman project. Simultaneously emotive, atmospheric, and intense, this is not only a brilliant accompaniment to the game, but a solid black metal album in its own right. “Elven Sword,” the album opener, starts with furious screams and a blistering guitar attack – reflecting everyone’s current mental state in the Current Circumstances. But far from being a simple black metal track that treads old ground, Cherry infuses her music with bleak melodies and a sense of grandiosity. Those opening bars, and the rest of the song, really do hit the listener with the force of one of the game’s draconic shouting spells.
Again, it must be stressed that she did all this herself, from the (wretched) abyssal howls to the furious tremolo-picked leads to programming the drums. It’s seriously impressive work. The album’s clear highlight, however, is “Evenaar.” Opening with exquisite clean vocals, the mournful melody is perfectly balanced by the blast beats underneath. She has impressively managed to infuse black metal with a sense of poignant beauty – the melodic hooks of this song will stay with listeners long after the album has finished.
As well as the wistful melody of “Evenaar,” the dénouement of the title track is graced with clean choral vocals, offering not just an aesthetically pleasing counterpoint to her harsh growls, but also emphasizing the beautiful and mournful atmosphere of the album as a whole. Enhancing this is the reverb in which her growls and guitar leads are soaked, making it feel as if the music is coming to you across the very mountains of Skyrim itself. We’ll let the serious gamers among you take moment to enjoy the image of the game’s protagonist dragon-shouting the lyrics at Alduin (the main draconic antagonist).
Is there a flaw to Wretched Abyss? No. Noctule isn’t reinventing the black metal wheel, but it doesn’t need to. Cherry’s solo work is excellent, definitely on par with other solo black metal projects like Alcest or Void Ritual. To keen ears, the influences of Enslaved are clear across the album, especially on “Evenaar” and “Labyrinthian,” – Cherry echoes Enslaved’s grandeur and melodic sensibilities and deftly mixes them with both a black-metal attack from second-wave bands like Darkthrone and Jeremy Soule’s work on the game’s actual soundtrack.
Album closer “Become Ethereal” is an exquisite instrumental track that would fit in well with Soule’s compositions – it could easily work as the musical backdrop to a romance scene, or the lengthy treks across the beautiful landscapes. Cherry takes all the building blocks of atmospheric black metal and uses them to create something truly great – just listen to the album’s other stand-out “Deathbell Harvest” if you don’t believe me. From the thunderous drum fill of its opening bars right through to the fading echoes of its close, it’s a perfect black metal track if ever there was one. If I didn’t know that the drums were programmed, I’d say Cherry was as accomplished a drummer as Winterhalter.
It’s here I should make a confession, dear reader. I’ve never completed Skyrim. I played it for about three weeks in 2014 but I find open-world games a tad overwhelming, so I’ve never returned to it. But that hasn’t in any way diminished my enjoyment of Wretched Abyss. Not only does it work as a tribute to the game, but it also stands strong on its own two feet. Noctule may well be the newest in a growing roster of bands writing about video games, but it is well on the way to being one of the best. Roll on the second album.
Wretched Abyss Track Listing:
1. Elven Sword
3. Wretched Abyss
6. Deathbell Harvest
7. Unrelenting Force
8. Become Ethereal
Run Time: 41:33
Release Date: May 28, 2021
Record Label: Church Road Records (Europe)/Translation Loss Records (US)