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Svalbard Vocalist Serena Cherry Discusses Black Metal, Gaming, and Her Solo Project Noctule



Having made serious waves as vocalist, lyricist, and guitarist of hardcore punk outfit Svalbard, Serena Cherry is returning to her roots with a solo black metal project Noctule. Themed entirely around the Elder Scrolls game Skyrim, released ten years ago by Bethesda, Noctule’s debut album Wretched Abyss is a killer black metal depiction of the world of Skyrim and its quests. So, we decided to sit down with Serena and discuss her love of gaming and how it inspired her to release a solo album.

Wretched Abyss is an album all about Skyrim. Of all the games in the world, and indeed of all the Elder Scrolls games you could have chosen, why Skyrim?

Serena Cherry: “It sounds really obvious, but Skyrim is my favourite game of all time, not just my favourite Elder Scrolls game. The quests, the story lines, the imagery, the ancient Nordic ruins and the ancient Daedric character in the game match perfectly with black metal. During lockdown, I was playing a lot of black metal riffs and playing a lot of Skyrim and realized the two things were influenced by each other. I am really influenced by the original soundtrack of Skyrim as well, so I guess I was trying to create that similar epicness but in a metal way.”

Could Noctule become a project to look at other games in the Elder Scrolls series, or even other games like Bloodborne, Dark Souls, DragonAge, etc.? Or is it just a one-off lockdown project?

“Well, I’ve already started planning the second album. It’s going to be, and this probably sounds really indulgent, themed to Sovngarde (the in-game Nordic afterlife) in Skyrim and I’m going to attempt to write a choral black metal album. I listen to a lot of choral music as well, and that section of the game has some really beautiful choral music, and it’s one of my favourite parts of the game. So, I’m going to try and write themed to that and create that choral, somber, hymnal atmosphere but see if it works with the black metal. The great thing about Skyrim is the content is so rich and so in depth you’re never going to run out of things to write songs about.”

So it’s mainly going to be a Skyrim project? We’re not going to see a DragonAge or a BioShock album or anything like that?

“I don’t like the combat in DragonAge, so… did you just roll your eyes?!”

I did, I’m sorry! I like DragonAge! I have to make a confession; Skyrim is a game I’ve never managed to complete.

“Oh really?”

It’s too big for me. It’s just such a big game where because there’s a main plot line but I could go anywhere and do anything, it felt a bit overwhelming. DragonAge is a bit more linear, and that felt a bit kinder to me! I’m a very casual gamer, I apologies.

“I do understand, and I did try playing DragonAge Inquisition at the start of lockdown, but I couldn’t get my head around the combat, so I didn’t delve too deep with that one. Then in regard with Dark Souls, though maybe not so much with Bloodborne, but I don’t hate myself enough to play Dark Souls. It’s too long! I don’t just want to sit there all night dying, I’ve got better things to do!”

That’s fair! From what I understand, Dark Souls is a very unforgiving game, and I’m the same, I like playing games where I don’t die so often, strangely.

Gaming has obviously been a big thing for you during lockdown, so how did you get your start in gaming?

“I’m a bit old school, I have quite a few old school gaming tattoos on my arm, for example. I started with the Sega Master System 2, the one with Alex Kidd in Miracle World built in, which is one of the hardest platforming games ever made. But I didn’t grow up in a super-rich background, so we were always about two generations behind in terms of consoles. So, when everyone had the Playstation 1, I had the Sega Master System, when the PS2 came out I got a (Sega) MegaDrive, and then I started working in a guitar shop and bought myself a PS1 which was a huge deal for me at the time. That was when I discovered Final Fantasy with Final Fantasy VII, which got me into RPGs and that pulled me away from the simpler platform games. Final Fantasy VII was what really got me into gaming. I do love 8-bit gaming style, but Final Fantasy was what truly converted me to RPGs.”

Another confession: I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game!

“What! Just cancel the interview and start playing!”

I know, I’m terrible, I’m the last person who should be reviewing this album! I’ve never played Final Fantasy or a Legend of Zelda game, and as soon as I mention that to someone who’s a more serious gamer they’re shocked. I’m just a casual gamer. I love the Halo games, just give me a big gun and rocket launcher. My style of game-play is “I’ve got a big gun, eat lead bad guys!”

So, when you’re not playing Skyrim, what games are you playing at the moment?

“I got the remake of MediEvil on the PS4. It’s beautiful but some of the bosses are insanely hard. I’ve also been playing Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. I do like Assassin’s Creed. I’ve also got the Spyro trilogy remake, which is really good, that’s been completed several times since we got it. I also got the Crash Bandicoot reboot, but it’s terrible. I had to sell it! I was reading up on it, it’s apparently to do with his circle of contact with the platforms that he’s on. Basically, he’s not as easily controlled as he was in the PS1 game. You’ll do a jump and he’ll just slip off, and not land properly. I used to love that platformer when I was younger, but now it’s like they’ve sucked all the fun out of it.”

I loved them too – I had Crash Bash, Crash Bandicoot 2, and Crash Tag-Team Racing. But if you can’t land on a platform then you can’t have a platform game!

“Yeah, I was really surprised at how badly done it was, considering it’s a major game.”

Other than Skyrim, what would you say is your favourite game, or top five if you can’t pick just one?

“This is a really hard question, because I know what’s going to happen, I’ll list stuff off the top of my head and then hang up and think of something that should have gone in. Obviously, Final Fantasy VII. I like the cerebral platformers on the Master System and one of them was themed to Asterix, like the Asterix and Obelix game on the Sega Master system.”

Oh wow! I didn’t know there were games of that!

“Yeah! They’re really good, so I would definitely say Asterix and Obelix. Worms for the PS1, and Vermintide, which is a Warhammer game, which is really good. Lots of grim rats everywhere!”

Always the way in an RPG, always got to fight rats somewhere along the line. That’s four, along with Skyrim, so we can count that as a complete list.

Is there a particular console you prefer? Do you prefer Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, or are you an avowed member of the PC Gaming Master Race?

“PlayStation 4. That’s the console for me. I’m not a PC gamer. I’d love to, but I work from home on my PC at the moment, so the last thing I want to do is shut one window down for work and then start gaming on it! I’d at least like to sit on the sofa and play on a console instead. I do have a Switch, but I haven’t got so much into it. I’m not so big on the Nintendo games.”

That’s fair – I got into Pokémon when I was younger on the Gameboy, but other than that, I’ve never owned a Nintendo console.

“I mean, Pokémon Blue on the Gameboy is all you really need!”

Yeah! The graphics of the newer ones are cool, but I’ve grown out of the world of Pokémon now.

Artwork for ‘Wretched Abyss’ by Noctule

Moving on to the music, could we ever see a Noctule live show, either as a stream or as an actual show in an actual venue?

“Yes! We are booked to play Incineration Fest with Emperor next year. I’m hoping we’re going to be able to play some more shows earlier, because otherwise that’s a hell of a first gig to have! We’re on the lookout for potentially a few festivals this year if we can get it sorted and they can go ahead. It’s a very strange time, because with my other band, when we book things, they happen. With this, you’re booking things thinking, ‘maybe it’ll happen!’ But at least with Incineration Festival, because it’s in 2022, I’m hoping that will go ahead.

I’ve been planning what to do live for Noctule. In Svalbard, everything’s very serious, and emotive, and political, and I want Noctule to be the ultimate escape from that. It’s all high fantasy and so on, so I’ve been thinking about having a projection of Skyrim behind us, getting a snow machine, getting some outfits and so on. I’m really lucky because my housemates are in my live band, so we sit around and plan stupid shit for when we can play live.”

I am hoping that live shows come back. I know Svalbard are playing a tour in November, with a show in Cardiff. I have a feeling that’ll be the first gig I see after lockdown, so I’m definitely looking forward to that if it happens. I just want to be vaccinated and see live music again! Sitting in front of my desk is so boring!

“I just want to live again! I’m sick of being in the waiting room, as it were.”

People may not know that you got your start in black metal. How did that come about?

“When I was a teenager, I bought a four-track, and I worked in a guitar shop and saved up all my money from my Saturday job there to buy an entry-level Jackson guitar. I also bought a drum machine, I believe called Dr. Rhythm, and did what a lot of DIY one-man black metal projects do and looped one drumbeat over and layered up riffs on top and figured out how to do vocals. Writing black metal was very much my first start in creating music. I started doing that when I was 16 years old, I wrote three albums and then formed a live band. We did tour for a couple of years and played with some really great bands. Then life got in the way and people decided they would rather have a job than be in a band.”

Can’t get the staff these days, eh?

“Oh, I know! And because it was my project and I was having people join as live members of the band, it got difficult with constantly having to replace members and it was much more fun to go on to something like Svalbard. I do very much credit black metal with inspiring me with that DIY ethic. You can just sit there and have one drumbeat and layer all the stuff on top. That was very crucial to me in developing as a musician.”

So, in that respect, the one-man-band thing that Noctule is something you’ve got a lot of practice with. Did you find it easy to slip back into that, and how did it differ with what happens with Svalbard?

“It was amazing going back to writing everything myself and not having to compromise and not having to take anyone else’s opinion into account or not having to sacrifice riffs because other people don’t like them! It sounds a little indulgent, but it was really nice to be able to fully pursue the ideas that were in my head to their ultimate conclusion rather than have them chopped up and cherry-picked. I do enjoy writing with Svalbard because we write in the room together, so it is always fun to have that synergy and bounce off of other people. But I do think I almost needed to do something where I could just fully explore my ideas on my own. I found it incredibly liberating, and I found I worked a lot faster. It takes Svalbard years to write one album, with Noctule it took me a couple of months to write the whole thing!”

And you’re already on album number two! I’m not a composer, I got a B at Music GCSE on my composition, but I’m feel like the one-man band thing is insanely difficult. It blows my mind that people like Svalbard can come together and make such excellent music, but one person doing all of that feels even more impressive.

To make something as layered as Noctule or looking at bands like Alcest where it is essentially one person doing it all is mind-boggling. Is it as difficult as I think it is, or is it just very simple and I’ve got a skewed vision?

“I think certain aspects are harder than others. For example, programming drums, I basically learned how to program drums for this album. With the black metal I did before, I just used a drum machine on a loop whereas now because times are different, the standards of what you can do with programming drums are a lot higher. There is a learning process and sometimes you hit these points of frustration where because it’s just you, you don’t have that person who’s a specialist in drum fills like we do in Svalbard, you don’t have this other person who can hear the direction in which a song is meant to go. It all falls on your shoulders. It gets hard when you hit a wall, but when you don’t hit a wall, it does come more naturally. I find things like writing melodies over melodies comes so easily to me.”

Is there much of a difference between the singing styles of Svalbard and Noctule? Do you find you’ve had to shift your voice, and does it affect your throat differently when you do hardcore versus black metal singing?

“Definitely. The Noctule vocals are a lot harder because they have that real guttural metal aspect. I find that I’ll record vocals for Noctule, and my throat will be really sore. With Svalbard, I’m very familiar with that band and going on tours and doing that night after night, so I’ve hit a level where I’m comfortable vocally, whereas with Noctule because I guess I had something to prove to myself. I was forcing myself to do the absolute best vocal performances that I could and sound more extreme in terms of the guttural and the higher-pitch black metal screams.”

In comparison to Svalbard’s lyrical themes of topical and weighty political issues, how did you find the process of writing lyrics for Noctule?

“It was definitely deliberate to have a completely different approach for writing lyrics for Noctule. Lyrics in Svalbard are the hardest part of being in that band. I’ve developed a bit of a reputation for writing those lyrics. I feel a lot of pressure to write about very raw topics and it’s like baring your wounds. With some Svalbard songs it’s like someone’s reading my diary. I’m sometimes writing about personal experiences of sexual assault or other difficult things that are really hard to express. To then have that composure to turn it into something creative and hand the lyrics to someone else in the band for them to shout is very emotionally draining. It does feel like having my heart on my sleeve for everyone to see, so I deliberately avoided that for Noctule.

I still put the time in to the lyrics and they’re quite poetic but it’s nowhere near the level of emotional depth that Svalbard will reach. The lyrics for Noctule are decorative, they’re there to add to the fantasy atmosphere. It was honestly a relief for me to not write something so personal and so heavy. I actually really enjoyed writing the lyrics for Noctule!”

As a prominent feminist in the metal world, do you feel like metal is taking steps in the right direction towards being more inclusive? And is the same true of black metal in particular or do you feel like that scene has further to go than the world of metal at large?

“I never look at black metal in itself as a black metal fan and think, ‘how inclusive is this, how well are women represented and being treated?’ It’s interesting to look at the backlash that Myrkur received as a lady making black metal, it’s not black metal now but that’s where she started. She received a lot of hate. But then I think, in my head, I always expect black metal audiences to be more hostile anyway. Black metallers are so preoccupied with what’s ‘true’ and sticking to a very limited idea of what the genre should be that I’m not expecting it to be the most inclusive thing in the world. With the first single, one of the first comments it got was ‘this isn’t black metal,’ and I thought, ‘who gets to decide what is and what isn’t?’

I’d say that in terms of bands, I see less women musicians in black metal bands, but then in metal overall the representation is getting better and better and more diverse. I’m really excited about Ithaca, Spiritbox, Employed to Serve, and all these bands. The fact that I can just reel them off, whereas 10 to 15 years ago I’d be thinking ‘erm… Arch Enemy?’ It speaks volumes.

And the way that women are represented in metal has come on leaps and bounds. One of the first issues of Metal Hammer I ever bought had a photo shoot with Tairrie B from My Ruin and Tobey Torres from Snake River Conspiracy, remember them? And the photo shoot had one of them topless and they were pretending to kiss each other, and it was so gratuitously sexualized. This would’ve been 2002 that this came out, and it shows how much things have improved that women aren’t being sexualized so much anymore. I do think things are overall improving but maybe within the niche of black metal maybe it’s not improving as quickly.”

It does feel like there’s a long way to go in black metal. The Black Flags over Brooklyn compilation was great, but it feels like we need more of that kind of stuff before we can really start making the serious progress that metal needs as a genre.

Setting aside the unpleasant politics that black metal is currently wrestling with, who would you say are some of your favourite black metal artists? I can see you’re wearing an Emperor hoody, so who else?

“I really like Shylmagoghnar, the Dutch two-piece. The most recent Laster album was amazing. Wiegedood are great. Enslaved are a huge influence on Noctule. I know they don’t refer to themselves as a black metal band, but I definitely drew inspiration from their progressive elements. And when I was younger, it was Darkthrone, Satyricon, and the classic Norwegian black metal bands. Also, Windir and Cor Scorpii, the new band of some of the guys who were in Windir. In general, I favour the hypnotic, melodic, heavily layered stuff, and then the more progressive, atmospheric, emotive stuff from bands like Numenorean.”

Lastly, what would you say are the top five songs that speak most to your soul, the ones that always give you goosebumps when you listen to them?

“I really like this question, but it’s one where I know I’d like to think about it more. I can name some off the top of my head, but I know I’ll think of more that have to be in there! So, one of them has to be ‘Ghost Love Score’ by Nightwish. It’s so romantic, ten minutes long but never feels long and it’s such a beautiful, moving song. I would have to include ‘From Past to Present’ from the Skyrim score by Jeremy Soule. It’s just an instrumental piece, but I listen to a lot of instrumental music at home.

I’m influenced by game soundtracks and film soundtracks. ‘Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For’ by Nick Cave, because again it’s just beautiful, dark, romantic, and just cuts right through. I’m going to throw a curve-ball now and say ‘Legend of the Astral Hammer’ by Gloryhammer because I love Gloryhammer, and they make me happier than anything else in the world and listening to them puts a spring into my step. This is an awful list, I do apologize!”

It’s fine, if you asked me the same question, I’d struggle. This is why I ask, because it’s so much fun to have these lists that change almost daily.

“I’m also going to say ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’ by Porcupine Tree.”

I’m not very familiar with Porcupine Tree. I like Lightbulb Sun though.

“I’ve just thought of another one that has to be on the list, we can chuck Nick Cave off. Anathema: ‘Untouchables 1 and 2.’ Lyrically and musically, it’s just outstanding. It’s beautiful.”

I definitely need to listen to more Anathema. So far, I’ve only listened to The Optimist.

“I’d recommend listening to Weather Systems which is where ‘Untouchables’ is from.”

Just because you’ve mentioned Gloryhammer… Svalbard and Noctule are very harsh and dissonant. Would you ever do a power metal project about theme parks?

“Oh no, don’t give me that idea! The only thing that holds me back with power metal is that I’m a self-taught guitarist and I’m not very good technically. I can learn a few power metal riffs but I’m not good enough to write it. Because the musicians that make up power metal are virtuosos and incredibly talented, I’d feel like I wouldn’t have anything of worth to contribute. If I was musically talented enough to play in a power metal band, I would. Unfortunately, I’ll just have to settle for playing with Svalbard and Noctule instead!”

You say “unfortunately” like the world would be really sad that there’ll be more Svalbard and Noctule music. It was just idle curiosity on my part because I’ve been listening to power metal a lot in lock down! I feel like power metal would work best with theme parks.

“I agree. Goodness, you’ve planted a seed now! I’m going to have to try it now.”

Oh no, how terrible! As long as you credit me in the liner notes, that’s fine!