"I heard they're reforming the Dawnguard!" - Noctule on the Parallels between Black Metal and Skyrim
It’s impossible to think of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls series without thinking of arguably its standout instalment - and one of the best video games of all time - Skyrim. It’s spawned countless memes - including the overused arrow to the knee format - as well as all having an indelible mark on the industry and gamers across the world. One of those it’s inspired is Noctule, the brainchild of Serena Cherry, until now best known as one the guitarists and singers of blackened post-hardcore outfit Svalbard. Ahead of the release of Noctule’s debut album Wretched Abyss, we caught up with Serena to talk Skyrim, black metal and… lusty Argonian maids. Yep.
“It’s my favourite game of all time!” she enthuses. “I love everything about it, I love the Nordic mythological vibes, the soundtrack is one of my favourite pieces of music of all time, just the hugeness of it.” To call Skyrim huge is an understatement; it’s a sprawling high fantasy epic telling stories of dragons, destiny and even finds the time to delve into the world of politics and themes of identity and belonging. The aforementioned soundtrack is also legendary. Of the trepidation she felt when theming the album to it, she muses “how dare I make music about Skyrim when the soundtrack already exists and it’s perfect?” But she persevered - “if you’re fighting dragons and stuff and you want something a bit more heavy and aggressive, that’s what Noctule’s for!”
It wasn’t always given that she’d revisit her black metal roots though. It was the first lockdown that gave rise to this, as she explains “The first lockdown last year, I was unemployed… I suddenly had all this free time and I had a lot of riffs in the bank because I’m always working on riffs… I had the time to figure out how to use Logic and start recording them and layering them up." From there, it kept growing - “it got really indulgent straight away, like I’m going to have three guitar leads happening at the same time here. I found the whole thing really liberating to do a solo project and not have to ask what anyone else thinks or have to compromise.” That liberation, along with playing plenty of Skyrim, led her to realise the two were influencing each other and it’s arguably at that point Noctule was born.
“If you’re fighting dragons and stuff and you want something a bit more heavy and aggressive, that’s what Noctule’s for!”
As for why Skyrim is so adored and ended up inspiring a black metal album, one of the reasons is its dungeon design; ‘Labyrinthian’ is devoted to a single dungeon in the game that’s visited during a quest to recover The Staff of Magnus. But it’s not just that single dungeon, either; Bleak Falls Barrow and its puzzle proved an early stumbling block. “You know, it took me ages to realise - to use the dragon claw, if you looked at it you saw the pattern you needed to make. It took me so long to figure it out," she exclaims. These puzzle aspects also form a core part of her love for the game, including the aforementioned Labyrinthian that “[culminated] together in this really immersive experience… That’s the epitome of a dungeon that you can get lost in for me, and that’s why I wrote a song about it!” The world itself feels lived in; “it’s like it has hundreds and hundreds of years of history in it”, she explains, referring to the dungeon but it’s equally true of places like the town of Winterhold, which is a collapsed mess following a cataclysmic event.
Such a huge game with that amount of in-game history is easy to lose yourself in for hours at a time; Serena freely admits to having sunk in over a hundred hours which might sound like a lot initially. But then, what about TV? “I would liken it to - how many hours do you spend watching TV a night? Three or four at least. That’s how I explain it to my mum at least. You know how you like to watch Coronation Street? This is what I do with that time instead!” she laughs. You heard it here first, folks. Skyrim is just like Coronation Street.
“That’s what I love about The Elder Scrolls in general, it becomes a part of your life” she says when asked about games as an interactive medium that you can truly be invested in and live as those characters. “Sometimes we [her and her housemates] will talk to each other in NPC quotes!” she laughs. The impact of these games are wide-ranging, not just from influencing albums but even to breaking down barriers when we meet people. “Another way that [the series] plays out into real life is you meet someone else who loves Skyrim and you’ll have endless hours of conversation in the bank. That’s one of many, many things I love about it.”
Naturally, no conversation about Skyrim is complete without talking about our favourite character builds and the somewhat meme of the sneaky archer. Serena’s just started a new Argonian character so naturally, we had to ask. “Oh it’s not the sneaky archer! I’m a rarity!” she laughs. “It’s a lady Argonian with two one-handed weapons. So I’ve got an Elven sword in one and a Chillrend in the other… To me, sneaky archer, there’s something inconsequential about it. You’re just at a distance firing arrows. I can appreciate though, the skill in the sneaking aspect. I don’t really use [sneak] with my Argonian though, I just charge in with my blades out!”
That’s not to say there’s no subtlety or consideration to be found - even a cursory listen to Wretched Abyss will handily prove you wrong there, with its gorgeous, sweeping atmospheres and the soft outro of ‘Become Ethereal’ - and this extends to the game. “I also have a deep appreciation for mage builds”, she considers, “you’re so squishy as a mage, you’ll die all the time!” But at the moment, there’s very little of that sneakiness or finesse to be found - “I’m really into my two one-handed weapons, no time for a shield!”
Considering just how open to different playstyles the game is, as well as the staggering depth, it isn’t something you could necessarily cover in one go. “I’ve already started writing a second album!” she enthuses. “You know when you go to Sovngarde and it’s all choral music? Well my idea in my head is to try and mix black metal and choral music so it’ll be the same kind of tremolo picked melodies but it’ll have layers of - how I sing the start of ‘Open Wound’ by Svalbard instead of harsh vocals.... I want to write an entire album about Sovngarde!” she laughs. This fusion of choral music and black metal does, to some extent, exist already on Wretched Abyss with ‘Evenaar’ and its introduction, but it’ll certainly be exciting to see where things head from there.
"The genre is expansive and if you want to say what is and isn’t back metal, what are you basing it on? Where’s the archetype, and even if there is an archetype, why should it be continued to be repeated and all other change get lost?”
This creative freedom Noctule has allowed is something she hinted at earlier and clearly revels in given that she can truly indulge and not need to compromise; the album is a love letter to her favourite game of all time, penned solely by her. However, this does mean that it comes with some caveats as to how she actually engages with reactions to her music. “With Noctule, I’ve been a bit scared”, is the honest response. “I’ll read the comments on my personal Twitter, but the ones on YouTube, or if a metal website shares it, because it is 100% me, any kind of attack or criticism on it feels way more personal”. This is a far cry from Svalbard, as she admits. “Svalbard is a unit of people so it’s not so much directly an insult.”
Negative comments are something that now seem to be part and parcel of the internet - the anonymity it can afford means people feel emboldened, forgetting that the person reading those comments is another human being. But she has taken some in her stride - notably the first she ever received. “The first comment I got on Noctule was “this isn’t black metal!” and I love this! Why is this such a thing in black metal that people seem to be obsessed with what is and what isn’t black metal?” It’s something the genre has battled with, and continues to struggle with, as people attempt to gatekeep the genre, usually simply from acts they don’t like. But that’s a pointless exercise, she thinks. When you say something isn’t black metal, it begs the question - what is? “As far as I was aware there isn’t a rulebook… The genre is expansive and if you want to say what is and isn’t back metal, what are you basing it on? Are you basing it on Venom, Celtic Frost, are you basing it on the 90's, the Norwegian era, are you basing it on post-black metal or all these kinds of blend and melds we’ve got of it now? Where’s the archetype, and even if there is an archetype, why should it be continued to be repeated and all other change get lost?”
It’s clear from this that she has an incredibly deep-seated love of the genre, as her roots in black metal would also testify to. The solution to the questions she’s posed though, is perhaps far simpler than the detractors who claim things aren’t black metal, is simple. “The reason I describe [Noctule] as a black metal project and a black metal band is because it has that kind of feeling which is black metal to me. That kind of darkness - sounds really cheesy! - of that kind of DIY aspect of it is a really black metal thing. Sitting there programming drums and writing layers of hypnotic guitars is really prevalent.”
"In my brain, it’s a no brainer that people who like Skyrim also like black metal, because anyone who likes anything to do with high fantasy, also likes metal and trends to venture into the more extreme end of things."
A common thread in metal too, regardless of (frankly, pointless) arguments over genre, is just how much high fantasy lends itself to metal. “In my brain, it’s a no brainer that people who like Skyrim also like black metal, because anyone who likes anything to do with high fantasy, also likes metal and trends to venture into the more extreme end of things”, she muses when asked about the connection between the two. Just on artwork alone, there’s a lot of influence - “You’re bound to see a sword, you’re bound to see a dragon, you’re bound to see some sort of mythological symbology in there… Basically 90% of black metal or power metal sing about Lord Of The Rings!”
As for Wretched Abyss and Skyrim, “I can’t imagine a more appropriate soundtrack than those epic soaring leads that occur in black metal. But to bring it back to the what is black metal point, we’re here discussing the trem picked leads. But then if you look at a band like Darkthrone or Celtic Frost they don’t have those! So is it actually black metal?”
With these questions still hanging in the air - though perhaps we can clear one thing up and that is, Noctule is absolutely black metal - we turned to our final questions. The first - how often do you get to the Cloud District - elicits laughter. Secondly we asked about the well-known Tale of the Lusty Argonian Maid. “I collect them! I’ve got three volumes… the second volume is all about polishing someone’s sword!” she knowingly quips. “I was going to change my social media bios to “The Lusty Argonian Maid Volume Two” but then I thought, no, that’s going to invite some strange DMs isn’t it! But it does make me laugh.”
Wretched Abyss is released May 28th via Church Road Records