Fantasy and metal have always gone hand-in-hand, from Bolt Thrower exploring the grimdark Warhammer 40,000 universe to Blind Guardian’s love of various epics from the Wheel of Time series to Lord of the Rings. It’s in this spirit that Noctule, the one-woman project of Svalbard's Serena Cherry, seeks to pay homage to the frosty mountains, valleys and dungeons of Skyrim, the best-selling fifth installment in Bethesda’s lovingly-regarded The Elder Scrolls series, with debut album Wretched Abyss.
Given the game’s wintery landscapes and her love of both Skyrim and the genre, it made sense for Noctule to channel the icy, frostbitten soundscapes of black metal. Down to the album’s name itself - taken from the Daedric prince of knowledge Hermaeus Mora - it’s an epic, euphoric love letter to arguably one of the greatest video games of all time. Not a small task either, given how highly regarded the game’s own soundtrack is.
First track ‘Elven Sword’ soon dispels any notions that this is any ordinary black metal record. From the opening shrieks and thundering drums, we’re thrust immediately into a blizzard of tremolo-picked leads that are as sharp as the song’s namesake. It’s a swirling maelstrom of righteous, blackened fury with a truly epic scope to it. Not content to merely let rip with an incredibly strong opener, Wretched Abyss continues in fine form with ‘Labyrinthian’ - named after Serena’s favourite dungeon in the game. It’s initially a slower number, with tortured shrieks and layered leads that are truly grandiose and hauntingly beautiful.
Even with the stunning quality around it, the star of the show is ‘Evenaar’. Opening with a softly sung choral melody, it soon moves into a more mid-paced verse that then explodes into a euphoric, yet yearning, melody. Cherry’s howls are vicious and powerful throughout and the guitar work is sublime, as are the layered sung vocals that add extra dimension and melody. The preceding title track is no less powerful, with its trem-picked riffs and thunderous double bass drumming that underpins the gorgeous melodic leads. Named after the ruined town that is home to the famed magical college, ‘Winterhold’ is a sweeping blizzard of icy guitars and screams, echoing the devastation that befell the town.
Penultimate song ‘Unrelenting Force’ feels like just that, screaming down an ancient dragon with the power of The Voice, backed by the swirling ice and snow, while closer ‘Become Ethereal’ is almost the opposite of what’s come before. Lush strings open with choirs singing; it swells throughout until a mournful piano enters. The piano is later left alone, a lone wanderer in the wastes with only their own thoughts - the soft echoing strings - before closing. It’s a haunting, beautiful instrumental end to the album.
Every song on Wretched Abyss is a blackened, majestic outpouring of epic melodies both haunting and euphoric, with guitars and vocals drenched in reverb that creates a truly expansive soundscape echoing the historic, fantastical grandeur of Northern Tamriel. It’s impossible to discuss Wretched Abyss without noting that this was written and performed entirely by Cherry alone; every hit of the snare was programmed by her along with every tremolo-picked riff and her vocals are as evocative as ever. Every note makes clear the love she holds for the game and it’s a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack to explore the frozen wastes, delve into ancient ruins and fight dragons to.
Wretched Abyss is released May 28th via Church Road Records.