Review: Noctule – «Wretched Abyss»

Upon hearing of a black metal record inspired by «The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim», our immediate reaction was to fear that it would draw too much from its soundtrack or that we’d end up hearing “fus roh dah” and jokes about arrows to the knee all throughout its duration. Knowing that it was going to happen as the debut Svalbard‘s guitarist/vocalist Serena Cherry solo project Noctule, the fears subsided and rightfully so, as the aforementioned album, «Wretched Abyss», not only avoids all expected cliches but delivers even for those who are not fans of the game – or at least we think it does, since we spent countless hours exploring the northernmost region of Tamriel for years after its release.

Noctule – «Wretched abyss» | [Translation loss / church road]

Role-playing games might not be the most obvious source of inspiration for a black metal record (not that it never happened, mind you), though no one would be surprised if a heavy or power metal band pulled that out of the bag. A game with the lore of the Elder Scrolls and with the gloomy dungeons that its fifth instalment boasts, ends up being a natural candidate for such a source. After all, we’re talking about one of the most important video games of the last decade; not nearly a perfect one, with a rather flat difficulty curve and a cumbersome melee system, but one whose positives, namely its immersive nature, gorgeous landscapes, and beautiful soundtrack, to name a few, far outweigh the negatives. It’s time we add another merit to the game: it inspired the creation of Noctule.

The band’s debut, «Wretched Abyss» (which you can stream above), eschews the medieval side of the source’s OST in favour of melodic black metal. From here on, we could focus on the black metal side of things, but decided instead to explore how the pieces of Skyrim‘s lore are reflected on «Wretched Abyss», having chosen four songs to illustrate that aspect – we will not discuss the manifestation of the Daedric prince that gives the album its title. Take the two most grandiose songs of the album, «Elven Sword» and «Unrelenting Force». The former is the only physical weapon to give name to a song, and therefore we get a battle hymn. The latter is the first dragon shout (or Thu’um) the player learns in the game, an ancient power wherein the user vocalises words of power to create magic. It’s called dragon shouts because, as you might’ve guessed at this point, dragons are its most frequent users. This particular shout, once one learns all three of its words, is strong enough to push enemies (and friends, to be fair) from cliffs and even stagger giants. It is thus fitting that the respective song has an epic feel to it. It should be noted that the last song of the album, «Become Ethereal» is also named after a shout which does exactly what it says, rendering one harmless and unharmable. Once again, the pensive character of the song is a perfect fit to its inspiration.

All grandeur aside, both game and record end up conjuring feelings of extreme melancholy at times, as beautifully exemplified by the single «Evenaar» above. A more distracted player would be hard pressed to remember ever seeing the word in the game. It source lies, once again, in a Thu’um, whose game appearance is with an invented dragon language, whose word for extinction is transliterated as “evenaar.”

Finally, we get to an actual dungeon, «Labyrinthian», an ancient city which is said to have been the province’s capital during ancient times in which it was ruled by a dragon cult, but has long since been abandoned upon the game’s start. Sitting amidst mountains, one first sees it as a snow covered, silent ruin before diving through its namesake labyrinth to slaughter an undead dragon priest, as one does. The song in «Wretched Abyss» captures all this snowy, frozen desolation, in a perfect way through its guitar leads, with Cherry’s imposing, visceral screams ripping through and bringing the necessary urgency and sense of enclosure.

With a debut this good, its reassuring to note that plenty more albums could be made of the Skyrim lore alone, not to mention the overall Elder Scrolls saga. We certainly wouldn’t complain.

«Wretched Abyss» was released on May 28, 2021, through Translation Loss and Church Road. It can be found here (cd, digital, and vinyl) and here (vinyl only).

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