Serena Cherry puts it simply. “Metal is my outlet for anything that’s troubling me,” says the lead guitarist and frontwoman for Bristol, UK quartet Svalbard. “If you’re having a bad day, metal is the thing that lifts you up and helps you release all those negative emotions.”
These words will no doubt ring true for anyone who’s ever experienced the uniquely therapeutic effect that plugging in, turning up and thrashing out some savage riffs can have on both the heart and mind. But the band’s brutal yet vulnerable new album, The Weight of the Mask, is about more than just personal catharsis for its author.
“The album is about depression and how isolating mental illness can be,” explains Serena. “Something I’m really keen to do in Svalbard is create that resonance that will strike a chord with people. They can listen and not feel alone.”
Serena herself first found solace and inspiration in the world of heavy music when she was just 12 years old and a fan of Slipknot and Fear Factory. After a brief period of wanting to be a drummer, she realised her true calling involved picks rather than sticks, and she began teaching herself the basics on quite possibly the least hardcore axe you could imagine…
“My sister had a little three-quarter-size nylon classical guitar in her bedroom,” she recalls. “I used to sneak in while she was out and try to figure out how to play Slayer on it!”
A morning paper round then paid for a “terrible” knock-off Flying V, before a Saturday job at the local guitar store really started to peak her interest in higher-end gear – with her “first proper good metal guitar” arriving in the form of a Jackson Soloist.
All the while, Serena followed her instincts to figure out “all the metal techniques” herself – never receiving a single guitar lesson.
“I’ve been told that I play guitar wrong and that I hold a pick wrong because I hold it with three fingers,” explains the now highly conversant guitarist, whose self-directed approach has led to some very effective if not slightly idiosyncratic methods. “I do remember using a 2p coin as a plectrum back then as well,” she laughs.
Nowadays, she’s upgraded to .73mm Dunlop yellow Tortex picks, simply because they’re easy to spot when dropped on dimly lit stages. “That’s literally the reason for using them,” she insists. “I’ve tried the smaller, stubbier ones which a lot of metal players use – that maybe enable greater speed and accuracy – but I’m so used to these now.”
But neither speed nor accuracy are a problem for Serena, whose trademark technique is wicked-fast tremolo picking – and there’s plenty to be found on the new album.
“My pro tip for tremolo picking is to anchor with your pinky finger along your pickup or on that top string,” she shares. “A lot of people will probably say that’s wrong, but for me, that’s what enables the consistency. Once you’ve got the consistency, then you can start thinking about the speed!”
Before hitting the studio, Serena vowed to push herself in terms of creativity as well as speed within her lead work, mining inspiration in equal measure from “unpredictable” soloists like Symphony X’s Michael Romeo and the Final Fantasy video game soundtrack. The result is an abundance of “bittersweet” melodic outings that deftly and deliberately swerve the common cliches of metal soloing.
“A lot of solos in metal definitely have a formula,” she suggests. “They’ll come in with a triumphant couple of notes, and then progress onto the really speedy shreddy part and then eventually calm down into the big epic ending. I really like it when a solo doesn’t do that. To me, a solo really hits home when you don’t hear the magic coming.”
Speaking of which, Serena’s journey in guitar hasn’t been without a few magical twists of its own. Years after falling in love with that Soloist in her teens, she became officially endorsed by Jackson Guitars last summer in what she describes as a “really full circle” development, and one that “doesn’t feel real”.
Throughout the new album, you’ll hear the substantial tones of her Purple Burst Jackson Pro Series Monarkh SCP, which is loaded with Seymour Duncan humbuckers for what Serena calls “that real singing sensation in the sustain”.
Tonally, she’s big into reverb and delay, and uses Boss RV-6, RV-5 and DD-7 pedals as well as her favourite for atmospherics, the Strymon BigSky. “The shimmer setting heavily dominates a lot of my lead parts and it just has that almost orchestral quality to it,” she effuses.
A bombshell note to end on, Serena reveals that even her most soul-shakingly heavy tones are achieved without one of the bare necessities of most metallers’ rigs. “I never use distortion pedals,” she smiles. “I always go with the distortion on the amp and we used a Bad Cat for the album, which sounds amazing!”
- The Weight of the Mask is out now via Nuclear Blast.