Neil Gaiman once cannily observed that “America has geography; England has history.” Whatever romance or mystique exists in the Green and Pleasant Land of Blake resides in culture, in architecture, and in the ancestral memory of its populace rather than in the contours of the landscape itself. Nature holds little sway in England, a country more densely populated than either Japan or India, and there seems to be a certain melancholy that comes with living in a place that has been so thoroughly and definitively overrun with humanity, where there are no truly empty spaces or daunting distances to be traversed without running into a petrol station or a McDonalds. Over time, this has come to be reflected in English black metal, ever the bleak voice of national conscience. Norwegian black metal contains a persistent strain of activism, a need to reclaim agency over one’s cultural inheritance. US black metal similarly exists in the here and now, with bands like Wolves in the Throne Room treating the reverence and beauty and mystery of the natural world as something that is still to be lost or gained, a living, breathing reality. British black metal however – and black metal from the midlands in particular – is subtly different in that it carries a note of wistfulness, of longing for something irretrievably lost.
Manchester’s Winterfylleth, together with Fen and Wodensthrone, have arrived as major players both in the British and international black metal scene in the past few years, their first two releases making waves in blogs and ‘zines. Their fascination with heritage is clear, beginning with the band’s name which is the old English for the month of October, and from the opening notes of their third album “The Threnody of Triumph” it becomes clear that they have something more than extreme metal shock-and-awe on their minds. “A Thousand Winters” begins, unsurprisingly, with a foundation of blastbeats, but the minor key riff accompanying them isn’t so much histrionic as it is sober and contemplative, Nick Wallwork’s reverb-laced wails conjuring up hazy evocations of lonely valleys and autumnal, overcast skies. These aren’t the dramatic, panoramic ancient landscapes of Moonsorrow; Winterfylleth traffic in the muted, spectral visualisations of memory rather than vivid, visceral reconstruction of the past.
It’s with the second track, “A Swart Raven,” that things start to get really good. It’s here that Winterfylleth begin dabbling in post-rock influences similar to those of Alcest, Mark Wood and Chris Naughton’s clean tremolo-picked riffs cresting like the sunrise over the steady rumble of Simon Lucas’ drums. The music begins to take on a new dimension, a more acute sense of personal isolation and longing rather than a generalised evocation of a lost land. It’s this tone of dreamlike nostalgia that persists for the duration of the album, Winterfylleth’s lengthy compositions bleeding between subtle shades of melancholy, resentment, wistfulness and, ultimately, hope. “The Threnody of Triumph” earns its title, its nine-minute title track closing the album on a note that speaks of the possibility of redemption and even joy.
Winterfylleth’s compositions are absorbing without being dramatic. They remain calm and steady with a minimum of contrasts; there is a distinct absence of peaks and troughs, of climaxes and lulls. This is well-advised; had “The Threnody of Triumph” tried to lead its audience in broad emotional strokes, it could quite easily have tipped one way, into redundant misanthropy, or the other, into a trite “out-of-the-dark, into-the-light” narrative. As it stands, the band keep things in a meditative, introspective register, not leading their listeners so much as catalysing their thoughts. “The Threnody of Triumph” is perhaps overlong; at 65 minutes, it sometimes feels like it’s recycling riffs and textures and could have stood to have lost a couple of songs without having an adverse effect on the overall experience. That said, every time I’ve listened to it so far, I’ve found myself growing increasingly entranced as it has gone on, losing my sense of time in its hypnotic rhythms. This is a powerful piece of music, worthy of your time and attention, as sound an argument for black metal as serious art as any I’ve heard.
1 A Thousand Winters
2 The Swart Raven
4 A Memorial
5 The Glorious Plain
6 A Soul Unbound
7 Void of Light
8 The Fate of Souls After Death
9 Home is Behind
10 The Threnody of Triumph