It was never easy being English. A once great and proud nation ruled these lands, a melting pot of European tribes all vying for the fertile and beautiful terrain. Blood was spilt many times in our past: indigenous Britons were constantly under threat from the Roman, Norse, Saxon and Norman hordes but always stood firm in defence of these invasions. Take the Catuvellauni chieftain Caratacus who, legend tells, made his stand against the Roman scourge at Malvern (my home town).
“Caratacus resorted to the ultimate hazard, adopting a place for battle so that entry, exit, everything would be unfavourable to us and for the better to his own men, with steep mountains all around, and, wherever a gentle access was possible, he strewed rocks in front in the manner of a rampart. And in front too there flowed a stream with an unsure ford, and companies of armed men had taken up position along the defences.” – Tacitus, The Annals.
He ended up being honoured by Rome for his nobility and prowess in warfare. But what of the warlord Boudica, chieftain of the Iceni, who led her tribe in revolt of the iron fist of the imperator, laying waste to Colchester? And who would forget King Harold’s slaughter of the Vikings at the Battle of Stamford Bridge?
It would seem the answer is ‘everyone’. And being English doesn’t get any easier these days either, with a culture that is devoid of character where any hint of pride in one’s origins is slated as a menace. Thankfully, Manchester’s Winterfylleth were born out of this dissent and now tower head and shoulders above the rest of the British black metal scene to show us that we do have something to be proud of: The ghosts of our heritage. With 2010’s The Mercian Sphere, Winterfylleth introduce the next instalment of their valiant campaign to raise awareness of what once was…
The problem with the English national conscience is accurately pinpointed by drummer Simon Lucas with a quote from the great orator and musician, Morrissey: “Other countries have held on to their basic identity yet it seems to me that England was thrown away.”
He explains: “Paraphrasing him, what he said is that you can go to any nation in Europe and you know exactly where you are because of their unique sense of national identity. If you go to Scotland you know you’re in Scotland, Sweden you know you’re in Sweden, and France you know you’re in France, Switzerland, Russia, Spain and so on. But if you walk down an English street, you could be anywhere, and he was held to ransom over that statement. That’s not racism, that’s just a contemporary observation of the society we live in. And something of a social stigma we as a band seek to change.”
Winterfylleth cemented their presence in the British black metal scene by being unashamedly ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in their approach, as a direct attack on what the band sees as a dwindling interest in England’s national identity. When asked about how the band fell into this thematic stronghold, Simon reveals that it was not a calculated choice but simply a result of a love for one’s homeland:
“It really wasn’t a conscious decision to specifically set up a black metal band that looked at Anglo-Saxon, English and British history. It was just a natural thing that occurred. Chris and I started writing songs that echoed the landscapes and the historical stories that we love and that are deeply set within our hearts. We felt and indeed still feel that it is a subject area that should be close to the hearts of all English/British people and is also one that seems to have had much attention diverted from it. This is mainly done, we feel, to suppress the English people from solidifying a sense of national identity. An approach that the government has taken in the past I personally find utterly disgusting. So as a group of socially and culturally aware people, this is something we seek to re-kindle…. a sense of proud ancestral heritage in our land, our people, our folklore, our stories and our natural landscape. These are important things for a nation. As Winston Churchill once so very wisely stated, “A nation that forgets its past, can have no future.” We want to make sure our nation can have a future.”
Winterfylleth’s melodic folk-esque stylings established an aggressive stomping ground for the band’s message to roam free with 2008’s debut The Ghost of Our Heritage. Returning to the fore this year with the impeccable The Mercian Sphere, this time the title directly references a period of English history that is essential for grasping the underlying themes of the record.
“The Mercian Sphere was the reign of King Aethelstan in the 9th century and roughly translates, etymologically speaking, into the protected limits of his kingdom,” explains Chris Naughton, guitarist and vocalist.
“The use of Mercia or Mercian in this context is actually different to that of say modern Leicester and “The Lady of Mercia” etc, as it is not a regional identifier. The root derivation of the term in the context of our album actually represents more of a borderland or protective/encapsulating region around the king’s territories.
“Its use on our new release is linked to that fact that, firstly, the subject matter (in terms of the poetry from the Codex Exoniensis) we are referencing was written during Aethelstan’s reign and identifies with the same time period, and the fact that, secondly, it is our desire to inform about and ‘protect’ the history, heritage, culture and folklore of our islands now, as his kingdom was once protected before. So it felt like it fitted the context of the album well.”
It’s refreshing to see a band in this day and age that is so well versed in what is almost the prehistory of England. Much of the material that Winterfylleth delve into would have been completely lost were it not for the knowledge of monastic scribes and a thriving word-of-mouth folklore that existed not only in Britain, but across Europe as well. Black metal has suffered right from the start with ill-conceived and immature flirtations with Satanism and paganism, but Winterfylleth base their message not only on legends, but also true and inspiring events. Though ultimately lost on a majority of the modern populace, Simon reels off some other landmarks of England’s dark medieval times that have made an impact on Winterfylleth’s music and outlook:
“The Battle of Maldon in 991AD which saw the Saxon leader the Earl Brithnoth lead a small group of fellow Englishman against a massive Viking incursion has already been explored on our previous album. They eventually lost the battle, but it was their spirit, a small band of brothers that stood firm and fought to the last to defend their nation, their homes and their families, and everything that they stand for: It is that spirit that gives us strength. A poem that was written at the time about the battle is what inspired the lyrics to the track on the first album The Ghost of Heritage, documenting the brave efforts of Earl Brithnoth and his proud men. Tolkien was also inspired by this particular historical event.
“Another one is the myth of a great wizard who resides in a forest near to where we live in the North-West, who guards a vast mine and cave system that is the eternal sleeping place of a vast army of Arthurian Knights who will one day ride out to defend our nation against foreign incursion has also inspired the story of The Ghost of Heritage. These caves can be found in North Cheshire.”
Chris adds that he hopes a brief glance over the album’s lyrics won’t mark the end of a listener’s interest in England’s vivid history: “There are many great stories like these on our albums which reference some truly inspiring material that we would like people to go and look in to. I would suggest that anyone with a copy of either of our albums has a look into the song titles or lyrical content and goes to find these stories for themselves. No doubt these links will lead people to find other stories or interesting bits of history that will hopefully inspire them to become more passionate about it.”
The Mercian Sphere has literally flown off the shelves since its release on July 19th, so much so that Candlelight Records were forced to organise an emergency repress to deal with the demand. When asked about the success of the new record, Chris puts it down to the sheer amount of time and effort that was poured into the album, a feat made possible by the support from the heavy-weight label.
“We spent a lot more time in pre-production for this album, spending months pouring over the songs and the structures until we got to the point where we could go into the studio to record. Having progressed to working with Candlelight we have had the backing and support to be able to spend more time in the making of the album, which I think shows through in the finished product and has allowed us to make a record we are all truly happy with. Working with Chris Fielding at Foel Studios has also helped us immensely. It’s refreshing to work with someone who instinctively knows what you are trying to achieve and who has such a great track record, having produced some classic albums by bands like Primordial (who are a big influence of ours), Napalm Death and Electric Wizard. I feel that The Mercian Sphere represents Winterfylleth at our most virulent and best. We truly tried to focus on the essence of what was great about our first album and distilled that into this record.
“On how the album sold I think, without wishing to delve into cliché here, that when you make an album, you never consider the response you will get from other people initially as you are so involved in the nuts and bolts of actually creating it. To have had the response to the record that we’ve received is totally humbling and speaks volumes to us about the numbers of people who care about the things that we are talking about in our lyrics and who want to support us because they believe in what we do.
“I’m glad that people have managed to see behind the controversy and nonsense to the point of what we are about and while we did not expect the response that we have had to this record, we are truly inspired by the response we have had as it has allowed us to take things to another level and reach out further than we ever thought we could.”
Of course, “controversy and nonsense” is bound to follow a band who celebrates the virtues of national heritage, a theme that is all too often caught up in the misguided pagan interpretations of the NSBM school and massive misinterpretations from music fans themselves. Simon is however quick to draw the lines between nationalism and fascism:
“We would certainly not consider ourselves misunderstood if people perceive us to be nationalists. We are very proud and outspoken nationalists. But the widespread understanding of ‘nationalism’ seems to be that which the extreme left have been pushing through the left-centric media over the past 40 years to mean something essentially misrepresentative of what ‘nationalism’ truly is. Nationalism in its truest sense should not be confused with racism or fascism ever.
“Both The Nazi party and the Communist party were fascist ideologies however neither were nationalist ideologies at all. The Germans sought to envelop the whole of Europe under their banner, they were essentially the first attempt at some kind of tyrannical EU, and none of us as romantic nationalists would ever want that. It destroys any sense of unique national identity and only serves to further enslave mass populations of people under a single, global regime. The Communist party of the Soviet Union, also did exactly the same thing, they were also a fascist ideology but more historically recognized as being opposed to ‘nationalism’.
“Nationalism is the devotion to the interests or culture of one’s nation, the honouring of its unique sense of cultural and ancestral identity. It does not EVER mean to hate another race of people or their culture. That IS racism. What is wrong with feeling a strong love and a bond for the land and the culture of the nation you are born of? Why is it all of a sudden now that we are made to feel bad for wanting to defend our history? The land that our ancestors have farmed, lived on and defended, our unique architecture and natural landscape, our unique set of cultural customs and folklore, and our unique history and ancestral heritage. None of these things involve hating other races or nations, just the love and care of our own. If we are not to take care of our own, surely we are forsaking our very existence?!”
And with a scintillating response like that, surely no more needs to be said. Winterfylleth are now looking to tour the UK and Europe in support of The Mercian Sphere, “hopefully bringing along our friends and labelmates Wodensthrone and Altar of Plagues with us for support,” says Chris. “Following that we have already begun working on the third Winterfylleth album and are in the process of creating new material as well as researching new elements of history and folklore to coincide with the themes of the third album.”