Despite boasting some of metal’s most ground-breaking albums over the years, the UK has never really had a handle on black metal. Why is that? The lush green countryside has never inspired the same awe and reverence as the rest of Europe? More twee than grim? Soul crushing urban life has dominated the extreme end of modern British culture, ill suited to the black metal format? Adoration for the Yorkshire Dales and White Cliffs of Dover hasn’t made it’s way into contemporary music in the same way? The themes that black metal usually taps into just aren’t as prevalent in the UK? The UK has never had a strong national identity? Sure Scotland does. Wales does. Certain regions of England do. But as should be abundantly clear by 2020, consensus on what nationhood means on these islands is not forthcoming.
Or maybe it’s simpler than politics and heady cultural theory. Maybe it’s just that Britishness has always struggled with the over the top theatrics required for black metal. Sure there was Venom, but they never took themselves all that seriously. Our sense of humour overpowers the commitment required to pull off an immersive style like black metal. A longer essay would be needed to fully delve into this question. Not least to answer why in recent years we have seen a wave of British black metal bands crop up. Characterised by the likes of Wodensthrone and Winterfylleth, two of the bigger names in a new wave of British bands eager to stamp a quintessentially British flavour on the folky, atmospheric black metal framework.
Manchester’s Winterfylleth have – through their music – attempted to work a distinctively English identity into their minimal, atmospheric, folk black metal. They have, as demonstrated through their lyrics and many interviews, very strong opinions on what Englishness is, and what they believe it should be. This is shaky ground to say the least. Not because English nationalism gets a bad rep, but simply because ‘Englishness’ is so hard to pin down. Ever since the Norman conquest and the harrying of the North it has been defined by a sense of resentment at the aristocracy; a sense that, no matter how many peoples we conquered and slaughtered in the millennium to come, that we are always the underdog, always the hard done by. The population at large has been excluded from whatever benefits were brought by England’s domination of other peoples. It did not belong to England, it belonged to a ruling elite. Both the British Empire, and England’s treatment of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, have all fed into this idea that the English are both rulers and oppressed. We engaged in a constant battle to assert our own identity in face of absorbing other cultures around the world from lands we colonised and conquered. Whatever truths can be gleaned from this long and complex history, Winterylleth take a stand, and attempt to reclaim national pride from football hooliganism and the far right.
The problem with this is that Englishness doesn’t really exist. The strong cultural heritage found in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and even Cornwall, are partly born of a history of oppression and persecution at the hands of the English. Despite the history of England being the history of an aristocracy oppressing their own people as well as those of other nations (now in the form of corporate interests), the identity and traditions that Winterfylleth would tap into are too disparate, disconnected, and unfocused. They are misdirected into resentment at anything ‘other’. The blank space that this leaves means that anyone is free to fill it with their own reading of what Englishness means. For all the atrocious things England has done to peoples around the world, there is something still there to be proud of.
How does this relate to a reading of Winterfylleth’s third LP ‘Threnody of Triumph’, released in 2012? Precisely because they have taken what is a pretty generic style of black metal, and attempted to work an English flavour to it, but there is just not enough there to make up for the shortcomings of this music’s lack of identity. Draw on our quirky sense of humour, our cynicism and sarcasm, our larger cities fraught with paranoia, despair and decay; but to draw on our folk heritage is to draw on something that never really existed in the same way as it does for the rest of Europe.
The music, for the most part, is made up of sweeping tremolo riffing, mid-paced blast beats of a pleasingly restrained nature, and standard fair black metal vocals. There is a purpose and progression to the riffs, they follow clear threads from start to finish, usually taken through a few tempo changes and variations. Traditional folky leads jump out at intervals, even backed up by some acoustic guitars and clean singing in places. It’s not terrible, some of it is genuinely enthralling. But the empty heart at the centre of this music is inescapable, and bleeds out into Winterfylleth’s whole approach to black metal. It makes me feel sorrow not simply because they are tapping into something that doesn’t exist, but that this particular approach to black metal is just not viable from an English perspective at all. Not without it feeling empty, ill-defined, incomplete. To paraphrase a band across the Irish sea in a country with a very strong sense of national identity (thanks in no small part to England’s treatment of them over centuries), for all the sentiment and pathos Winterfylleth are attempting to dredge up, it comes across as empty words and dead rhetoric to my ears. Honest, well made, heartfelt, but ultimately meaningless.
The now defunct Wodensthrone from Sunderland released their second LP also in 2012, entitled ‘Curse’. By comparison, these guys take a more fantastical approach to themes and lyrics, and this bleeds into their music as well, immediately striking one as melodramatic, maybe even escapist. They take the same richly layered tremolo picked riffs, this time with a liberal sprinkling of keyboards and a dynamic approach to layered guitars to create sweeping epic narratives. In drawing on pre-Roman culture in Britain, with no small amount of spiritualism, this further strikes one as England’s answer to the likes of Romania’s Negura Bunget, or Ukraine’s Drudkh. There is a lot of musicality to unpack. Wodensthrone are clearly aiming for an orchestral feel to this album. We are not listening to a band, but a large gathering made up of rotating musicians each given a moment to shine forth.
Whilst they attempt to touch on many moods throughout, ranging from euphoria to anguish, the overall intensity is maintained pretty constantly from start to finish. So again I am left wondering: given how much I can hear going on behind the scenes – and god knows Wodensthrone are giving their all to drum up that sense of majesty present in a lot of Eastern European black metal – why does it feel like something is missing? The reason is simple. Nothing is missing. But something is present that should not be. Moments that should be thrilling feel hard earned, passages that should be tense and dissonant feel laboured and meandering, moments that should be cathartic feel more like a flat relief. The reason is that despite all the composition that went into producing ‘Curse’, there are simply too many dull moments between the gold. Even with a style as epic and rich as this, less can be more, and if too much is packed into each episode it becomes too dense, too overwhelming.
It is a shame. Because when Wodensthrone really get going they are a pleasure to behold. But it feels like much of this is delivered with the same intensity, the same near constant assault on the senses, that it is a lot to take for an album that stretches for over an hour with few pauses for breath. Having said all that, when compared to England’s other attempts at straight faced, deadpan atmospheric black metal, few got it quite as right as Wodensthrone, and it was a shame when they decided to throw in the towel. But it’s telling that when Wodensthrone were at their best they also sounded like a product of Eastern Europe more than they do an English version of this style of black metal. Whilst this is not an indictment of them at all, for the purposes of this piece it leaves open the thought that Englishness, whatever it is or was, is not best expressed through this approach to black metal.
For the pick of the week there is no contest here. For all its shortcomings Wodensthrone’s ‘Curse’ is a complex, rewarding listen with much to offer, as is their debut ‘Loss’. Whilst Winterfylleth’s approach is more straightforward and to the point, and is no doubt well put together, philosophically they throw up more questions than answers. Their music suffers as a result, for the simple reason that taken on its own I would just rather listen to more interesting examples of the genre. Not least of which would be Wodensthrone. But in the wider international context, England’s strengths do not lie in these ethereal waters. Ours is the industrial despair of Godflesh, the quirky humour of early grindcore, the harbingers of doom in Sabbath, the innocent bombast of Iron Maiden, and the rage of Discharge.