Six years ago my wife came across a band which she immediately told me I needed to hear. From the first song I heard I fell in love with the music and historical aesthetic of the atmospheric black metal of England’s Winterfylleth. The song was “The Battle of Maldon (991 AD).” Through college and beyond my primary source of study (and deep seated passion) has been medieval history and English literature, so Winterfylleth’s love of the past, ancient deeds, and events is something that drew me in from the first listen. The other very important aspect of their music that I loved was their frequent inclusion of beautiful pastoral folk music, both passages within their heavy songs, and also stand alone tracks. Now their upcoming album ‘The Hallowing of Heirdom’ fully embraces that side of the band and the result is an entirely acoustic album of pastoral English folk music, and it is stunning.
The black metal genre has a long history of bands releasing folk albums based on the folk traditions of the band’s homeland. Ulver’s ‘Kveldssanger’ is a prime example, and one of the first of this type of album from an established black metal band. Ukraine’s Drudkh have done the same with ‘Songs of Grief and Solitude’ and Germany’s Empyrium left their metal sound all together to produce such music. With all this history, Winterfylleth is joining good company by embracing the folk element of their sound and the album is full of the acoustic guitar and violins that pepper their more aggressive work.
The album begins with “The Shepherd” and is a prime example of the elegant and pastoral approach of the album. The lyrics are adapted from “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe. Written in 1593, its opening line “Come live with me and be my love” should be well known to anyone who has ever taken a class in English Lit. The vocals are done in a style that is borderline polyphony as was used in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, which is fitting for the time frame and style for the poem and lyrics. The playing of acoustic instruments is very delicate and creates a haunting effect that draws the listener in. The images of the rolling green hills of the English countryside leap immediately to mind from the very beginning and solidify to a particular time once the singing begins.
Although it is not till eight more songs, I will jump ahead to the track “The Nymph” because it is connected to, and a response to “The Shepherd.” Accompanying the rich vocals of Chris Naughton is the spoken word of Angela Deeks, and the text being read by Deeks is that of Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” The poem is a response and parody of Marlowe, and ridicules the simplified, romantic view of a shepherd being put forth in the first poem, as the nymph questions the many things promised and refuses “to be thy love.” During the song Chris sings further portions of adapted poetry from Marlowe as a counterpoint to the spoken word. The result is quite moving, and lovely.
The majority of the album is made up of instrumental music or instrumental music with wordless vocalizations, often done in harmony by all members of the band. It is perhaps over used, but on every listen of the album, the only word I had that truly summed up what I was hearing was “beautiful.” And as simplified a word as it is, I stand by it, the music is lush, and exquisitely performed, but more than anything it is simply beautiful, traditionally inspired English folk music.
The first single released for the album was “Elder Mother,” which is a vocal track. Some of the lyrics, and tone were naggingly familiar to me, so eventually I looked up the lines that I thought I recognized, and as it turned out I did. The lines/lyrics in question go thusly: ‘Seven strides shalt thou take/If Long Compton thou can see/King of England thou shalt be.’ The lines come from a legend regarding the The King Stone, which lies near the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. They are a collection of megalithic monuments are now known as The Kings Men and Whispering Knights. As the legend goes a king and his army were traveling, and met a witch who gave the above quoted challenge to the king. Upon the king doing so he could see nothing which drew the witch to respond: ‘As Lord Compton thou canst not see/King of England thou shalt not be!/Rise up stick and stand still stone/For King of England shalt be none.’ After which she turned the king and his men into the stones, and herself into an elder tree. All these lines are incorporated into the song, and the title surely derives from the name of the witch, which is traditionally given as Mother Shipton. How much interest the listener may have in all this historical and literary maneuvering will surely vary. But it is clear that the band holds these traditions and legends in high honor; and views them as an important part of their heritage and that of their land. I, for one, view it as another example of the care and thought they put into not only the music, but the lyrics as well.
The album closes with the title track and is musically one of the loveliest on the album. Vocally it is also straight forward with less of the vibrato and harmonizing utilized on the majority of the album. The song deals with a respect for the past and honoring of the memory of those who have gone before us and of the deeds they did which form our modern world. It closes with the lines: ‘Sing of such history/Of come and of gone/If their means they were wise/In ourselves they live on/So who are we now/A horde of their ghosts?/Or oaks of their acorns,/From the trees of their hopes?.’ The result is a peaceful and satisfying closure to an album that is at its heart a love letter and salute to the history and pastoral folk traditions of the band’s homeland. It is executed with passion and thought, and is a beautiful addition to the collection of anyone who has an interest in such music and myth.
‘The Hallowing of Heirdom’ is assuredly the most unusual and beautiful album of Winterfylleth’s now decade long career. Fans of the traditional folk albums produced by other black metal bands will find a lot to love here, as should fans of folk music in general, and students of English history and literature. It is one of the most beautiful works I’ve heard in recent years and it equals, if not surpasses, anything the band or others like it have done before. This will be played in my home for many years to come.