by Niklas Göransson
Cultural rejuvenation through ancestral exploration – British black metal band Winterfylleth seek to encourage through music a widening of knowledge. Guitarist and vocalist Chris Naughton looks to ancient riddles in conveying eternal truths.
The following is an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #5. The same issue also includes conversations with BLASPHEMY, DAUTHA, CLANDESTINE BLAZE, ACRIMONIOUS, ROME, LYCHGATE, MORBOSIDAD, Nuclear War Now!, Cult Never Dies, W.A.I.L., MYSTIFIER, and PHURPA.
– Approaching this latest record, we didn’t want it perceived as just some out-of-context ‘experimental’ release serving as a stop-gap to the waning creative abilities of a band coming into their sixth album. The intention was to let people know that we’re just as passionate and capable as ever of producing great WINTERFYLLETH material, no matter the sonic medium. While fully aware of the risks in moving from electric to acoustic instruments, we wanted to prove ourselves up for the challenge.
The result of this undertaking is known as “The Hallowing of Heirdom”, an acoustic folk-style album which reminds me of a blend between VÀLI, ULVER’s “Kveldssanger”, and the John Barleycorn Reborn compilation albums.
– It’s interesting you should mention John Barleycorn Reborn as a few of us – myself, Simon, and his sister, Caroline – contributed a track to one of those compilations a few years ago. We did it under a separate band name, THE ELDER TREE, and performed a song called “The Lonely Willow”. It’s on the “Hail be You Sovereigns, Leif and Dear” disc in the series. This was one of our earliest forays into performing more traditional folk music with sung vocals, having only ever done interlude tracks on WINTERFYLLETH records before that. I love those John Barleycorn albums, they definitely serve a great purpose by providing a platform to some of the better folk artists operating in the underground today.
By researching the lyrics for “The Hallowing of Heirdom” I was introduced to the world of British pastoral literature, which I’ve since learned is a linguistic art-form that often not only celebrates the freedom of countryside living but also decries the urban as decadent and corruptive.
– We unquestionably harbour those exact sentiments and have written many songs and spoken about it at length in various interviews over the years. To me, we live in a world that thrives on excess and usury at the expense of the natural world. It’s so clear to anyone who pauses to consider such topics that most people don’t really care about these matters. At all. They like to think they do for perhaps five minutes a year when oil spillages or major floods are in the news – but, at the heart of the matter, most people care about little else than their immediate circumstances and appear entirely incapable of long-term thinking. Should the same level of apathy carry over onto the next generation, it can only be a recipe for disaster.
Prior to seeking lyrical inspiration, was this pastoral poetry something you’d actively engage with?
– I can’t sit here and profess to be some kind of well-rounded scholar on the subject but every day is a school-day and we’ve performed due diligence in researching lyrical topics for all of our albums. Those kinds of studies lead you down certain paths and, as a result of reading around the areas of folklore and customs in preparation for “The Hallowing of Heirdom”, we came across elements of pastoral poetry in more detail and decided to include them in the lyrics. This is an interesting area of literature and since the two pastoral poems we chose have this wonderful link to one another, it made sense to shine a light on them.
The songs they were used in are called “The Shepherd” and “The Nymph”. The former, which opens the album, is based on a poem from 1593 called The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe – one of the earliest examples of English pastoral poetry.
– It’s often studied by English Literature students and has a uniquely British type of verse, referencing views of pastoral idyll and a heartfelt love for nature. The words are used to create a private, flawless vision of rural life within the context of personal emotion. I think these kinds of sentiments echo our own feelings of romanticism for the natural world and instil a deeper conviction that it’s worth saving rather than exploiting. There’s also “The Nymph”, after a poem by Walter Raleigh, which is a line-for-line rebuttal of “The Shepherd”. It’s a slightly sarcastic take on the pastoral romanticism and makes for an interesting companion song to the opening track. The vocals were performed by Angela Deeks, who is Mark’s wife and also a very talented stage performer in her own right. Her participation is a nice change from the album’s otherwise mostly male voices and was fitting for lyrics supposed to be the words of a female field-nymph. The poem also offers a deeper look into the somewhat jaded and sarcastic nature of British humour.
Another song from the album is named after an old arcane practice known as the Acerbot, which means ‘field blessing’. The custom dates back to the 11th century, where a day-long ritual was carried out to render barren fields fertile again. Four sods were collected and lain among the root-mats, dressed in a poultice of milk, oil, honey, yeast, as well as various herbs. The healer would then greet the sun rising in the east, calling for its rejuvenating energy to fill the earth so that crops may grow. After anointing a plough with paste made from oil, frankincense, salt, and fennel, the healer would sing to the mother of earth and then begin ploughing the field under continued chanting.
– I’m glad to learn you’ve looked into the background of the Acerbot, seeing as how one underlying motivation for featuring such topics was precisely that: spurring curiosity, research, and discussion within the listener. We are archaeologists of folklore in that sense, placing in front of people those items of interest which were precious to our ancestors but may have been largely buried by time. As such, rather than promoting the adoption of these old wisdoms and practices – or twisting them into some kind of spiritual, philosophical, or political bias – we simply intend to make people aware that such folklore and superstition exist so they may follow their own research threads or merely familiarise themselves casually.
Chris adds that WINTERFYLLETH is not a religious band, nor do they have any agendas beyond putting history on display for those who wish to learn.
– That said, we’re also a band of individuals – each with his own personal belief and philosophy. For some members, interest in superstition is primarily anthropological but for some of us I think it goes beyond that. While we’re all products of this modern secular society, and as a result quite empirically minded, it’s difficult not to become bewitched by the prevalent, widespread nature of the old beliefs. For example, the ‘acer’ part of Acerbot refers to the field. In our modern language, an acre is a unit of measurement but it derives from times when crop fields were of uniform length and each man had his own ‘acre’ to tend. But looking even deeper, we find that the Old English word for oak is ‘ac’; suggesting that crop fields may have been set adjacent to oak trees, which were sacred to the folk of England, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere, undoubtedly. The point is, for the pre-Christian and pre-Industrial people of this part of the world, everything was interconnected: language, superstition, magic, food production, planning, law, and art. If we can’t see the validity in folk magic nowadays, it might be because we don’t realise how linked everything is. Perhaps we fail to see the power in practices such as the Acerbot because we don’t look for signs of their efficacy in the right places. In short, maybe we’re blinded by our empirical mind-set.
Researching the track “Latch to a Grave” led me to The Exeter Book, which is the largest known collection of Old English literature still in existence. The codex is regarded as one of four major Anglo-Saxon written works – joining the ranks of The Junius Manuscript, The Vercelli Book, and The Nowell Codex. Whilst the exact date of completion is unknown, it’s been estimated to somewhere between 960 and 990. The Exeter Book doesn’t appear in any historical records until 1072, when it was donated to the then newly constructed library of Exeter Cathedral by its first bishop. It’s been widely drawn upon as inspiration by many artists but perhaps none quite so prolific as English author J.R.R. Tolkien, who borrowed the names for both an important character and his very world from a poem called Christ I. ‘Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, over Middle-earth to men sent.’
– I first became aware of the Codex Exoniensis around 2008 when I was writing lyrics for “The Mercian Sphere” (2010). I knew that stories such as Beowulf were housed in codices of Anglo-Saxon writings but had never before really researched them to any meaningful extent. Once I started looking into the book in a more focused way, I got hold of an opensource PDF version containing a comprehensive translation of all the poems and riddles, detailed field-notes and opinions on them as well as an interesting preface by the British scholar Benjamin Thorpe, who was principally involved in its translation and study. A few years later – before we recorded “The Threnody of Triumph” (2012), I think – our drummer, Simon, bought me a hard-copy of the translations and analysis in a more comprehensive volume, which I still utilise and cherish to this day. Not the lightest of reading I must say, but very fascinating if you’re interested in early British history. Interestingly, it would appear as if the book itself was recognised by UNESCO as one of ‘the world’s principal cultural artefacts’ back in 2016. Not that you’d ever know that living in this country, where we seem to want to erode any sense of culture or history in place of the social narratives that government and media force upon us. But I suspect we might come back to that later, ha!
I imagine we will.
– When I first got a copy of The Exeter Book, I was mostly interested in the sections of long-verse poetry which – as it happens – represent the majority of the book’s content. Poems like The Wanderer, The Ruin, and A Departed Soul’s Address to the Body among others would go on to become the basis for many tracks on our albums over the years, serving as the spark through which my own lyric-writing progressed. Having read the book numerous times, it became apparent to me how there’s this strange divide in content between very religious, almost pious prose and sections of more spiritual and societally oriented poetry. I’d assume this speaks to the fact that monks were involved in the book’s conservancy and compilation, so their own theological influence no doubt played into the content’s religiosity to some extent. This clash of styles and content was fortunate for me in that I tended to use the more religiously themed material as a lyrical basis for my other band, NINE COVENS, whilst keeping the more ethereal and socially relevant material for WINTERFYLLETH.
Besides a wealth of poetry, The Exeter Book is equally famous for its collection of riddles written in vernacular, or Old English. For anyone even remotely interested in linguistics, they are an absolute marvel to behold. The Exeter enigmatas either portray a specific item or speak as an object describing itself anthropomorphically. What makes them so impressive is the clever use of double-entendre, where the riddles appear to depict one thing but are in fact employing metaphors in reference of something entirely else. Example:
I have heard of a something-or-other, growing in its nook, swelling and rising, pushing up its covering. Upon that boneless thing a cocky-minded young woman took a grip with her hands; with her apron a lord’s daughter covered the tumescent thing.
The answer is dough. It’s interesting to picture the devout monks of Exeter Cathedral pooling together their collective knowledge and life experience into solving these riddles.
– Having had the book for almost a decade at this point, the more time I’ve spent reading and researching it, the more I’ve come to love the section of riddles towards the end. It’s something unique and beautiful within an already impressive body of work. Riddles have always been an important part of oral traditions in many cultures, not least our own, and serve as proverbs-of-sorts in the context of how they were used to pass on knowledge and tradition throughout the years. In an anthropological sense, it’s great to see that many riddles have been recorded and documented in books like this, because they have a tendency to become lost to the ages if not. Given that they were primarily an oral tradition, as opposed to a written one – and because we tend not to use them as much in modern English – many in today’s world would be unfamiliar with the historical significance they played in societies past.
WINTERFYLLETH’s interest in Anglo-Saxon history has raised a few suspicious eyebrows – I came across several articles carrying a thinly veiled accusatory tone, even an interview where they were explicitly asked why they didn’t opt for a Celtic or Viking theme instead. Ironically, Swedish bands who use Norse concepts are subjected to similar treatment domestically; even bigger acts such as AMON AMARTH.
– While Celtic and Viking history is interesting and also relevant to the fate of the British Isles, I think we can agree that it’s already been done to death and is often a more cartoonish reflection of history in popular culture. Our interest originally arose from the fact that it’s one of the earliest and most well-documented periods of British history – yet one that’s less known and barely taught in our schools or spoken about in social discourse. There are some amazing works of literature from this period which seem to go unnoticed, so we decided to use them as reference points and inspiration. In one way because they’re rich and beautiful and in another since they’re a window into the lives of the forebears of our islands; those who got us all to where we are today.
What’s known as Britain’s Anglo-Saxon period lasted between the 5th century until the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Anglo-Saxons are the descendants of an island meeting between various Germanic settlers, the indigenous Celtic populace, and Norse invaders. The culture takes its name after two of the Germanic tribes – the Angles and the Saxons – who are said to have migrated from contemporary Germany to the British Isles at the behest of local warlord Vortigern, as means of bolstering defences against marauding Scots. To this day we can still tell which tribe settled where, with the Saxons founding Sussex, Wessex, and Essex whereas the Angles resided in Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, and Middle Anglia. Over time, as the different tribes began coming together as one people, their various distinctive dialects merged and evolved into what we now know as Old English, which in turn spawned epic works such as the aforementioned Exeter Book.
– We live in chaotic political times of such revisionist history and outright propaganda that it’s important to bring things back to the source in some ways, trying to see through it all and inspire others to do the same. I think our distaste for revisionism and the media-led social narrative we seem to be bombarded with all the time is part of the reason why we wanted to try and tell our own truths. WINTERFYLLETH is a great platform through which to do precisely that; all based on source material others can reference if interested. As someone who’s followed the progress of these discussions over the last ten years, it’s clear to me just how dangerous an era we’re moving towards – both politically and socially – within the media and public discourse. Without overdramatising, as a result of many different factors that are the root cause of all this, our home country appears to be creeping towards a more totalitarian political state.
Chris says this then trickles down to the media and, ultimately, to subgenres of music where issues have arisen in recent time.
– What seems to be bolstering this ‘totalitarian tiptoe’ in many Western countries is that our institutions – both educational and corporate – have conditioned our younger generations to become triggered, dogmatic, self-entitled and emotionally weak individuals seemingly incapable of rational debate and logical discourse. We’ve created a world where this emerging generation believe themselves to be upholding important principles around many issues, while in reality contributing to sowing social discontent and fractured cohesion. These people want to talk about everyone being free to express themselves as whichever gender identity they see fit yet seem to lack the same empathy and understanding themselves, should you happen to get their pronouns wrong or unwittingly appropriate someone’s culture. They do this with no sense of irony either, which is even more worrying, and then try to have your shows shut down or lambast you as racist, sexist, genderist, whateverist at the drop of a hat. All without realising the wider social implications they’re now helping to introduce, again without comprehending how they’re part of the problem and not the solution.
This was an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #5. The same issue also includes conversations with BLASPHEMY, DAUTHA, CLANDESTINE BLAZE, ACRIMONIOUS, ROME, LYCHGATE, MORBOSIDAD, Nuclear War Now!, Cult Never Dies, W.A.I.L., MYSTIFIER, and PHURPA.