The Mercian Sphere
19 July 2010
by Tom Dare
Music lives and dies by its ability to affect the listener, yet few metal bands are capable of making a record that moistens the eyes and puts a lump in the throat of even the most sentimental listener, let alone the most hardened of metal fans. But when not only does this, but does it through the medium of savage, bleak black metal while still evoking all the emotions metal’s most evil style is known for, this becomes a staggering achievement. Winterfylleth have done just this.
The Mercian Sphere starts out feeling like something you have heard before. Reminders of early Enslaved, along with an occasional lead guitar line that is reminiscent of Pure Holocaust-era Immortal, leap out of the speakers, full of all the savagery and negativity you would expect. The notable difference early on is purely in feel – everything sounds so English. The icy landscapes and pagan Viking brutality that permeates Norwegian black metal is not what come to mind. Instead, it is the roll of the South Downs or the darkness of the long-since cut-down primeval forests of England, all draped in the chilling rain of autumn that comes across. Partially this is due to occasional interspersion of wordless singing and folk-like elements, but mainly because, for all its viciousness, the music has a lush feel of life that the starkness of a Scandinavian winter – and the music it has inspired – does not.
The addition of sounds not traditionally part of the black metal canon moves things in more original directions and expands on this feeling of Englishness – and it is firmly “English”, not “British”, as any Celtic sounds that might hint at Welsh or Scottish inspiration are rather obviously absent. When acoustic guitar and cello join together for ‘Children of Stones’, it is simultaneously both life-affirming and tragic, filled with a sense of celebration and a sadness that either something is ending, or has already ended. It is a singularly heart-rending and sumptuous experience, one that somehow manages to slide seamlessly into the deliberate foulness surrounding it.
The vastness of The Mercian Sphere should be intimidating, but by varying the tone, from the furious and dark to the contemplative and brooding, Winterfylleth have crafted a record of overpowering emotion and sincerity that grips throughout. Along with bands such as Fen and Wodensthrone, they represent the forefront of those black metal bands that could not come from anywhere else but here, in the same way that Negură Bunget could only be from Romania. While there are some superb British bands within the sphere, be it the inner-city filth of Anaal Nathrakh or the gothic Romanticism of early Cradle Of Filth, British black metal does not have the best of names. It is difficult to imagine what more a single record could do to try and change that- this is a staggering opus of the highest accomplishment.
Watch Winterfylleth play ‘Defending The Realm’ live:
Inevitably with this kind of music, the ethos behind it must be mentioned. Winterfylleth have been accused of some rather unpleasant political opinions, partially through the automatic discomfort expressions of English nationalist sentiment can provoke. While that has been covered in rather great detail elsewhere, the feel of the music is not the bombastic zeal that suggests a belief in superiority. Rather everything has the feel of overbearing sadness at something that has been lost, and a thorough rejection of what has come to be. The analogy of Tolkien writing Lord Of The Rings to replace a mythology that had been forgotten and in repugnance at the industrialisation of the world springs to mind – an embitterment of the way things are now compared to how they used to be, a wish to return to an old, lost time.
Irrespective of whether you share in these feelings, the music is overwhelmingly powerful. Beautiful and foul, vicious and gentle, rooted in the classic blueprint yet not afraid to go beyond that, The Mercian Sphere is a breathtaking achievement.
Sounds like: Wodensthrone, Negura Bunget, Burzum
Top tracks: Gateway To The Dark Peak – The Solitary One Waits For Grace (The Wayfarer Pt I), Children Of The Stones, The Honour Of Good Men On The Path To Eternal Glory
Winterfylleth – The Mercian Sphere tracklisting:
Gateway To The Dark Peak – The Solitary One Waits For Grace (The Wayfarer Pt I)
Awakens He, Bereft of Kinsmen (The Wayfarer Pt II)
The Fields Of Reckoning
Children Of The Stones
The Honour Of Good Men On The Path To Eternal Glory
To Find Solace, Where Security Stands (The Wayfarer Pt III)
When The Woods Were Young
A Valley Thick With Oaks
Defending The Realm