Celebrate: Fields of the Nephilim's 'The Nephilim' at 25
Celebrating its silver anniversary,The Nephilim is one of the UK goth scene's masterpieces, a seamless, hour-long trek into a surreal land populated by chiming guitars, hypnotic bass, found samples, and occult themes.
When Fields of the Nephilim entered the public consciousness on dusty spurred heels with Dawnrazor in 1987, England's most popular sonic exports included George Michael's solo debut and the album that gave us the rickroll. Slick production and slicker hair seemed unavoidable. Named for a Biblical race of destructive giants born of human women and rebel angels, Fields of the Nephilim instead offered tightly forged cinematic vignettes crowded with graveyard atmosphere and crackling with analogue warmth. Their sound welded goth's flair for delicacy and theatrics with an undercurrent of metal's menace, crowned by frontman Carl McCoy's serrated baritone.
The band's first full-length, Dawnrazor, turned plenty of heads but was overshadowed by another breed of gothic giant: The Sisters of Mercy, whom many critics accused the Fields of copying -- never mind that if you close your eyes and listen, it's easy to tell them apart. Something intangible happened in the year between Dawnrazor and The Nephilim, which turned 25 in September. (Both will be included in a five-CD reissue set from Beggars Banquet in November .) The band's sophomore effort, regarded not only as its best work but also as one of the UK goth scene's masterpieces, is a seamless, hour-long trek into a surreal land populated by chiming guitars, hypnotic bass, found samples, and McCoy's storytelling. His lyrics are threaded with horror and occult references, letting on that he was quite well-read for a young man from working-class Stevenage.
"I guess we were trying to write some sort of soundtrack for outsiders," guitarist Peter Yates recalls, noting that the music press almost universally hated Dawnrazor and the band's earlier EPs, permanently marking the gothic cowboys as heterodox. Having cut their teeth on the UK punk scene, that suited Fields of the Nephilim just fine. "If there was a common purpose, it was something along the lines of, 'This is what we do; it's not corporate'," Yates says.
Despite that rebellious streak, The Nephilim went to No. 14 in the UK albums chart,the highest any of the band's albums charted; it was also No. 2 on the nation's indie chart. It's easy to understand why, says filmmaker Richard Stanley, who directed some of the band's earliest videos and cast McCoy in his cult sci-fi film Hardware alongside Iggy Pop and Lemmy Kilmister: The Nephilim "has an instantly iconic quality, almost like a tablet of stone handed down from some alien mountain. For the first time, the pagan and esoteric themes were foregrounded -- almost as if the album were a manifesto or mission statement."
It took the years leading up to Dawnrazor for the band's lineup to shake out, coalescing with McCoy on vocals, brothers Paul and Alexander "Nod" Wright on guitar and drums, Yates on guitar, and Tony Pettitt on bass. Often the band's mouthpiece, McCoy claimed he wasn't influenced by other musicians. But spaghetti western filmmaker Sergio Leone and his composer Ennio Morricone cast long shadows over Fields of the Nephilim's work, from the Mother's Pride-dusted leathers to the mesmerism of its music. That blasted Western feel permeates The Nephilim's opening track, the aptly named "Endemoniada" (Spanish for "possessed", potentially a nod to the 1968 Mexican horror film), which opens with a disorientation of noises: blowing winds; tentative, reverbed guitars; heartbeats; drums and hooves; and a man growling "penitentziagitae!," sampled from Ron Perlman's crazed hunchback in The Name of the Rose. Then the slide guitar takes over, as magnetic as Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter outlaw.
The Nephilim's dual guitars are one of the album's hallmarks, with Yates and Wright playing off each other with no clear leader. "Paul and I were like the crazy mirrors in a funfair, so I think that dynamic carried over into the guitar tracks; we just had an innate ability to play the stuff that the other one hadn't thought of," says Yates, who continues making music -- available on Bandcamp -- that explores the extremes of sound and space.
Pettitt has become a sought-after bassist in London's current goth scene, recording and gigging regularly with the Eden House, a loosely styled supergroup featuring a rotating cast of musicians such as All About Eve's Julianne Regan, Faith and the Muse's Monica Richards, the Mission's Simon Hinkler, and producer Andy Jackson, best known for his work with Pink Floyd. Pettitt has also held down bass duties with goth-rockers NFD, fronted by longtime Fields of the Nephilim fan Peter "Bob" White. Pettitt has rarely contented himself with bolstering the rhythm section, preferring instead to countervail the guitars with melodic, often trance-inducing flights of his own. You can hear him claiming his style on The Nephilim, particularly on songs like "Celebrate."
At the center of the album, "Celebrate" is a moody six-minute duet between McCoy -- his voice smoothed into an arrestingly imperfect croon -- and Pettitt's bass, which snakes through the melody in patient counterpoint. Less shy than his bandmate about naming influences, Pettitt recalls that he learned a great deal from bands like Joy Division and the Velvet Underground, as well as dub reggae, "all of which have a simplicity but an amazing feel," he says. "I would consider myself a virtuoso bass player, but sometimes I think limitations can be a good thing, as it helps you find your strengths and develop your own style in your own way."
Pettitt recalls that he and McCoy recorded "Celebrate" in a single take, imbuing it with immediacy: "creatively, we were on a roll." Far from romantic, the ballad's lyric references British occultist Aleister Crowley: "Celebrate/give love and praise/celebrate/for our lesser days" recalls Thelema's lesser feast, honoring a birthday or a new baby.
There are other Crowley nods throughout the album, as in the twinkling "Moonchild", likely the only song named for a Crowley novel to crack the UK top 40, and "Love Under Will", which borrows Thelema's often-misunderstood central philosophy, "Love is the law; love under will." The album is pregnant with literary and mythological riches: the title of "The Watchman" suggests the watchers, another name for the apocryphal Nephilim's angelic fathers, while its lyrics evoke H.P. Lovecraft's central elder god, Cthulhu. Cthulhu returns on the album's epic closing track "Last Exit for the Lost", whose lyrics are a wistful reincarnation slideshow of places like Summerland (neo-pagan heaven) and ancient Sumer.
The overall effect is of stepping into a dim library where each book's title is the doorway to a banquet of esoteric and allegorical ideas, leaving listeners to connect the dots between Boleskine, R'lyeh, Canaan, and Sumeria. McCoy was famously mum about his own spiritual beliefs throughout much of the band's history, though he tipped his hand slightly in a 1989 interview for the Christian magazine Cornerstone, conducted by sci-fi author and friend Storm Constantine. "The occult is my life," he said. "But it's not something we try to put across to our audience. I don't really feel I'm preaching to people. I'm opening up a different world for them."
Another heavy hitter on the album's atmosphere team was the studio itself: The Justice Rooms, a former courthouse in England's Somerset countryside where defendants who were sentenced to death were hanged on site. "The place had a really cool vibe," Pettitt recalls. That vibe, coupled with the band's creative use of sampling and cinematics, were some of the album's most important innovations, says Jenks Miller, the core musician in Chapel Hill, NC's experimental drone band Horseback, who was heavily inspired by Fields.
"The way samples, noise effects and field recordings are integrated seamlessly into the songs themselves -- rather than serving merely as intros and outros -- was ahead of its time in late-'80s rock music," Miller says. "This studio-as-instrument approach was something you could find in dub music, and some of the big-budget pop records had elements of this -- the Beatles' more adventurous tracks use the studio as an instrument, for example. But aside from some obvious big-budget productions, there weren't a lot of rock bands who had accomplished this in a way that didn't feel contrived."
That was certainly intentional on Fields' part, Pettitt says. After the success of Dawnrazor -- which went to No. 1 on the UK indie chart -- the band had the luxury of more studio time. The bandmates felt ready to stretch their legs and "break new ground," he says. "We achieved what we set out to do, which was to create a piece of work which made sense from beginning to end."
The Nephilim's popularity opened the door for Fields of the Nephilim to embark on its only world tour. A year later, they returned to the studio to record the ten-minute headtrip "Psychonaut", a single inspired by the work of chaos-magick writer Peter Carroll and again by Lovecraft, particularly his Necronomicon. The band's third and final album, Elizium, produced by Jackson, offered a much glossier rendition of the band's themes and theatrics, dividing fans who loved the pretty tunes from those preferred their Fields a bit rougher around the edges. Indeed, McCoy quit the band in 1991, in part because he found the Elizium material boring to perform live. In response, he formed a death-metal band under the Nefilim banner and recorded one album, Zoon, in 1996.
Most under-the-radar bands who produce three records and then part company tend to sink without a trace, but Fields of the Nephilim instead went supernova. While Fields' diaspora of musicians went on to start new projects or work with other musicians -- such as Rubicon, Last Rites, NFD, Nefilim, the Eden House, and Evi Vine -- its influence echoed through the next generation of recording artists. It was almost a given that goth bands would carry the Nephilim torch, and many did, including Sons of Neverland, Love Like Blood, Burning Effigy, Garden of Delight, and NFD forerunner Sensorium. But the band also left a remarkably large crater in the hearts of many extreme metal musicians -- Behemoth and Tiamat among them -- and is partly responsible for black and death metal's expansion into fragility, spaciousness, mysticism and ritual.
Precious to the lost
Erik Danielsson, frontman of provocative black metal outfit Watain, first discovered Fields of the Nephilim with The Nephilim when he was 12. The album quickly entered permanent heavy rotation in Danielsson's life, largely for its otherworldly western feel, depth, and diversity. Since then, he's found that the band attracts broad praise from the often insular world of metal musicians, along with a rare company of artful, experimental outsiders like Swans, Nick Cave, Pink Floyd, and Diamanda Galas, Danielsson says.
Watain (Photo by Rodrigo Terco)
"Fields always felt like a gang of lawless shamans in an otherwise quite bleak music world. [They] always seemed to be aware that they had tapped into something greater than themselves, that there was something literally magical at work within their songs," Danielsson says. "That is an idea that always intrigued me, and something that has also colored our approach to Watain."
It's easy to recognize the band's influence on Watain, which has taken the concept of gig-as-ceremony to new extremes: its stages are bedecked with flaming censers, occult symbols, animal heads, and blood. Watain's music is similarly atmospheric, and elsewhere Danielsson has said that McCoy's performances were what made him want to be a singer. He dueted with McCoy on "Waters of Ain", the final song on Watain's Lawless Darkness album. Watain continues to explore the marriage of harsh metal and acoustic delicacy on its newest album, The Wild Hunt; it wouldn't be wrong to compare the band's surprising new ballad, "They Rode On", to "Celebrate."
Like Danielsson, Fields' outlaw bearing appealed to Miller, whose new Horseback rarities set, A Plague of Knowing, includes a number of singles steeped in Fields' balance of aural extremes. Miller first discovered the band through online photos during the Internet's early years. "I was instantly drawn to their imagery. Ghoulish cowboys in dark duster jackets: this was exactly the stuff I craved," he recalls. It was years before Miller, who grew up in North Carolina, was able to get his hands on actual Fields of the Nephilim albums, which were hard to come by outside of major American cities. He was quickly hooked by the music, particularly the minimal, mesmerizing arrangements on songs like "Celebrate" and "Last Exit for the Lost". Those qualities found their way into Horseback's sound, Miller says.
Another extreme metal band, Katatonia, owes its existence to a single Fields of the Nephilim riff -- the one that kicks off "The Watchman", says songwriter Anders Nyström. He discovered Fields during a period in his life when he was listening to extreme music "99% of my time," and fell hard for the band's sound and image. Unlike other goth bands, Fields felt much more authentic, he says. "I always saw Fields of the Nephilim walking the sidelines of goth, alternative, pop, and rock as some type of renegades to the scene. Their manifesto was to emerge as the soundtrack to an obscure mythology." Although Katatonia has moved on from its harsh early sound, you can still hear Fields' melancholy influence on the band's latest, Dethroned & Uncrowned, out this month.
That a relatively little-known band from Stevenage could win the devotion of such a diverse crew of musicians is perhaps the obscurest mythology of all. You can hear Fields' mark in Solstafir's bluesy, cowboy-swagger riffs, and see it in Behemoth frontman Nergal's menacing demeanor when he's shredding Bibles onstage. McCoy's early use of pale yellow or blue contact lenses, one of Stanley's suggestions and rarely seen in rock music of the era, has since become a shorthand for musicians who want to show they're not of this world.
"I'm amazed at just how influential that material has been!" says Stanley, whose newest documentary, L'Autre Monde, explores the supernatural mysteries of Montségur, France. "I hear its sounds coming back at me from a dozen or more up-and-coming bands and it makes me smile every time. Moreover the 'look' of the Nephilim has invaded the über-culture in so many crazy ways you couldn't even begin to track it....I'd like to think that it helped crystallize a certain form of magical consciousness that has been growing in the world, something that refuses to remain in the subculture or simply be pigeonholed as part of the 'goth' scene or the British neo-pagan movement."
After Zoon, McCoy reclaimed the Fields of the Nephilim moniker to create the return-to-form Mourning Sun in 2005, and has gigged regularly with a variety of players in the UK and Europe since 2007. This year, Pettitt surprised everyone by returning to the stage with McCoy for the first time in two decades, injecting his magic into favorites like "Last Exit" and "Dawnrazor". "I actually feel I am back where I belong," he says. "There is a real chemistry between us all when we are playing live."
There's a moment near the end of "Last Exit" where, backed by Pettitt's rippling bass, McCoy speculates, "this could be my last regress." The lulling music gathers itself into a psychedelic gallop, drenched in waterfalls of echoing guitar as McCoy howls, "Last exit for the lost! Precious to the lost!" Perhaps he had no idea how many of the lost were listening closely -- and would reinvent the Fields' iconic sound as they became some of the most popular and influential extreme bands of the next generation. "Their music is universally dark and dreamy," Danielsson says. "[It] will keep on inspiring free-thinking artists as long as this little world is allowed to exist."