Fallow Heart: The Winterfylleth Review Reckoning

Remember those sunny, pre-COVID days when you’d stay up way past your bedtime reading Fallow Heart under the covers, trying not to giggle out loud at all those danged swears? (Of course you do, those memories are priceless!) Then you’ll also recall that the six-part Heavy Meta series packed it in via a discussion with Winterfylleth’s Chris Naughton, whetted by his dissatisfaction with the score fellow writer Daniel Lake had chosen to award the band’s The Hallowing of Heirdom release in Decibel.

Now I happened to deeply enjoy this conversation, (almost -but not quite—as much as I enjoy beating the proverbial dead horse,) and being a fan of both Lake’s work and Winterfylleth’s I’ve kept the entire affair well in mind ever since. Unsurprisingly my recent assignment to review the band’s upcoming release The Reckoning Dawn presented the perfect opportunity to provide this weary synod with a fresh head of righteous steam and so I reached out to Daniel post haste with the aim to try to make what’s generally a pretty linear exercise a bit more multifaceted, instructive, (meaning: for myself) and collaborative.

What follows is Daniel’s and my discussion about the new album, about the way that we appreciate music both for pleasure as well as academically and—just to really give it to that dumb old horse—about the scoring system and album review process in general. If you simply insist on keeping it epigrammatical then check out my critique of The Reckoning Dawn in Decibel magazine, (actually you should have a copy on hand in the bathroom either way just in case some shit ever goes down.) The rest of you, retreat into the heart of your pillow forts and fire up those flashlights but hey, keep your head on a swivel for the rents. If your mom and dad catch you, I’m sorry dude but you’re on your fucking own. I don’t need that on my record.

“Even if you’re young and new to the profession, the fact that your inexperienced words might come to prohibit perhaps a thousand record sales for a band… I just think that there should be more of a burden of responsibility on you for you to do the best job that you can with it… There needs to be more of a thought process about the process.” —Chris Naughton

The Honor of Good Men on the Path to Eternal Glory

Fallow Heart: So when Albert contacted me about reviewing the new Winterfylleth he said, ‘This has got to be you, right?’ and I immediately thought, ‘Oh fuck yeah!’ But then it occurred to me that it might have made even more sense for you to take it than for me. The thing is, I’d not really paid the band a whole, whole lot of attention until The Hallowing of Heirdom because I was juiced that it was supposed to be this complete departure from the standard black metal stuff. I really glommed onto that album -I still love it- and that’s what drove me to the band and how I ultimately developed a serious enthusiasm for them, basically across the board.

Daniel Lake: That’s cool. And had you just not listened to them much before?

FH: You know, when it comes to what attracts me to music, I sometimes think I’m at a real disadvantage especially when it comes down to critiquing it in any sort of professional capacity because for really about as long as I can remember, I was always looking for a band or a musician to show me something different. It wasn’t ‘undeniable, objective quality’ I was on the hunt for or to hear some agreed upon standard bearer wave their flag around for me. I really wanted a band to turn my head by doing something in a way that I had never heard it done before. And you know, that’s not what Winterfylleth does. It’s not really what they’re built to do. So when I hear a style of black metal that I’ve already heard loads of times before—maybe I don’t give it a fair shake. Either way, I usually don’t give it that much time. The tunes have got to be really, really fucking good, you know? What about you? When did you get into them?

DL: So I love the melody that they’ve got going on back there. I’ve realized that for me, one of the things that really intrigues me is when there’s really pretty melodies, but I have to dig through layers of aggression or scum or whatever to get to that melody. I can definitely put my finger on the fact that that’s true, but I have no idea why it’s true.

FH: Well, I think we’re all attracted to juxtaposition, right? I think maybe it comes down to the complexity of feeling more than one overt emotion simultaneously. That’s always going to be attractive. And there’s such an open quality to a lot of stylistically classic black metal melodies in their ‘harmonic minor, tremolo picked’ modality, they can ostensibly be so simple that it gives them a sort of folksy quality. And so you do have that kind of immediate, magnetizing juxtaposition. It’s so typic in it’s way, like blues essentially. And again, like with blues, the tunes have got to be really fucking good to get me to sit up and really take notice at this point.

DL: Yeah, I understand that. And I’ll be honest, when I first listened to it, [The Reckoning Dawn]  I was really, really into it. And then today I was playing it again but this time I had it more as background while I was trying to finish up with schoolwork so that I could lay stuff out for my students…and while I was working—as background music—I kind of felt myself pulling completely away from it. I wasn’t really listening to it. And then tonight when I sat down to listen to it more, before I pushed play I was thinking ‘Huh, I wasn’t feeling it as much as I thought I should earlier. I wonder why that is.’ But when my attention was back on it, I was loving it again. Specific songs in the middle and in the end of the record, they way they were grabbing me… I don’t know. I find it interesting that that mattered so much.

FH: I think that different styles of music often get dinged for the way that our listening experiences are insinuated into our lives. There is some stuff that seems engineered to insist on your full attention and if you don’t give it that, it almost turns into running water in the background. Like all that information just kind of bleeds together and there’s something about black metal with the relative speed and the simplicity of the melodies, (I mean I’m not talking Emperor or DHG here, more the pastoral early Ulver stuff,) that can become sort of prosaic if you’re not totally hooked into it.

DL: Yeah, I noticed that one of the songs, “The Wayfarer Pt. 4” is a reference back to some songs on their second record [The Mercian Sphere]. You know, I’ve listened to all their stuff but I haven’t dug deeply and all of a sudden it occurs to me that there are deep concepts going on behind this music. So I started digging for information. I didn’t really find anything about that but this one reviewer of The Mercian Sphere said that he could never get on board with drone-y music. He could appreciate the record but one of the things that kept him from really enjoying it was the fact that he felt that behind all of the bluster was just all this droning melody. And I think that could play into what you’re talking about. The idea of very simplistic, very fast material…

FH: Mm-hmm. Almost hypnotic.

DL: Yeah. Like there’s not a lot of fireworks. It doesn’t go out of its way to grab you. But again, for me, all the blasting and the screaming, to have to sink beneath them into those melodies… for some reason that I don’t really know it’s just really pleasing to me.

FH: Yeah, I can appreciate that. At least I can appreciate that idea much more on paper than my actual listening would divulge. And you know, I’ve talked about this before in some of the Fallow Heart entries but… It’s funny, a few years back I began to stop listening to music for pleasure and every review became a chore and I began to look at any interview I conducted as me just churning out copy for a band and I think that was all more symptomatic of where I was at that point in my life. I was going through a divorce, definitely suffering from depression and it was only later—pretty recently—that it’s like, ‘Damn! I dig the shit out of listening to music again!’ Like some block in my nasal passages had cleared and I can breathe again.

DL: Man to find that place again… Yeah, you’re right! I go through an ebb and flow with that stuff and the moment you find an enjoyment for music that you haven’t felt for awhile… It feels so good!

FH: It absolutely does. So let me ask you this. When I think of Winterfylleth, I think ‘this is the epitome of U.K. black metal.’ They feel distinctly British to me. I described them in the review as ‘early Ulver scoring Skyrim.’ That totally feels appropriate to me and yet, when I go back to those second-wave touchstones say, In the Nightside Eclipse and Bergtatt, honestly, I don’t know that I could qualify what makes the style of riffing any different. Do you think that association with England and Manchester is mostly just inferred by the listener?

DL: [Speaking very deliberately] It… might be. Winterfylleth certainly assist that association by making their album covers so clearly evocative of that [aesthetic.] So they’re certainly not shying away from that correlation; it’s not entirely listener manufactured. And I also think that their acoustic stuff, especially on the One and All Together for Home compilation, what they contributed to that is so clearly rooted in where they come from. So definitely that’s a part of them that matters; it’s a part of their musical identity that matters. But how does it fit into their black metal? I’m not sure I have the ear to know.

FH: Well I definitely don’t. And maybe it isn’t important. Maybe the subtext is as important as anything else and it doesn’t need to be justifiable in any explicit sort of way. It’s something I’d never really considered until I was thinking about discussing the album with you.

So as far as I’m concerned, I really enjoy this album. My first play-through was admittedly kind of a disappointment, I had the opposite experience from you. You know, I thought it was good, it sounds like Winterfylleth, doing Winterfylleth. I’m sure there were a handful of people, (though I couldn’t find them even though I scoured 4-Chan and Reddit,) that were just horrified by the potential of Winterfylleth going even further off into some sort of Windham Hills, dentist-office pleasantry. Whatever. I think it was pretty clear from the release of The Hallowing... that that shift in tone would be a one-off.

When I talked to [frontman] Chris Naughton, he was talking about how technically difficult [The Hallowing…] was to execute and record. No matter how simple many of the passages might sound, you’re just doing a single take and it has to be perfect. You scrape a string or whatever, you have to start over. And honestly, I was excited about how they might develop as a band from that experience and where they might take that level of discipline.

DL: I think you can hear that development.

FH: Yeah? Initially I was disappointed because I wanted to hear them develop and elaborate on their sound even more and instead The Reckoning Dawn is kind of ‘meat and potatoes’ for these guys. It’s quite, quite, quite good. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to win anybody new over but as far as the band and what they represent is concerned, I think this is a very compact statement of who Winterfylleth is and what they have to offer. Like the strings. When they finally emerge, they’re so well calculated and when the choral vocals do come in, the orchestration’s stronger than it’s ever been. And if anything I guess wanting a little bit more of it is better than feeling that it’s overdone.

DL: Sure, I can understand that. I think I might be with you in that I really did think that I’d be hearing more of The Hallowing of Heirdom bleeding into this record and it didn’t. Very little. I’m hesitant to say that that was disappointing to me but I do kind of wish that some of that bluster had been left behind for a bit more of the acoustic stuff.

FH: Do you think that could have been calculated at all just as a response to The Hallowing… album? I don’t mean to their fanbase but more to themselves. As in ‘OK, we allowed the arc to wind all the way up in this one direction, now we really want to allow it its full swing back.’

DL: Yeah, it’s certainly possible. I don’t know enough about the band and their approach to writing to say anything salient about that. But I was surprised at how hard-driving some of this stuff. I think it’s the fifth song on the record…it’s just a beast! It’s just so violent that I was blown away.

FH: Huh. [Fifth track] “Betwixt Two Crowns” is the one little acoustic instrumental that they throw out there and then it leads into these two tracks that to me are almost perfect.

DL: Definitely. I really like that closing track, too.

FH: What I really love about both of those songs is that there’s not really any fat on them despite the fact that the last one’s over nine minutes. I love the fact that both of them have the feel of equally valid closers. They have that sheer desperation and urgency about them and there’s much less of that ‘Renaissance Fair’ black metal riffing that Winterfylleth engages in a lot, quite frankly. By comparison to those two, at the end of the second track they pull out of this absolutely killer, Carpathian Forest groove into this sort of major key, Ren-Fair stuff that feels a bit prosaic and too repetitive and definitely less hungry. That’s where my attention kind of wanes. “Absolved in Fire”—the third track—kind of follows that mold as well. You know, it opens with that shimmering acoustic guitar pattern that goes on for… oh, man, awhile actually, they really commit to it and then allow it to flow into an extrapolation of that passage in more of a black metal format. But then at the last few minutes it just feels like they lose the plot and the song just kind of putters on. I think it needed to be trimmed down rather than simply idling as it does. And then on to the title track, which they pre-released and I’m seeing a lot of really strong feedback on it. And it’s good, it’s really is. But it’s also nothing more than tried and true Winterfylleth. It’s solid but formulaic and I’m wondering if that’s why they chose it for release.

DL: I feel like there’s really cool, regal melody happening in that title track. When I saw that they had released it as a single I thought, ‘Yeah, of course they did.’ There’s something about the melody that feels majestic, that suggests ‘coming into your own.’ It’s big, it’s grandiose and I can really appreciate what’s going on inside it.

FH: Maybe I’m just looking at it through a more cynical lens then but perhaps because the song’s well built but definitely isn’t going to trigger anyone with concerns that Winterfylleth might be wandering astray, maybe that track was selected for prerelease because it’s reassuring to the fanbase? It says, ‘Everybody be cool. We were just stretching our legs. We still remember the formula.’ Again, I’m building up this almost ‘outreach program’ on Winterfylleth’s part for their fans when I really haven’t seen that much pushback from them regarding The Hallowing… album, (and good for them.) I guess I’m basing this around that underlying anxiety that metal-heads often seem to carry about their favorite acts abandoning the script. So Daniel, if you were scoring it for the magazine, where would you land?

DL: I’d land on an eight for this one. How about you?

FH: Bam! I scored it an eight, too! I’m actually way more enthusiastic about this record than anything I’ve said probably conveys. I still get stuck on the numbers, man. I often want to devote a paragraph in each review just to qualify my scores. After talking to Barney [Greenway] about the nature of reviews and and the scores we award them I tend to cringe a little when I’m tacking on an eight or anything above that. You know, he said that when he opens up the album review section and sees all these eights and nines it immediately gets his hackles up, you know? [Imitating Barney] ‘It cannot be that there are all these nearly perfect albums up for review at the same time! It’s impossible!’ And a lower score would seem to suggest a higher level of critical analysis but hey, it is what it is.

I feel an eight with this album which I have to qualify as a very high eight. And it’s not necessarily even based on my own personal affinity for the album. I really enjoy it but I scored it as I did because Winterfylleth have clearly become better at being Winterfylleth and they began at such an elevated point of execution already. I wish they’d pushed further in certain regards. But the capability that they demonstrate on this album and the quality of the recording itself… they’ve grown in every way that I could reasonably expect them to. And so, I can’t do anything but recommend this album.

“Round numbers are always false.”
—Samuel Johnson

DL: That makes sense. I find that—because there’s so much new music that I try to hear—I’m probably not doing a good job of [explaining] that like ‘sevens and eights imply that sure, I really like this record but I’m listening to so much new music… how much am I really going to go back to it?’ I don’t know. I’m not sure that that’s going to happen. If I can lose myself in it in the moment; if when I’m listening to it I have zero urge to turn it off and the definite urge to turn it up, then for me in that moment it’s good enough.

FH: Yeah, it’s a strange thing to do. You know to absorb something and say, ‘okay, here’s my stamp signifying objective quality.’ I suspect a lot of reviewers never stop to think of it in that way. And maybe that’s for the best. But I know that Chris [Naughton] was really frustrated with that aspect of the process. But it is what it is…

DL: But what would he have in its place?

FH: I don’t know if you’ve read that last portion [the Heavy Meta series]. What he seemed to be saying was that he feels that the field of critical analysis is—in a professional sense—unmanned. I hate to speak for him here… He seemed to imply that ‘okay, you’re pursuing your career and then on the side you review albums and whatever, that’s great.’ But he didn’t seem to believe that from that vantage, that sort of writer would have the [acumen] to take into account the years of development that have taken this band from point A to point B… There was almost this halcyon idea that in order to contribute to a magazine like Decibel, you required these bonafides that you just don’t seem to see contributors having so much nowadays. He alluded to people that do this sort of thing for a year or so and then are off to pursue their ‘real job’ or whatever. And I can appreciate the idea that you have this one pundit that emerges to cover a band over time, like, you have that Opeth writer on the beat or whatever. And I definitely appreciate the idea that Albert reached out to me to review this record because he associated me with Winterfylleth, which of course made me immediately think of you… I don’t know. It seemed to irk Chris that what might be seen as a hobby could potentially do so much damage to a band’s longterm viability.

DL: Yeah, but at the same time—and this is just me pushing back a little bit—sure, if I could make a living off of [music journalism] then I wouldn’t have to spend 10 hours a day at my day job focusing on things that aren’t related to music, I could spend those 10 hours listening to varieties of music that would then give me an even deeper perspective on the things that I’m reviewing. But you can’t make a living off of doing this so you have to work that day job which means… you have the experience you have, man!

FH: Right. Essentially that where we’re at: a sort of ‘ride sharing punditry’ world at this point. You know I’d had the idea that if I had really disliked The Reckoning Dawn I was going to, you know, review it honestly, really castigate it as I saw fit but then get in contact with Chris and see if he wanted to have a discussion with me about the choices the band made and essentially make a case for them. Why not allow an artist to talk about the album from their point of view and how I—or whoever—might have gotten it wrong in the critique? I think it’s more than fair and could make for some pretty solid copy. Shit, I’d read it.

DL: Yeah, definitely. Actually I’ve had this feeling for a long time. Early on when I started writing, there was this website that I was writing for and I noticed that this one guy had reviewed a record for the site and given it a four [out of 10]. And I would have absolutely given that record a nine! So I checked in with the editor and was like, ‘Hey, do you ever allow multiple reviews for a single record?’ He said, ‘No, we don’t do that kind of thing. Sorry.’ But it occurred to me that this type of conversation between people who have different relationships to the music is perfect, rather than one person acting as the authority and saying, ‘This is what this publication thinks about this record.’ Instead, have a couple of people engage in a conversation about the record. Let that be the review. I like that idea.

FH: I do, too; I like that concept a lot actually. Then at the same time, I look back to reading this sort of stuff as a teenager and if I trusted the reviewer I’d dust my hands off an go ‘Well, that’s the absolute truth about this record; case closed!’ It was impregnable, it was the word. I’d report back to my friends, ‘You know, this one song on the record shows promise but the album as a whole..it just lacks luster.’ I hadn’t even heard that shit yet! And I guess ultimately I really wanted to be that person; that authority. But that’s just not the way it is man, and I do think that turning monologues into dialogues—especially when you’re talking about art… I mean we’re talking about a medium that can just sound so different depending on whether or not you were stuck in traffic right before a listening session.

DL: Exactly.

FH: So lastly: I don’t know if you read the promotional material attached to the advance but it says, ‘The Reckoning Dawn is coming. Make sure you are ready.’ So let me ask you something Daniel and be honest: Do you feel like you were ready when it hit? Did you play it safe and alert your emergency contacts?

DL: Yeah, The Reckoning Dawn! Like, the sun’s coming up; oh shit!

FH: Well I’m just glad you’re okay because I definitely tightened up my gut. Man the promotional materials are always, always worth a read! Some of the shit you’ll come across—if you stop and take them at face value—is truly amazing. Even in this same one it suggests that the listener will come away from the experience agreeing that Winterfylleth are ‘as relevant as they’ve ever been.’ Does that sound like a backhanded compliment or what? Is that all that Winterfylleth were aiming for? Just desperately hoping to maintain relevance?

DL: Yeah, that’s such a terrible statement.

FH: But it’s gotta be a bitch, right? Somebody out there’s working their nine-to-five, (just like we were talking about earlier,) and they’re trying to work in a little freelance copywriting and they’re like, ‘Christ, let’s see. Um, we’ll go with ‘brutal,’ ‘misanthropic,’ um…’world eating’… Oh, fuck me, I can’t believe I’m writing this shit.’ You wonder sometimes if they’ve listened to the album at all. Maybe I need to interview one of these guys. Go ‘behind the looking glass’ with em.’

But anyway, I really appreciate your time, man. Thanks for hanging in there with me. I’m really glad I’ve finally gotten to talk to you in person about this stuff.

DL: Yeah, this was fun. I know you’re going to have to deal with it but being on the phone and not having to worry about transcribing the conversation afterwards is kind of new to me…

FH: No shit! Oh, transcribing’s the worst! It’s just the worst shit ever. When you’re at the very beginning of one of these transcriptions it’s like being a pilgrim in the 17th century just setting foot onto the Mayflower and knowing that you’re staring down the barrel of a really tedious, choppy journey before you reach the other side. You’ll probably starve to death before you ever get there… And it’s a shame because part of you is just enjoying this conversation and if you were out on a porch somewhere with this person drinking—I don’t know—a Mike’s Hard Lemonade, (I have no idea what the fuck people drink) then it would just be this lovely experience. But part of you is engaging the conversation with this Chinese-finger-trap sort of dawning horror as you begin to envision what lies in store for you.

DL: It’s the worst!

FH: Yeah, so thanks I guess for leaving me with this mess! I’ll drop you a line when, (and if) I ever bother to turn this monster in.

Ah, Cosplaying as a music journalist never gets old, friends. Follow Fallow Heart on Instagram @fallow.heart

The Reckoning Dawn is now available via Candlelight Records/Spinefarm Records.

Everything is fraught with hardship in the kingdom of Earth/ Here all is temporary…”  —“The Wayfarer Pt. 3, Winterfylleth

“Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable.” —Samuel Johnson