Fields of the Nephilim – “Ceromonies”

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To some extent, all live music performances are rituals. There’s the moment when the club goes dark and the dry ice billows. There’s the first drumbeat or wail of the guitar that makes the hair on your arms stand up. There’s the whirling vortex of the music, the climax of the final song, the encore’s denouement. There’s stumbling, exhausted and sweaty, out of the hall and into the night.

For some bands, the ritual is more formal. Fields of the Nephilim, particularly in its current incarnation, is one of those bands. In 2007 and 2008, founding frontman Carl McCoy led the Nephs in a series of gigs dubbed “Ceromonies”, each one on an auspicious date. With a 7-pointed star projected onto the stage, they played Warsaw, Poland, on the anniversary of H.P. Lovecraft’s death; Athens, Greece, on the equinox (also the Thelemic New Year); and so on.

On July 12 and 13, 2008, FOTN played London’s Shepherds Bush Empire, at once coming home to England and honoring the anniversary of the death of John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer and the inventor/channeler of an occult practice known as Enochian magic. It would be difficult to overstate Dee’s importance here; after all, he claimed to make contact with the apocryphal rebel angels who fathered the demon-giants known as the nephilim.

Those performances are captured in the newly released Ceromonies set: two albums of music, culled from the London gigs, plus a live DVD. If the title’s spelling makes your eyes twitch, you’re not alone. Though McCoy hasn’t come clean about its meaning, it’s likely that the name refers to the word “zero” in other languages, perhaps returning us to Year Zero. The set’s subtitle, “Ad Mortem, Ad Vitam,” means “To death, for life.” “This release marks the closing of one chapter in Fields Of The Nephilim’s history, paving the way for what is soon to come,” according to McCoy.

Anyone who has followed Fields of the Nephilim since their early Stevenage days (the working-class British town from which the band emerged in 1984) can tell you there’s been more than one chapter in the Nephs’ history. In those early years, McCoy fused his love of Ennio Morricone with a longstanding passion for the occult (Aleister Crowley and Thelema, particularly), Lovecraft, Sumerian mythology, and the apocryphal Book of Enoch, backed by a riveting sound that was part goth, part metal, part psychedelic. The original lineup included Tony Pettitt, whose prominent, melodic bass anchored their sound; atmospheric masters Paul Wright and Peter Yates on guitars; and Nod Wright bringing nuance to the drums. McCoy claimed the band had no contemporary music influences, but it’s notable that he was one of the first singers outside the nascent death-metal scene to adopt harsh vocals. In turn, he has inspired many extreme-metal bands, Horseback among them.

And then there was FOTN’s image: cowboy-inspired leathers and hats, dusted with flour for a fresh-from-the-grave look. That look was ushered along significantly by filmmaker Richard Stanley, who made most of Fields of the Nephilim’s early videos (and cast McCoy as a post-apocalyptic scavenger in his film “Hardware,” also featuring cameos from Lemmy Kilmeister and Iggy Pop). In the heyday of MTV, the videos helped FOTN’s albums, including their rough-hewn debut Dawnrazor, their epic The Nephilim, and 1991’s Elizium–produced by Pink Floyd engineer Andy Jackson and with the psychedelic chops to prove it–reach worldwide audiences. FOTN had the misfortune to come along just after the Sisters of Mercy, drawing some ill-informed comparisons.

While touring in support of Elizium, the band recorded for the live album Earth Inferno, named for the book by maverick occultist Austin Osman Spare. Spare created the ritual technique he called the “death posture”, which triggers a blackout and and gives the practitioner a glimpse of the realm beyond death. McCoy references it in The Nephilim’s “Last Exit for the Lost.” Arguably Elizium is a concept album based around the technique, particularly “Submission,” which also summons Thelema’s leading lady, Babalon.

Despite all this death and rebirth, this period wasn’t McCoy’s favorite: “Elizium was rather difficult to perform in concert. It was physically rather boring to stay on the scene during these long titles . . . I did not really appreciate this particular aspect of things. What I wanted to do thereafter was to extract myself from that, to touch other dimensions.” His apathy shines through on Earth Inferno, which comes nowhere close to expressing FOTN’s power as a live band.

Soon it became clear that Earth Inferno and the accompanying live video, Visionary Heads, were not a milestone in the band’s career, but a tombstone. What began as a glimpse beyond death became final when the band split in 1991. McCoy’s bandmates hired singer Andy Delaney and went on as Rubicon. They emerged smack in the middle of that indeterminate early-’90s period when pop’s version of metal and goth foundered; grunge was king. Despite a listener-friendly sound that suggested McCoy’s compatriots craved a wider audience, Rubicon never gained a foothold on the popularity ladder.

Meanwhile, McCoy more or less vanished. Rumors abounded, but in truth he was slowly crafting the album that would become the Nefilim album Zoon. He offered a teaser in 1993 with the pure-metal track “Chaocracy.” Fans unaccustomed to hearing McCoy growl against a backdrop of wheeling guitars and double-bass drums were bewildered–but still unprepared for the brilliant death-metal assault of Zoon. McCoy wasn’t kidding when he said he had some pent-up energy left over from Elizium.

In all ways, chaos ruled this chapter, forcing FOTN fans to explore the breadth of frustration and patience. McCoy toured Germany briefly at the end of 1993 with a new lineup, expecting to release Zoon, but the album didn’t emerge for another three years. Admittedly, 1996 was a much better year for metal of all kinds, and it was warmly received. But fans who’d waited five years for another atmospheric FOTN masterpiece felt betrayed by Zoon’s brutal blitzkrieg.

A brief European tour followed, capped by two years of silence. McCoy talked up a FOTN “reunion” in 1998 with Pettitt. The duo struggled in the studio and played a handful of festivals in 2000. Their unfinished demos were published–without their permission–as Fallen in 2002. Meanwhile, the Wright Brothers released their first album as Last Rites, Guided by Light, a lush, dark, atmospheric goth masterwork. Whether or not they meant to show up their former bandmate, they succeeded.

In fact, the McCoy diaspora has been prolific: Nefilim musicians Paul Miles and Simon Rippin formed Sensorium and then NFD, producing three rock-infused albums echoing the FOTN sound. Nefilim bassist Cian Houchin launched Saints of Eden, a prolific goth-industrial act. Last Rites soldiered on for two more releases. Pettitt dipped his toes in the NFD pool, then organized the goth-ridden supergroup The Eden House with NFD drummer Stephen Carey, Rippin on guitars, and All About Eve’s Julienne Regan and Faith & The Muse’s Monica Richards on vocals. FOTN followers were well-fed on music, but starved for what they wanted most–another Fields of the Nephilim record.

That record, Mourning Sun, emerged in late 2005, after a bevy of promises and delays. It marries the brooding atmospheres of FOTN’s early days with the bristling metal of Zoon, producing something gorgeous and satisfying–if you could overlook the long wait. McCoy celebrated the return of the Nephs (after a seven-year gig drought) with a sold-out show at London’s Astoria in 2007. He has consistently played a few dates each year since then; the man who’d seemed almost reclusive was now vocal about his love of connecting with his audience. A variety of longtime comrades, including filmmaker Stanley and one of his followers, cameraman Lauri Loytokoski, filmed gigs in 2007 and 2008 for an “imminent” live DVD. McCoy, being McCoy, insisted on painstakingly producing the whole thing himself – which is how Ceromonies, a document of gigs in the summer of 2008, didn’t see the light of day until spring 2012.

Have music fans ever waited so long between the gigs and the concert film? Well, there’s The Song Remains the Same, which Led Zeppelin recorded live in 1973 and released in 1976–but there was a lot more to it than just the concert footage. We Are the Champions, a document of Queen’s 1985 performances in Japan, didn’t come out until 1992 (and the band released 13 concert films or video roundups in the meantime). The record might go to Australia’s Cold Chisel, whose 2007 Rockpalast film emerged 25 years after the gig it documented, but it’s not like they were actively working on it that whole time.

To its credit, Ceromonies is a stunner. The live audio discs feature songs from every chapter in FOTN’s history, including “Trees Come Down,” off the band’s debut EP, Burning the Fields; “From the Fire,” from the shambles of the Fallen album; and the hallucinatory single “Psychonaut.” Despite McCoy’s reservations about the Elizium material, that album’s crowning suite, “Wail of Sumer/And There Will Your Heart Be Also” is rendered here in all its transcendent spaciousness. The band — which includes guitarists Gavin King and Snake, bassist John Carter, and drummer Lee Newell — proves it’s up to performing anything in the Nephs’ catalog, from the delicate, breathy “Celebrate” to the jackhammer “Penetration”.

Each disc is a pared-down, lightly shuffled version of one of the two London sets. They highlight Fields of the Nephilim’s penchant for epics, including the “Sumer/Heart” suite, “Psychonaut,” and the 11-minute “Mourning Sun,” a triumphant mind-bender that frequently caps FOTN’s live shows. The sets are anchored by many tighter tracks, where McCoy’s new band nails the bluesy goth-rock of “Trees Come Down” and “Preacher Man,” the band’s first hit single. It’s good to hear such FOTN classics again, bristling with life. The only downside? Every song is a faithful reproduction of the studio original, offering none of the improvisation and transformation that time and maturity might have provided.

As sets, the live discs work. As rituals, they don’t quite make it. The live DVD is another matter. Despite collapsing both Shepherds Bush Empire gigs into one set, it flows seamlessly, demonstrating Fields of the Nephilim’s live prowess and McCoy’s magnetism. Mourning Sun opener “Shroud” is the invocation, summoning the singer to his microphone in the center of a red Enochian septagram. McCoy appears ageless, decked in flour-dusted leathers and his trademark black hat, punching his potent growl into “Straight to the Light.” The dry-ice fog, richly colored lights, glowy production and occasional slow-motion edits give the video a dreamlike quality, amplifying the sensation that you’ve been taken somewhere else. The disc closes with the one-two-three punch of “Moonchild,” the Nephs’ biggest hit single, “Psychonaut,” and “Mourning Sun” – odes to Crowley, chaos magic via the Necronomicon, and fallen angels, respectively. Magical indeed.

As a document of Fields of the Nephilim’s history, you could hardly ask for better than Ceromonies, but only if McCoy is truly moving on from here. Fans who’ve waited an entire presidential term for Ceromonies to arrive are long past ready for something new–not another look at the same songs that have been their companions through McCoy’s long fallow periods. In recent interviews he has talked up new material, but he’s done that before. Most know not to hold their breath. It will come when it comes, and when it does, it’s likely to be spectacular. Late, but spectacular.

— Beth Winegarner

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The Ceromonies box set was released on May 6, 2012. The Ceremonial edition (deluxe) is sold out.

Standard versions are available from Amazon UK.
Ceromonies (Ad Mortem Ad Vitam)(DVD Included), Digi-Pak
Ceromonies (Ad Mortem Ad Vitam), LP