Following the release of my demo tape Saxon Pastoral via my friend Tom's label Eldritch Lunar Miasma in 2015 (ELM also released the 7" and CD EP by my previous black / thrash outfit Cultfinder), I was approached by the Minneapolis tape label Lighten Up Sounds about releasing something. I'd started working on new material and alongside some older recordings from the demo sessions this became my debut full-length, Murmurations, which was released on pro-tape format by LUS in May 2017 and later in November by ELM once again on pro-CD-R (it turned out to be ELM's last gasp as the label closed that autumn, though I'm grateful for the swansong!). Murmurations continues my development of Wapentake's original concept of minimalist acoustic black-metal (bar a couple of more traditional 2014 demos that I later released digitally as MMXIV), using mainly acoustic guitars augmented with the odd synth or percussion part or additional electric guitar.
Now that the recording of Murmurations is a few years behind me, I think it's fair to reflect that the album is perhaps not the debut proper that I would have liked to have made, given more time. For better or worse I am not blessed with the virtue of patience and was maybe too quick to act on the offer of an overseas release. As a result, the album is more a compilation of ideas and rough 'notes' than a considered, consistent record - as has been commented on in several reviews, the title is apt. If I had a second go, I'd maybe have edited a few tracks out and released it as an EP. I've always been a songwriter at heart, regardless of the project or genre, but it has taken me a couple of years and releases to get the hang of writing proper, fleshed-out 'songs' for Wapentake (apart from the initial demo, all Wapentake material has been instrumental and I aim to continue in this vein). Trading the album in both formats has led to some great collaborations including the Harbinger EP (released on tape by Blackwood Productions in April 2018) as well as a 'career' highlight so far, a split CD and tape with White Medal via Legion Blotan, in December of last year. The follow-up full-length to Murmurations is in the can, due for release early this year and is, in my opinion, a vast improvement on what was otherwise just an extended demo compilation, but please read, listen and judge for yourself...
"Firewood" for me is a prime example of the shortcomings mentioned above. What started out as an interesting acoustic intro riff is then played over and over, perhaps beyond the point of remaining interesting. I quite like the way the riff always feels like it's on the cusp of a climax, but then just repeats, so you never really know when it's going to end (nor did I when I recorded it, I just played it until I got bored - I grew up listening to a lot of (ahem) stoner rock, so there's always the temptation to play a catchy riff ad infinitum!). Starting with the background campfire crackle of "Firewood", Murmurations also features heavy use of samples to enhance the intended rural / pastoral atmosphere, although I've since rejected this as rather a gimmicky cliché.
With the exception of "Saxon Pastoral", "Harvest" is the oldest track on the record, which is an old idea I found on my archaic mini-disc recording desk - I don't really remember adding much to it. I think it serves nicely as a lead in to the next track but for my liking there isn't enough dynamic contrast between the 'verse' and 'chorus' parts for it to serve well as a track in its own right. For what I recall I had originally intended to go further but the quality was lacking after a certain point, hence the rather unusual fade.
This was my first attempt at writing a full 'song' specifically for this record. The song is divided into two sections and was recorded in two distinct parts. The first was intended as a slow-burning doom riff, which gradually builds layers of complementary acoustic and electric guitars over the sound of a babbling brook (inspired by the intro/outro of Electric Wizard's Time To Die album).
The higher toned electric part always grates with me on re-listening as it sounds out of place (if not out of tune) in the mix and reminds me of some of my ancient sixth-form college recordings. With a slightly cheesy clap of thunder, the gloomy sky breaks and the song changes tack entirely into a rollicking spot of badly-executed NWOBHM, which is hard to lend impetus without a full drumkit, so I did my level best with a jangling tambourine. It's good twin-lead-toting fun though (if good fun is to be looked for in otherwise melancholic acoustic black-metal) and I think I nailed that classic Maiden ending. I was thinking of Wytch Hazel at the time, which is odd as it sounds fuck all like Wytch Hazel, but I think it vaguely conveys the entertainments of an English baronial hall, if not the battlecry of an Anglo-Saxon war band.
This was the best song on the demo, so I thought I'd include it on the album, however, rather than the usual trick of re-recording a demo track for one's debut, this version actually predates the demo version. I'm not sure which version I prefer, but probably couldn't be bothered re-recording it so dug out the demo of the demo and added a few overdubs (and removed the main vocals). This track originally had vocals (the only other vocal track of mine is "The Rufus Stone" from the demo tape), and went under the title "Burden of Blood" - a title which would probably have given rise to nationalistic leanings that some have incorrectly, if not wrongly, ascribed to me anyway.
The vocal pattern follows the lead guitar exactly, and if you fancy a laugh on a rainy day, you can sing the following expurgated lyric: 'Only the bravest of warrior men / Carries the burden of blood on his shoulders'. Thankfully that's all I can remember. I left the choral vocals in as I'm a big Winterfylleth and early Ulver fan despite not being able to sing as good as either, even when there's three of me.
As an aside regarding the concept, the title "Saxon Pastoral" has always been the guiding creative theme for Wapentake - the music has been widely described as neo-folk, although this is not a genre I was aware of until I'd started. If pushed to pigeonhole, I would describe my music as 'English pastoral black-metal', Elgar in a leather jacket. Deny me the black-metal elements, and I'll claim the pastoral. Every musical influence on Wapentake is black-metal, even if what I actually record is closer to the sound of the Hampshire fields near where I was born and raised. White Medal are a massive influence and when I listen to something like Agbrigg, I think of mud, blood, soil and toil, and that's the same kind of grubby rural aesthetic and sense of place I want to infuse with this project, albeit in a somewhat lighter shade.
"The Hermit" is another old interlude track I'd had for a while, revolving around a very medieval sounding folk riff. I can imagine this being played by a forlorn balladeer, strumming his lute outside a plague hospital while the dead are carted away. I'm a big fan of solitude - in as much as although I don't enjoy my own company, I loathe that of most others. Wapentake is very much a hermit's existence (albeit with my wife sat downstairs while I write and record) - I have lost any desire to perform in a band with other humans again, but I know that I was not the easiest person to work with - with a solo project I have total control and no one has to suffer my impatient impulses (apart from my wife and the occasional record label).
Another interlude track that doesn't really go anywhere or achieve much, "Ytene" takes it's title from the old word for the inhabitants of the New Forest and Isle of Wight, which is believed to be loosely derived from the Jutes of Jutland, who arrived alongside the Angles and Saxons in the 5th/6th century incursions.
In this County is New-Foreſt, formerly called Ytene, being about 30 miles in compaſs; in which ſaid traƈt William the Conquerour (for the making the ſaid Foreſt a Harbour for Wild-beaſts for his Game) cauſed 36 Pariſh churches, with all the Houſes thereto belonging, to be pulled down, and the poor Inhabitants left ſuccourleſs of houſe or home.
- Blome, Richard. (1673). Britannia, Or, A Geographical Description of the Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland
This was a late inclusion for the album, originally intended as something more extensive along the lines of Primordial, but this was the only good riff I could come up with before things got too derivative.
The eponymous (almost) track is really only the third proper song on the whole record, which still only really has a couple of riffs to its name. I like the hunting horn vibe on this song - my first excursion into the realms of synth, which I expanded on with my 2018 EP Harbinger and split with White Medal (recorded between Murmurations and Harbinger) but have since abandoned (for now at least).
One of the main issues with this record for me was the struggle to balance or blend the acoustic / organic and electric / electronic elements. It is not easy to get right and there are few exceptions in the worlds of black-metal and ambient / neofolk; I find keyboard-heavy BM very hard to like. Conceptually, I've had the word 'murmurations' in the back of my mind for years as an album title - originally for a cavernous DM project (something I'm glad I never started).
A lot of the writing on Murmurations was based around playing traditional black-metal style melodies on an acoustic guitar as a starting point. Since then I've started to base my songs on acoustic chord sequences - despite playing guitar for nearly 20 years, I never learnt past a few basic major and minor chords, so this unintentional reliance on Am / Em / C / G / D (maybe F or B at a push) gives everything that English folk vibe by default, which I quite like. As I've built up the electric guitar parts, I've thought about ditching the acoustic element completely, for at least one record, but then I might lose one of this project defining features, so now that I've found Wapentake's 'sound', writing mainly on acoustic will continue.
For the closing outro, I took a completely different tack and went for distorted guitar and dropped tuning, playing what some might not inaccurately describe as an 'emo' riff. This is the sort of melody I would have written when I was 16/17, on the cusp of discovering Darkthrone and Mayhem, but still listening to Deftones and Far, so it's kind of a memorial to all my influences that have come and gone since I started writing music way back when. Although I would never knowingly employ the descriptor 'post-', I think black-metal is a pretty broad (inverted) church in 2019, and it should be okay to experiment without fear of internet reprisal, provided you respect the genre and its long and proud history, which is something I hope I have done and will continue to do with Wapentake.