Updated: Feb 23
Fields of the Nephilim's Dawnrazor at Thirty-Five
From the perspective of 2022 the appearance of a song named after a 1929 Aleister Crowley novel by a half-glimpsed, permanently-dry-ice-swathed Ennio Morricone-obsessed rock band is perhaps something that merits little attention. But in 1988, when ‘Moonchild’ by the obtusely-named Fields of the Nephilim entered the Top 40, this was a different matter. It was the sound of what a late-flowering post-punk at its most luxuriant and untethered could achieve, a rare break into the mainstream by one of Britain’s most unusual bands. With the release of their third album Elizium in 1990 they were truly in a realm of their own, pursuing an atmospheric blend of prog, psych and off-kilter rock underpinned by jazz guitar and heavy, almost dub bass, all directed and infused by the occult themes of frontman and lyricist Carl McCoy. His vocal delivery, part gravelly bark, part old-school croon, floated upon this powerful, fidgety, flighty music. Yet The Nephillim, The Nephs, The Fields, with their music that came at you via the floorboards, were often written off as one of the worst excesses of late-80s goth. For me, however, those albums helped open up creative pathways and interests that in one way or another I have spent much of my life exploring. And of them all, one in particular, their first: Dawnrazor.
I can pinpoint where it all began: skateboarding. As unlikely as it sounds my first encounter with The Nephs was via the American skateboarding magazine Thrasher which I used to buy from a bike shop in St Leonards, a few miles from my hometown of Bexhill in East Sussex, that was happily cashing in on the eighties skateboarding revival. A small feature about an American tour in 1987. I was fourteen and always on the lookout for interesting music so as soon as I could I sought out the album that the piece had mentioned, Dawnrazor. Released in May 1987 it was, and remains, an exhilarating, absurd, visceral listen that took the unconventional path of fusing spaghetti western imagery and soundscapes with a kind of M. R. James English supernaturalism. The result was both strange and familiar, dissonant and exotic. I was hooked, a fan from the off. But who were the Nephilim and where had they come from?
The short answer was that they were from Stevenage. The long answer was that the Nephilim were a legendary race of giants whose parents were both human and angel. The Fields bit I’m less certain about, but always assumed it meant something akin to magnetic fields, invisible lines of force that connected these monstrous, magical, progeny with ourselves. Musically they were five, McCoy on vocals, Tony Pettitt on bass, the Wright brothers Paul and Alexander (or ‘Nod’) on guitar and drums respectively and Peter Yates on guitar. If they were barely visible for all the smoke live they were also thrillingly heavy: I can recall barely being able to breathe the bass was so loud. When you did see them they were hats, long hair, long coats and liberally covered with flour (white not wholemeal) to create that dusty look. If their subject matter was serious there was amusement too, something that their detractors seemed to overlook.
Dawnrazor was the first of three albums produced by this particular line up, followed by The Nephilim (1988) and Elizium (1990). Across the three records there is a general move toward longer songs with distinctive orchestration. By 1991 they were the goth Pink Floyd or Spiritualized, afloat in lengthy set pieces bookended by ambient drones and samples. The atmospherics of their slower numbers was a constant, however, from Dawnrazor’s ‘Vet for the Insane’ and the title track itself to the unornamented bass and voice of ‘Celebrate’ on The Nephilim to Elizium’s ‘And There Will Your Heart Be Also’ that lilts and woozes its way into space, the perfect ending to an album that for all intents and purposes was about negotiating the afterlife.
As a debut Dawnrazor seemed complete, a world in and of itself, obsessed with the image of the outsider and full of its own outlaw swagger. It remains the younger punk sibling to the albums that followed, more twangy, more distorted, less well-versed in occult texts and perhaps for these reasons still the most accessible of the three. Nonetheless there was a chthonic feel to many of the songs, a weight behind the sound that, while it might have traded on straightforward gothic horror in places, also pointed toward something more nuanced and autumnal. ‘Slow Kill’, ‘Reanimator’ and ‘Dust’ brought with them the smell of the earth while ‘Dawnrazor’, beautifully spare in its arrangement, a lesson in both emptiness and heaviness, leant toward the cosmic and otherworldly. In fact, ‘otherworldly’ might be the best word to describe this album. It was avant-garde rock’n’roll, yes, but it pushed at the edges even of that definition with a feral energy, introducing an elemental and rogue spirituality as it did so.
If the hats and baritone howls meant that they were frequently compared to the Sisters of Mercy, in reality there were few points of connection. The Sisters were doom-glam, in thrall to Motorhead and the Stooges and relentless mechanised rhythms. The Nephs were film buffs, interested first and foremost in atmosphere and character and songs rich in both. This placed them more in a line of experimental art-rockers influenced by bands such as Roxy Music, and indeed early line-ups included a saxophone player, while the B-side to the single ‘Blue Water’ was a cover of Roxy’s ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’ stretched to a magnificent six and a half minutes and strung with a pagan drama missing in the original.
For me, and I expect many others, the artwork was as important as the music. How much time did I spend poring over the imagery? Unimaginable hours. In particular I loved that of the second LP The Nephilim which resembled the pages of an old manuscript, complete with lyrics written in a near-illegible hand. Even better, however, was the photograph that accompanied these of a partially overgrown and ruinous medieval chapel, its Gothic arch heavy with ivy. This album, the pivot point between the raucous Dawnrazor and the elegiac Elizium, seemed to suggest the possibility of connection with other times and places, traffic with the dead and the divine. Around this time, I was developing a serious interest in archaeology and in particular medieval architecture. I was drawn to the ruins around East Sussex that were beginning to impress something intangible and mysterious upon me. Somehow the music and the masonry overlapped: goth, quite possibly, led me to the Gothic.
As a stonemason I have carved stones for churches and cathedrals; as an archaeologist I have excavated and illustrated medieval buildings; as a writer I’ve explored the spaces that medieval architecture opens up and how we interact with them. And perhaps the seeds of my interest can be traced back to the first few Nephilim albums. Going back to records can often be a disappointment, but at thirty-five years Dawnrazor remains as crystalline and subterranean as it ever was, a shapeshifting, mercurial record combining extraordinary heaviness with the most melodic guitar lines, the clearest spaces. I owe it a great deal.