by Stuart Moses
To know the full story behind Fields of the Nephilim's last album Fallen you would have to be a board member at Jungle Records or singer Carl McCoy himself. Ignorant of the behind-the-scenes action to give the album context, your average fan was left with a mishmash of demos and incomplete songs that made an imperfect coda to Fields of the Nephilim's career.
The press release that accompanies Mourning Sun refers to the circumstances surrounding Fallen's release as 'slightly obscure' which is probably as good a summation of events as we're going to get. What Fallen did illustrate was that despite all the copyists out there no-one does sound quite like Carl McCoy - and even under such trying circumstances his musical presence sets off emotional depth charges in my unconsciousness.
I admit that until I had a copy in my hand I was not sure that Mourning Sun actually existed. We were first promised this album in early 2005. It has been worth the wait - even if my first listen was far from ideal. The gap since Fallen and this album has been long enough for me to father two children. I was looking after both when I put this CD in the player. I would have liked to have 55 minutes undisturbed to fully experience its glory, but frankly I can't see that happening for many years to come. So Carl's offering was accompanied by one request for a nappy change, one request to fix a pirate hat and much tower building with multi-coloured blocks. That this album still had a profound effect on me is a testament to its majesty.
That's not to say it is perfect. When the band originally split, Carl famously proclaimed: "I am the Nephilim" (1). While it is true that Carl is the focus of the maelstrom, it's equally true that he is less without his classic cohorts. Carl has always been an enigmatic soul and he remains wilfully, frustratingly oblique when it comes to such matters as who played on the record. The press release that comes with this CD quotes Carl as saying there are no guest musicians, only "ghost musicians". Equally the location of the album's recording is obscured by the proposition that Mourning Sun was produced by McCoy "at various locations using his own unique mobile recording studio, The Ice Cage." While simultaneously thinking that it is quite sad to name your studio, but that if you have to do such a thing then The Ice Cage is a pretty cool name, I have to wonder what exactly is unique about Carl's mobile studio? Is it unique in the sense that it is the only one he owns? It's probably not important, but having come this far and found out this much I want more answers. Though perhaps it is best that the shroud is not stripped away. There is always the risk that what is revealed is not the marvel one imagined.
A choir of monks open the album, with the appropriately titled "Shroud (Exordium)". The subtitle does of course mean beginning or introductory part, and yes, I did have to look that up. There are signature sound samples that create a myriad of images of critters chittering. This song is all about preparing us for what is to come, rather than being a song in itself. It does its job, building magnificently, though at nearly six minutes it might not be to the taste of those that found the minute and a half "Dead But Dreaming" intro to Elizium self-indulgent. The drums are huge, but sound mechanical. I can't help but wish for original Fields of the Nephilim drummer Nod's subtle, but powerful, touch. The sound does fill the space magnificently, but despite lots of enigmatic utterings it doesn't include anything you could describe as proper singing.
"Shroud (Exordium)" leads us directly into "Straight to the Light" which has a bass line that follows in the wake of "Psychonaut". The pace is frantic and there are hints of Zoon in the full-frontal guitar attack. However the song manages to avoid going too far into unlistenable territory. While the chorus lacks transcendent character this song does give us the first shiver-up-the-spine moment. Carls asks: "Is it the face we know? Or something beyond the soul? We served this world like angels..." Once again Carl is tapping into Old Testament mythology and while we may have heard variations on this before, the way the bass complements his voice with echo-laden guitar before the other instruments join to build a crescendo shows Carl has not lost his touch when it comes to building dynamic atmospheres.
"New Gold Dawn" is startling because it begins with Carl's vocals high in the mix. Previously only "Celebrate" gave us a clue of the quality of Carl's singing shorn of the need to see it as just another instrument. I can't say for sure what it is about his vocals that has such an effect on me. Maybe it is the conviction. You can accuse Carl of many things, but you can never doubt his sincerity. This is another fast song that is intense, while always remaining melodic. It doesn't outstay its welcome despite its eight minutes playing time, though it fails to build in the satisfactory way that "Last Exit For The Lost" did. It ends with bird sounds, which is surely a first for a Fields of the Nephilim record.
This bird song is replaced by thunder and rain as "Requiem XIII-33 (Le Veilleur Silencieux)" begins. I'm not necessarily advocating economy when it comes to labelling songs but why does Carl insist on such clumsy names? Like the similarly obtusely titled "Vet For The Insane" this song is a quiet moment in between storms. An FX-laden cyclical guitar creates a melancholy atmosphere that encourages the listener to slip away into another consciousness. This song is as good as anything the classic line-up produced. Carl McCoy seems at his most unashamedly romantic: "Don't you throw it all away. There's a place for us. I know another way." The gunshots heard in the distance (which start four and a half minutes in) shouldn't work, but add to the song's doomed atmosphere. With a doleful bell tolling and washes of sythesisers there is almost a Dead Can Dance feel to this song.
We are in "Psychonaut" territory again for "Xiberia (Seasons In The Ice Cage)" which has the sort of driving rhythm the band is known for. More movie samples make way for pounding drums and elegiac guitars. Carl's distorted vocals make it difficult to work out what is happening in Xiberia, though I can tell that it is nothing good. Considering Carl's previous reactions to the cold - in "Chord of Souls" the song climaxes with the chanted "Ice, ice ice, ice, ice, ice. No! no! no! no! no!" - something terrible is about to rise from the icy wastes. This is my least favourite song on the album. I'm left feeling bludgeoned but strangely exhilarated. On a lesser album this would be a highlight but it suffers coming between the transcendent Requiem XIII-33 (Le Veilleur Silencieux)" and "She".
One of my favourite songs has always been the elegiac "Wail of Sumer/And There Will Be Your Heart Also" of which "She" is the spiritual successor. This song is nine and a half minutes long. It could be double that and I would not get restless. It is like being carried away by the tide. This is the sort of spiritual intoxication I come to Fields of the Nephilim for. The song barely progresses, but that doesn't matter. This music is medicine for my soul. It will heal me in difficult times to come. I thought things could not get better than this. How wrong I was.
"Mourning Sun" brings the album to a close. There's a slight feeling that this is what "Into The Fire" (from the Fallen album) should have sounded like. There are the same surging guitars, but this time they are mixed with more movie samples. There's a slight Mike Oldfield/Exorcist theme through the early stages of the song. Carl stands in the eye of the hurricane. He is truly a magician conjuring spirits from the ether. The song builds and builds. I've always considered the path of the shaman to be one too painful for me. Here is an opportunity to travel to another time and place with Carl as your guide. The music carries you along. This is more than we could ever have hoped for. This is all our dreams realised. Five and a half minutes in the music drops away and we are plunged over the precipice. An ethereal female vocal joins the melee before the guitars return to take us further on our journey.
It's too early to say whether Mourning Sun matches the splendour of Fields of the Nephilim classics such as The Nephilim and Elizium. I've listened to those albums so many times over the years it is impossible to pick apart the memories, impressions and emotions created by the band and those created by the listener. I'm still dealing in first impressions and Mourning Sun stands head and shoulders above Zoon and Fallen. Bar the opening track each song is six minutes plus, but each deserve to be that long, if not longer.
If you are a fan of the band's quieter moments then your faith has been rewarded. "Requiem XIII-33 (Le Veilleur Silencieux)" is as good as anything they have done before. If you liked the trippy atmospheres of Elizium then you should venture towards "She" and "Mourning Sun". If you are a bigger fan of the pounding songs then there are also tracks to suit you - "Straight To The Light" and "New Gold Dawn". With the promise of live shows to come, it would seem that now is a very promising time to be a Fields of the Nephilim fan. Mourning Sun is more than we deserved. Truly the gods walk among us once again...
(1) MELODY MAKER OCTOBER 19, 1991