With few commercial releases in the last decade Fields of the Nephilim have relied on their status as one of the original and most influential British goth rock bands to maintain their fan base. From their musical style to their carefully cultivated look, they set a standard, a feel and a design for the entire goth subculture. The motifs and symbols of their band logo and artwork, the uniform theatrical costume, and of course the themes in their music of romanticism, mysticism, and the occult. They do also share some of the goth tropes which are often mocked by cultural observers; the deep forced gravel vocals, the insistence on keeping the stage cloaked in a veil of smoke at all times and frontman Carl McCoy’s otherworldly ‘spooky’ contact lenses. Tonight Fields of the Nephilim have their stalwart fans gathered together as close to the actual festival of Saturnalia (a winter feast to honour the ancient Roman god Saturn) as the calendar will allow.
Sure enough, long before the arrival of the band on stage, the hollow of the Forum theatre is choked in the smoke of a fog machine. This does help to retain a sense of mystery, for example; it is a mystery as to most where the band are on stage, where is that music coming from and ‘where is my hand, I was sure it was in front of my face’?
The band arrive behind the fog to the pulsing beat of Dead but Dreaming welcomed by a strangled roar from a crowd who are now longing for breathing apparatus. Dressed in their dark uniform as ghostly dust covered cowboys of a purgatorial, fictional Wild West. This is an image so perfectly conceived from it’s first outing in the mid-‘80s that no other band has ever made it look as good. As an instant classic, it has required no updating and for a band who have made this a signature it has not dated on them which is a testament to a brilliantly realised artistic vision.
The trademark reverberating bass forms a soundscape with a volume potent enough to knock everyone’s hearing out in one song as they transition into At the Gates of Silent Memory. Huge sweeping guitar riffs build in crescendo – this is music that takes itself very seriously. McCoy paces around the stage in exhausted, dramatic postures. Perhaps the smoke is getting to him?
McCoy’s voice holds its own as he forces out a rich, deep vocal like a cry for the chorus of Dawnrazor. It is a dreamy melody underpinned with heavy drums. Layer upon layer of luxurious music, with intricate guitar picking and distortion holds the audience in a trance. People in the crowd raise hands to the sky in prayer formations. The shape of hands silhouetted in the haze gives a sense of ceremony to the gathering.
Love Under Will offers a pacier track with echoing vocals. Passionate lyrical imagery and stirring melodies highlights the romance of the band and the genre perfectly. As a crowd favourite, fans of all ages dance in the now traditional ‘goth lurch’ swaying back and forth whilst gesticulating with wild hand flourishes in the dance of their people. This is carried through to ultimate goth anthem or portmanteau, ‘gothem’ if you prefer, Moonchild.
The band finally start to really rock out and illustrate some variety and high energy as they chug through 2016 release Prophecy. With hissing vocals paired with some smart lighting and storm like strobe make the lyrical threat of a “burn” feel all too real. When the stage is lit from the front of the stage between songs everything is obliterated by an acrid cloud giving the impression that the band have done a runner and the building is actually now on fire. The crowd never seem fully reassured until the coloured lights rise again on the banners hanging from the stage arches and the vague outline of figures are once again visible.
The crowd return to a whole semaphore of expressive, if somewhat literal dance moves during Psychonaut. Some seem to be signing the lyrics back to the band and are answered in kind with a driving rhythm of drums which still pack a punch. So much smoke, and a flickering strobe light results in a view of the band that is akin to watching an image through static on an old cathode ray TV, and for a moment we are all truly back in the 1988.
On track Zoon (Part 3 – Wakeworld) the combination of vocals and bass make this so much more than a crotch scratching rock number, the brilliant technical execution of the music from the band’s flirtation with the 1990s industrial sound has long been underappreciated and the live performance proves the skill and musicianship of the current incarnation of Fields of the Nephilim.
The chimes and delicate female vocals, heralds what has always sounded like a Jean Michael Jarre inspired tune, Mourning Sun. McCoy holds his best scarecrow poses hands limp over the mic stand, his voice gravellier than salt gritted roads during a cutting frost. Slowly each member leaves the stage for an obligatory forced encore. The crowd clap and stomp and chant until their wish is granted.
The encore is generous two-part treat featuring highlights like Vet for the Insane with disjointed nursery rhyme opening and dirge ambient rock over which the clearest vocals to be heard all night are laid down over (on and off member) Tony Pettitt’s heavy bass. On Darkcell the much-used device of the Gregorian chant prefaces gentle spinning and seductive goth melodies.
Fields of the Nephilim are a band frozen in time, preserved in their cult state. Their imitators have never come close to superseding their look or their sound, which offers some explanation as to why a crowd will still turn out in numbers to hear these songs from the past and worship at the feet of Carl McCoy, if they can find him in the murky brume.