Insofar as Fire and Ice’s music can be described as “folk” it is the folk music of the ancient skalds and scops, far antecedent to the recent folk revival even if elements of tradition are latently present in that revival. Insofar as it is “gothic” music it is so in the sense described by Edred Thorsson in “The Secret of the Gothick God of Darkness” – synonymous with “Germanic,” and a renaissance of pre-Christian assumptions about the nature of the world.
Although animated with this ancient spirit, this is not music that attempts to reconstruct the music of the past or imitate past forms. Instead, it is essentially a neofolk project, mostly guitar-based and founded on 3 to 4 minute songs. But behind this recognisable form, Fire and Ice cannot be reconciled comfortably with a post-modern mindset because the music speaks of archaic dignity and the lyrics speak of personal honour, both of which are aspects of an essentialism that was meant to have died some decades previously. Musically and lyrically, the songs of Fire and Ice are evocative of times when magic, loyalty and honor were in some ways inseparable concepts. “Evocative” in the truest sense of the word.
The new Fire and Ice album, Fractured Man, comes some twelve years after its predecessor, Bird King. Bird King closed with the extraordinary track, “Where Have They Gone,” a yearning lament to the lost greatness of the Anglo-Saxons: “Children sturdy and flaxen/Gewisse, bold and free/As the land they were Saxon.” It felt like the ultimate statement that Fire and Ice could muster and the peak of their artistic expression. So, the bar of expectation was set high for Fractured Man.
When I first heard the title of the album I assumed that it would be a reference to the man of post-modernity, the hollow and broken man who fails to live up to the promise of his heathen ancestors. This assumption was quickly dispelled by the opening title track. The fractured man is a “higher circuit dweller, Woðbora who walks the dreams of dragons.” A type of shaman, the fractured man is the bearer of woð, the Óðinnic force seen by some as similar to Vril, the fictional power described by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in The Coming Race. This power is expressive of the life force of the High God and so the bearer of this power is, “often mistaken for the mask he wears.”
Musically, the track Fractured Man is crafted around a harmonium melody and so invites comparisons with Current 93′s Sleep Has Its House. Whereas that latter album overused the harmonium so that it became somewhat monotonous, the title track of Fractured Man is the only track on this album to use it. Consequently, it provides a trance-like initiation to the rest of the album and stands apart musically from the rest.
The closing track, “Fractured Again,” is a companion piece to the opener and probably the strongest track from a musical point of view. After a few listens to the album I found that its melodies were eluding me. Only when the chorus of “Fractured Again,” started running around in my head did I realize that it was working its subtle magic on me. That chorus, “Quidquid luce fuit tenebris agit,” is an aphorism from Nietzsche: that which occurs in light persists in darkness. The guitar work and backing vocals on this track are by Douglas P. from Death in June, so it unsurprisingly has that sort of Death in June ring to it.
In between those bookends, the second track, “Caratacus,” is an instrumental guitar piece by Douglas P. which again is reminiscent of the Death in June sound. Caratacus was a British chieftain who resisted the Roman invasion. The exemplary meaning of resistance to foreign predation, and the immortality to be gained thereby, are recurrent themes in Fire and Ice’s work.
Several of the lyrics on Fractured Man are penned by someone other than Ian Read. Of these tracks the most notable is “Mr. Wednesday,” a cover version of a single by The Lykes of Yew. Mr. Wednesday is, of course, Óðinn himself in one of his many guises. Here, he “tips the brim so broad of a deep blue fedora,” and he is, “the master of poets and war and the master of lies.”
“Jubal and Tubal Cain“ is a fine musical rendition of the Kipling poem concerning the rivalry between two brothers and also the conflict between artistic expression and practical manufacture: “Jubal sang of the new found sea/ And the love that its waves divide:/ But Tubal hollowed a fallen tree/ And passed to the farther side.” The poems of Rudyard Kipling are a storehouse of extraordinary lyrics waiting to be set to music. In contemporary England no one is interested in Kipling as a poet, but if we had any sense of national character, musicians would be clamoring to set his words, just as Schubert did with Goethe. Fire and Ice have previously set Kipling’s poem, “Harp Song of the Dane Woman“ from Puck of Pook’s Hill on the album Midwinter Fires. This is also well worth seeking out.
Elsewhere, both “Nimm” and “Verloschen“ are sung in German, the former penned by Rolf Schilling. “Ælfsiden,” an Old English term concerned with elf magic, is built around a drowsy, folksy violin melody that just crosses the borderline into the sinister, somewhat like an eerie string piece in a Lovecraft fantasy. This again, to my mind at least, serves to highlight that all things “gothic” are actually valid expressions of a primal Germanic nature. That we often fail to recognise this speaks only of our own myopia.
I’m still unsure exactly what the term “fractured man” refers to. I suspect that it might be to do with the bifurcation of consciousness that is a necessary pre-requisite for the activation of the hidden god, the man of light, or whatever name you want to give him. But I could be wrong. In any case, Fractured Man represents a welcome return to the fray for Fire and Ice. Perhaps it doesn’t quite surpass the extraordinary high water mark of Bird King, but nonetheless I sincerely hope that it will be followed by many more releases in the not too distant future.