Watership Down Retrospective Pt. 4: Fall of Efrafa

Parasitic ape/Spills his black blood/Blotting out the sun/Wither to sallow flesh- Pity the Weak

We’ve talked about the subject of Watership Down’s supposed political and/or religious allegories in previous entries in this retrospective. Richard Adams, as noted before, insisted that it was simply a story that he made up for his children that they finally persuaded him to write down one day. Still, it seems that people keep reading their own political opinions into the novel. I tend to believe that what is going on with Watership Down is the same thing that J.R.R. Tolkien suspected was happening to The Lord of the Rings whenever people started reading political allegories into his work as well:

I think that many confuse “applicability” with “allegory,” but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Forward to The Lord of the Rings

Indeed, while Tolkien readily admitted that his experiences as a soldier in World War I certainly influenced his worldbuilding, he denied that he was consciously making commentary on the political affairs of the real world in his work.

As for Adams, we’ve discussed how characters like Hazel, Bigwig, and Kehaar were inspired by characters he met during his service in World War II. Therefore it’s definitely not much of a stretch to assume that Hitler or Stalin may have influenced General Woundwort and Efrafan society in general. As for the journey undertaken by Hazel and his band of hlessil, I think author Rachel Kadish, in an essay talking about how she compares the novel to the founding of Israel after the Holocaust, puts it best:

Turns out plenty of other people have seen their histories in that book. Turns out some people see it as an allegory for struggles against the Cold War, fascism, extremism. Or a protest against materialism, against the corporate state. Watership Down can be Ireland after the famine, Rwanda after the massacres. A quick online search for “Watership Down allegory” definitively proves that the book is an adaptation of Homer and Virgil, or of the life of Jesus, or of Native American religion.

Rachel Kadish, “Whose Parable Is It Anyway?”, Moment Magazine, September/October 2011

And this is where Fall of Efrafa comes in.

Background
We will not go quiet! We will not be restrained! We will not be slaves to an impotent regime!- Republic of Heaven

This band’s history begins in the southern coastal city of Brighton, East Sussex, in 2005 with two friends, Alex Bradshaw and Steve McCusker. McCusker was a touring musician, playing guitar with several local punk bands. Bradshaw was a graphic artist struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome, from which he would derive his future stage name, Alex CF. Steve happened to be reading Watership Down, and the two began discussing the political allegories they saw in the story. As their discussions continued, they hit upon the idea of starting a band based on the concept of examining the mythology of the book through their own radical left-wing viewpoints, with a heavy emphasis on promoting atheism and animal rights. And thus, Fall of Efrafa was born, with the lineup being completed by Neil Kingsbury on second guitar, George Miles on drums, and Michael Douglas on bass guitar.

No, not the “greed is good” guy!

With the quintet in place, the band entered the studio in May and June of 2006 and, with producer Peter Miles at the helm, released the first of three albums in their Warren of the Snares trilogy in October of that year via the German indie label Alerta Antifascista.

The Warren of the Snares Pt. 1: Owsla
Digger, dig deep! Feel for sights and sounds! Press your ear against the earth, upon the ground! Runner ride out, against the turning tide! The sun beats down upon the land set aside!- Last But Not Least

Before we discuss the actual music on the three records, I should probably give you an idea of what kind of music to expect from this band. One might expect music based around a bucolic setting like Watership Down to be more similar to the laid-back folk-rock tunes that Mike Batt wrote for the movie and TV show. Fall of Efrafa could not be further from that if it tried. The music here exists at the intersection between the grimy crust punk of bands like Amebix and Discharge, the slow and atmospheric post-metal of Pelican and Cult of Luna, and the sludgy and plodding doom metal of Crowbar and Neurosis. This may seem strange to the uninitiated, but it makes sense given what kind of story the band creates off of the source material.

The story told in the Warren of the Snares trilogy is a deeply dark and cynical allegory that examines the tyranny of organized religion, the rise and fall of empires, and humanity’s seeming inability and/or unwillingness to learn from its mistakes. Efrafa, as represented here, seems to represent humanity, taught from birth to see themselves as superior to their animal brethren because God supposedly gave them a soul. Meanwhile, the titular Owsla are kept as the elite warriors of the rabbit hierarchy, with much emphasis placed on how they are often portrayed in the book as pushy and abusive to their underlings, far more concerned with showing off their power rather than dealing with the threat of the Efrafa.

Interestingly enough, Owsla is actually the story’s finale, documenting nature’s last stand against the Efrafa. We see the animal populace begin to question their leadership in the opening tracks, “Pity the Weak” and “A Soul to Bear,” noticing that humanity is inching closer and closer to wiping them out entirely. They are the fastest and most intense tracks in the band’s discography, being the most punk-influenced, although the cello playing on the tracks helps keep subtle hints of post-rock present. After the short instrumental “Lament,” the band launches into the much slower but still punchy “Last But Not Least” and “The Fall of Efrafa,” running a total of ten and fifteen minutes, respectively (although ambient rain sound effects take up the last five minutes of the latter).

These two tracks follow the Owsla populace as they take a final stand against the Efrafa, charging into a hopeless battle to halt the advance of humanity’s mechanized capitalist empire that is inevitably doomed to failure. The animals are left as nothing but bloodstains on the ground and ragged clumps of fur hanging from the hedgerows. The warren is empty.

The Warren of the Snares Pt. 2: Elil
Frith lies still in charred soil/We silflay upon his bones/Dance in his carrion eyes/Tear his flesh with ideas/Bore within him like worms!- For El-ahrairah to Cry

Whereas Owsla dealt with themes of extinction and apocalypse and explored the punk side of the band’s sound, Elil, released in September of 2007, explores the band’s post-metal influence and consists of three tracks that all run over twenty minutes in length. As one familiar with the Lapine language might expect, this album deals with the theme of predators, especially in the form of institutions and religious beliefs that tell us to keep our eyes on some faraway paradise while said institutions pollute and rape all our earthly paradises.

True to the style of post-metal, the three songs (“Beyond the Veil,” “Dominion Theology,” and “For El-ahrairah to Cry”) are slow-burning arrangements that rely heavily on crescendo and atmosphere to evoke despair and hopelessness instead of the brutal crust punk pummeling of the previous album. There are several faster and more punk-oriented passages in all three songs, but they are still slower and darker than anything that Owsla had to offer.

The elil of the title are El-ahrairah, Frith, and the Black Rabbit of Inle, portrayed here as capricious and uncaring masters unwilling to help their subjects in their hour of need, instead demanding the animals take part in outdated and archaic rituals that have no bearing on their present situation. Thus, the populace rebels against the three-headed godlike elil and slays them down as punishment for their dereliction of duty.

These atheist morals are further accentuated by the latter two tracks, which feature recordings of speeches by the notorious atheist philosopher Richard Dawkins. “Dominion Theology” features the speech that begins with “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.” “For El-ahrairah to Cry” features Dawkins trying to make the case that numerous coincidences lining up at once to bring us into existence is far more meaningful than us being willed into existence by some outside intelligence.

The cello player left between Owsla and Elil, as he was frustrated that the band couldn’t figure out how to balance their sound in a live setting so he wouldn’t be drowned out. Alex stated in an interview that this helped the band become better musicians, as they couldn’t rely on the cello player to carry their sound anymore. And it definitely shows, as the band is in fine form here.

The Warren of the Snares Pt. 3: Inle
The accent of piety! The idiot prince! Pigheaded! Exalted and guilty as sin!- Woundwort

The third and final album in the Warren of the Snares trilogy was released in October of 2009. Perhaps fittingly, considering the theme of death on this album, the music here explores Fall of Efrafa’s doom metal side, with occasional flashes of the shoegaze-influenced black metal of bands like Alcest and Agalloch. The music is slow and gloomy while still containing classic punk energy, with songs ranging from ten to seventeen minutes. This album is the beginning of the saga, taking place right before the society of the Owsla self-destructs. The leader of the theocratic dictatorship, represented by General Woundwort, is murdered in a populist uprising, leaving the populace free to face humanity’s threat. Of course, as Owsla demonstrates, their battle against humanity is ultimately doomed to failure.

The music here is probably the most varied out of any Fall of Efrafa album. We start with “Simulacrum,” a lightly instrumented piece that features a morbid poem about the Black Rabbit of Inle that Silverweed could easily have easily composed. We then transition into the heaving “Fu Inle,” told from the point of view of the Black Rabbit himself as he takes a rabbit (Hazel?) to join his Owsla.

After that comes what is probably my favorite Fall of Efrafa song, “Republic of Heaven.” The powder keg lying under the proletariat of the Owsla society finally detonates as they decide to end the torment that Woundwort keeps inflicting on them. The driving arpeggiated guitar riff is what really makes this song for me (some editions of this album include another track after this one called “The Burial,” originally released as a single about six weeks after Inle).

“Woundwort” tells the story of how the leader of this theocracy finally falls and features Alex’s vocals at their most strained and desperate, especially in the chorus (“Where we lay! We will build! Though we may falter! We will build!”). After a short instrumental interlude called “The Sky Suspended” (named after the chapter in the book where Woundwort is defeated), the trilogy concludes with the seventeen-minute epic “The Warren of Snares,” with the newly-liberated populace reflecting on the battle ahead, both with the remnants of the theocracy trying to salvage their empire and with the much greater threat of the Efrafa, which they know they are not likely to survive.

In addition to being told in reverse order, the story is also cyclical, especially demonstrated by the cello playing at the end of the album echoing the cello in the intro to Owsla. This really helps drive home the trilogy’s themes of how humanity keeps building oppressive empires (Rome, Britain, the United States) and never learning from their past mistakes.

Where Are They Now?

In an interview with the Aristocrazia webzine in May of 2020, Alex revealed that he had ideas for a fourth album, tentatively titled Zorn (Lapine for “destroyed”), telling how the system dies and is then reborn in a sort of Satanic ouroboros situation. By this time, the rest of the band had had enough, however, and, after their final concert in Brighton on December 5, 2009, formally disbanded.

As far as I’m aware, Michael and George haven’t done much of note in the music industry since. Neil Kingsbury and Steve McCusker formed a stoner/sludge band called Blackstorm that lasted from 2007 to 2014, and Kingsbury has performed guest work with several other stoner bands, perhaps most notably Orange Goblin since 2013 as a live guitarist. He also recorded a demo for a project called Charybdis in 2015, in which he played all instruments.

Alex CF has been the busiest out of all of them, having founded several other concept bands in the decade-plus since Fall of Efrafa. He started immediately after with Light Bearer (musically similar to Fall of Efrafa except with more influence from prog rock and ambient music), inspired by Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series of books. Other bands he was involved in include Momentum and Carnist. Encyclopedia Metallum currently lists him as fronting four bands: Pnakotus, Anopheli, Morrow, and Archivist. I’ll admit that I haven’t listened to material from any of these bands (except Light Bearer, but that was a while ago). However, I do find the concepts behind Morrow and Archivist fascinating. The former follows a tribe of humans trying to make their way in a post-apocalyptic world. The latter follows the sole survivor of an ecological disaster on Earth as she ponders what led to humanity’s extinction alongside the artificial intelligence named Construct that controls the spaceship she is traveling on.

In addition to these musical projects, Alex has not only continued his graphic arts career (perhaps most notably with the fictional museum based on fictional cryptozoologist Thomas Merrylin), but he also took the unused concepts from Zorn and repurposed them into his own work of xenobiological mythology, featured in the books The Orata and Seek the Throat from Which We Sing, with another titled Wretched is the Husk on the way.

Personal Thoughts

This band likely influenced my development in my later teenage years almost as much as the novel that inspired them. While I was a pretty firm metalhead at the time, I tended to avoid more extreme subgenres like black metal, death metal, and anything to do with hardcore punk. It all just grated on my ears, and I didn’t have much of a desire to see the messages hidden under all that sonic grime and muck.

Fall of Efrafa definitely changed that for me. Knowing that my favorite novel inspired them helped me to know what I was getting myself into when I first looked up the band on YouTube. And it turned out to be an enriching experience. I remember being annoyed at the Richard Dawkins speeches sampled in the Elil tracks, as I was much more devoutly Christian back then. Nowadays, having grown more aware of the abusive nature of organized religion (as well as hierarchical power structures in general), I find myself much more sympathetic to the general ideas behind them… even if I still think that Richard Dawkins is a pretentious jerk.

Though not so much for the atheism stuff as much as for… other opinions he’s expressed in the past.

As for the band being a gateway to more extreme and experimental forms of music, I ended up checking out a lot of the bands that Fall of Efrafa cited as influences on their sound, like Neurosis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Agalloch. Agalloch especially has become one of my favorite music artists in any genre.

Thanks to Fall of Efrafa, I was also able to stop worrying and form healthy respect for black metal artists like Immortal, Enslaved, and Deathspell Omega; death metal groups like Bolt Thrower, Death, and Arch Enemy; and hardcore punk outfits like Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and Discharge. Although I still tend to prefer power metal over any of these subgenres.

Speaking of which…

Epilogue: Rabbit’s Hill Pt. 1 & 2 by Trick or Treat

Before I end this article, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another rock n’ roll concept album experience inspired by Watership Down. This two-part series comes to us from the city of Modena in northern Italy’s Po Valley, courtesy of power metallers Trick or Treat. Parts One and Two were released in November of 2012 by Valery Records and July of 2016 by Frontiers Records, respectively. Rather than the political allegory approach that Fall of Efrafa took with the source material, Trick or Treat’s adaptation is a simple, straightforward retelling of the book. Part One follows the story from Fiver’s vision of doom at Sandleford to Hazel’s near-death experience at Nuthanger Farm. Part Two tells the rest of the story from that point, centering on the conflict with Efrafa and ending with Hazel surrendering himself to the Black Rabbit of Inle.

Is it any good, though? As someone who is already a power metal convert, I think it’s pretty damn good. The genre is rather prone to being very cheesy, though, and these records are no exception. Indeed, the cheese factor here is pretty high, not the least because of lead singer Alessandro Conti’s performance and songwriting. The guy’s Italian accent is very thick, and it’s clear from reading the lyrics that his grasp of English isn’t all that good, at least at this point in the band’s career. It gets especially hilarious when American vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens, singing as Woundwort on the Part 2 track “They Must Die,” sings the line “They have defeat me, now they must pay” exactly the way Conti wrote it. I don’t know about you guys, but that makes me sic.

If you can look past all that, though, the music here is pretty solid. The instrumentalists are excellent (what else would you expect from a metal band?), the solos on the title track from the first album being a special highlight. Aside from Owens (best known for his stints in Judas Priest, Iced Earth, and Yngwie Malmsteen’s band), the albums have several other notable guest stars from the power metal world, including the late, great Andre Matos (Angra, Viper, Shaman), Davide “Damnagoras” Moras of Elvenking, Sara Squadrani of Ancient Bards, and Tony Kakko of Sonata Arctica.

I might especially recommend this band to the nerdier side of the metal fandom, as the band seems to have an affinity for anime and cartoons. Not only did they release a metal cover of the Disney anthem “Let It Go” as a single in December of 2014, but they also released an album called Re-Animated in 2018, consisting entirely of covers of anime and cartoon theme songs. In addition, their most recent album, The Legend of the XII Saints, was inspired by the anime Saint Seiya, which I have not seen but heard good things about (I think it’s on Netflix).

And that’s all I have to say about the world of rock operas and concept albums inspired by Watership Down. Join me next time when I complete this retrospective with a look at the 2018 Netflix miniseries. Until next time, beautiful watchers!

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