On Watership Down: Green anarchy, eco-hardcore, the Good God and the fall of Efrafa

Fall of Efrafa is an epic crust/hardcore/post rock band from Brighton, England. Lyrically and aesthetically we base our band upon the political and mythological undertones in the book “Watership Down“ by Richard Adams. It is a metaphorical tale about a group of refugee rabbits fleeing from a warren destroyed by man. Throughout the book, the rabbits encounter different political institutions. The final of which is “efrafa“ a fascist warren that oppresses its own people, with particular reference to women as second class citizens. When we formed the band, we took this idea and applied it to our own narrative, the “efrafa“ representing the encroachment of man, and “owsla“ representing the natural world. 

- Interview with Fall of Efrafa in The Plague Years zine.

Most people of a certain generation will be familiar with Richard Adams’ ridiculously popular novel, Watership Down, or more likely the classic animation of the same name that is famous for upsetting as many children as it entertained.

Watership Down is one of the most successful novels written in the English language, never having been out of print, and is Penguin Books bestselling novel of all time. Quite a pedigree, and most definitely sitting in the mainstream – after all, how can it not with such massive popularity? Its general plot and themes are known even more widely due to the film that horrified many a child, what with its eerie atmosphere, visions of blood drenched fields and undercurrent of fascist violence. It has been interpreted as an allegory about the struggle between tyranny and freedom and the corporate state and the individual - though Adams himself maintains it was just based on a story about rabbits he told his daughters. Whatever the author himself may say, the novel has had powerful resonances and it's status as an allegory of the individual against an oppressive fascist state has been taken to some pretty extreme levels, as we shall see.

            What Watership Down contains is a grounds-eye view of the English landscape, mythologised through the invented, yet evocative and powerful, language of the rabbits, Lapine. Phrases such as ‘fu inle’, ‘the owsla’, ‘elil’, and mythological beings ‘El-ahairah’, ‘Frith’ and the Black Rabbit, all seem to contain a profundity beyond what they actually mean – i.e. nothing, really. It’s an animal’s view, of Albion rather than of Britain, and it is something that readers over the years have responded to very strongly indeed.

            Ecological issues and a healthy sense of the natural are themes that permeate many other of Adams’ work, such as his second novel, Shardik, about a giant bear believed by indigenous tribes to be a bodily personification of God, or the almost unbearably sad The Plague Dogs, a tale of animal testing and human cruelty that really enforced the whole animal rights, Eco-conscious nature of his work. 

            Perhaps the greatest example of how some of the ideas of Richard Adams permeated through our culture and into some of the most unlikely areas, is the now defunct hardcore/crust band, Fall of Efrafa. Hailing from Brighton, they released three stunning LPs – Owsla, Elil and Inle – which, you may notice if you’ve been paying attention, are all words and phrases lifted directly from Watership Down. Their very name refers to, yes, the fall of Efrafa, Efrafa being the fascist-like warren founded by General Woundwort, and generally believed to represent the worst excesses of the state, government and the Church.

            Fall of Efrafa were a militantly atheist, pro-vegan band, and I find it utterly fascinating that something so powerful, so visceral, could come directly out of a novel that is viewed by many as mere children’s literature. Tracks such as the twenty minute epic ‘For El Ahraihrah To Cry’, ‘Pity the Weak’ or the stunning ‘Republic of Heaven’ are powerful mixes of Mogwai-esque post-rock, sludgy crust, and hardcore punk in the vein of Discharge. There’s no ‘Bright Eyes’ here.

            How does one of the most popular, dare I say it mainstream, novels become accepted and its ideology taken and run with by the murky world of the underground, DIY punk scene? Perhaps it’s a British thing, the weird attachment they say we have to nature, our pets, to gardening. This is an impulse that even arises in Conservatives, even if they are often the people also responsible for destroying large parts of the very land that they claim to love.

            Personally, I don’t really buy into that idea that it’s something unique to a particular culture’s consciousness, however the effect that Watership Down had was clearly so pervasive – and many British people are very familiar with the story and themes – that it was even adopted by underground movements, extreme in both their outlook and their sound.

            Fall of Efrafa don’t come from nowhere, of course. Even before the punk movement exploded, addressing issues of nature, non-Christian and pagan approaches to the land were a large component of the folk and hippy movements, though presented in a way that was much easier to dismiss or ridicule. Animal rights issues and vegetarianism/veganism became some of the core issues of the anarcho-punk movement in the eighties, with Conflict and Oi Polloi being two of the best examples of this (prime examples would be Conflict’s To a Nation of Animal Lovers EP and Oi Polloi’s In Defence of Our Earth LP). With the late eighties/early nineties came the emergence of the UK hardore scene, often copying the sounds coming out of the USA and Europe, but there was a fascinating offshoot of this that seems to have begun in Scotland, first with the band Sedition (their LP Earthbeat is an rough-but-interesting example of early eco-hardcore), and then with staggering effect, Scatha.

            Scatha, a bunch of crusties from Glasgow, produced two excellent LPs, Respect, Protect, Reconnect and Birth, Life and Death which really pushed the mix of eco-consciousness, raging hardcore, sludgy crust and pagan themes to the fore. They were, in short, awesome.

Moving forward in time, the finest precursor to Fall of Efrafa were the Irish band, The Dagda (an Irish deity, roughly translated as ‘the good god’) and share themes and sound with all the aforementioned bands. Blisteringly intense, everyone should go listen to their LP An Endless Betrayal. Though not if you want cheering up.

So we have Irish and Scottish precursors, with their own wealth of pagan backstories and mythology to draw from, but what I found fascinating about Fall of Efrafa is that not only was an English bands doing this, but also their reference point was not to the well established pre-Christian mythology that still permeates the country, but to, of all things, Watership Down. It’s a powerful example of how literature, should it be influential enough, can seep fully into the collective consciousness, becomes part of the shared story, fit for radical reinterpretation without losing the essence.

Richard Adams is still alive. I often wonder if he was aware of some of the music he inspired, and what he would think of it.