It is a long history that attaches to Cradle of Filth, the Suffolk-based heavy metal band that first expelled its fetid sound in 1991. Mired in a heady brew of extreme metal and with a strong gothic element that often evoked the faded grandeur of long abandoned cathedrals, Cradle of Filth have made their way through the intervening decades via a mix of black humour, stunning artwork, deft merchandising moves (even today the Jesus is a c*** t shirt still retains its power to shock) and ten albums of varying quality. While it is easy to argue that Cradle of Filth have yet to release a poor album, the band at their best always aspired to conceptual greatness and the band’s finest works are those that dwelt on one clear central theme – most notably ‘Cruelty and the beast’, ‘Midian’ and ‘Godspeed on the devil’s thunder’.
At the heart of Cradle of Filth, and all too often overlooked, lie the lyrics of Dani Filth, a foul-tongued, outspoken wretch whose literary outpourings form some of the best lyrics yet penned in extreme metal. Dani’s talent to paint an aural picture is second to none and his impressive handling of the gruesome stories of Countess Bathory and Gilles de Rais showcase a fearsome intelligence that has been the backbone of the band since its inception. Musically, meanwhile, Cradle of filth stand alongside only Dimmu Borgir in terms of sheer ambition, the band roping in orchestras (‘Damnation and a day’), cult actors (Ingrid Pit for ‘cruelty and the beast’ and Doug Bradley on numerous ventures) and various fellow musicians in order to daub their vile canvass with ever brighter colours. It is not for nothing that the band managed to roam so far from their Cacophonous roots, even ending up (briefly) on Sony and Roadrunner before returning to the safety of the independents where, for all that the budget may be lower, artistic control is still possible. It’s difficult to imagine anyone being ambivalent about Cradle of Filth, but whether you love or despise the band, it is hard to fault the immense effort and ambition that goes into each and every release the band put their name to.
And so it came to pass, having briefly returned to Peaceville, that Cradle of Filth found themselves signed to Nuclear Blast and poised to release their eleventh studio album, the much anticipated ‘Hammer of the witches’, the first to be recorded with new guitarists Marek Smerda and Richard Shaw as well as new harpist/vocalist Lindsay Schoolcraft. It’s hardly a make or break situation for the band, as Cradle of filth have done a fairly decent job of operating a revolving door policy on musicians since the very beginning of the band, but even so there seems to be a renewed sense of urgency in the music as the album moves from the typically orchestral introduction ‘Walpurgis eve’ to the brutal blackened blast of ‘yours immortally’, an opening gambit that sees the band dealing out the sort of devilish riffing that made ‘Cthulhu dawn’ such a bracingly icy opener to ‘Midian’. Boasting just eleven tracks (with three of those being short segue pieces) there’s a sense that the band reigned in their more extravagant impulses to deliver an album that is as ruthlessly disciplined as albums like ‘nymphetamine’ were overblown. That feeling of a band firing on all cylinders continues on the stunning ‘Enshrined in Crematoria’, a track which not only features Dani delivering a vocal performance that stands as one of his finest, but which also offers up some gloriously fluid soloing over the top of the band’s monumental riffing. The tracks are both lengthy and complex, with most averaging six minutes in length, and the band successfully keep the pace whipped up to a frenzy and the music varied. ‘Deflowering the maidenhead, displeasuring the Goddess’ is a perfect example as the band offer up a mix of awe-inspiring riffs, impressive soloing and a juxtaposition between Dani’s evil snarl and Lindsay’s mellifluous tones. The production is also second to none, Scott Atkins (Gama Bomb, Savage Messiah, Sacred Mother Tongue) imbuing the band with plenty of depth and power, as they throw all manner of sweeping symphonic elements into the churning brew. With the tracks flying by despite their length, the seething ‘blackest magick in practice’ is an unholy maelstrom of blackened riffing, doom-laden passages and carefully woven symphonic textures. It showcases Cradle at their ambitious best and for the long-time fan it’s difficult to supress the thrill of hearing the band continuously hitting such remorseless highs.
The album briefly pauses for the subtle invocation ‘the monstrous sabbat (summoning the coven)’ before the band tear into the title track, a huge juddering juggernaut of a track that highlights the wide range of influences that have always lain at the heart of cradle of filth allowing them to cover both Iron Maiden and Venom without doing irreparable harm to either bands’ songs. The band further flex their creative muscles on ‘’right wing of the garden triptych’ which gives Lindsay a chance to show off her honeyed vocals before the band plunge, howling, into a blackened abyss of scabrous riffs and pummelling percussion. ‘The vampire at my side’, in contrast, opens on a briefly mysterious note, all sombre picked guitar and keyboard washes recalling vintage horror movie soundtracks before the band unleash one last toxic barrage of blackened thrash. The album draws to its conclusion with the seven minute ‘onward Christian soldiers’, a furious maelstrom that consumes all in its path. Even here, however, Cradle are not content to simply put the pedal to the metal and the track moves from passage to brutal passage, offering up a scintillating burst of keyboards one minute and a gut-churning staccato riff the next. It’s a fitting close to an album in which Cradle demonstrate once again why they have carved out a career of such longevity in the extreme metal scene. The album closes with the orchestral ‘blooding the hounds of hell’, an orchestral coda that leaves the listener bemused at the fact that fifty something minutes have passed by in the blink of an eye.
Cradle of Filth albums are only as good as the concepts that power them. Whilst Dani has a knack for picking interesting topics (and certainly none of the cradle albums are dull), the band truly excel when his muse is conceptual in nature rather than episodic. The band’s greatest moments – ‘cruelty and the beast’, ‘Midian’ and ‘godspeed and the devil’s thunder’ – all gained from having a contiguous storyline that negated the possibility of filler, and the same can be said here. ‘Hammer of the witches’ is Cradle of filth at their most brutally concise and the result is an album that plays to the bands considerable strengths. The new members have clearly bought their own elements to the mix and the production is crystal clear throughout. With Cradle on this type of form, you can only imagine how vicious the live shows will be, and ‘hammer of the witches’ easily falls amongst the very best of Cradle of Filth’s output – very highly recommended.