Artist: Cradle Of Filth
Album Title: Hammer Of The Witches
Label: Nuclear Blast
Year Of Release: 2015
Let’s get it out in the open immediately – Cradle Of Filth hold an important and cherished place in my heart. They have had their share of both positive and negative press over the course of their twenty year career but in spite of being the darlings of metal one minute and then seemingly the most hated band the next, my admiration has remained steadfast.
And why are Cradle of Filth so important to me? There are two main reasons.
Firstly, they were the first properly extreme metal band that I got into. And when I say I ‘got into’ them, I really mean it. I was in the fan club, I owned every album and I bought a vast proportion of their merchandise. However, whilst the imagery and the notoriety was appealing, it was the music that was most important for me. Tracks like ‘Funeral In Carpathia’ and ‘A Gothic Romance (Red Roses For The Devil’s Whore)’ were awe-inspiring to me as a teenager finding his feet in anything heavier than Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. It was those middle sections of the aforementioned songs that drew me in; initially, I would listen to the extreme sections just to get to the melodic breakdowns, those segments that would stop me in my tracks and give me chills and goosebumps every time without fail. They still do, truth be told. But little by little, I’d appreciate the faster, more extreme elements and come to love them equally as much as the more immediate moments.
Secondly, the band hailed from Suffolk, my home county. In fact band leader, the larger-than-life Dani Filth lived in Ipswich, my home town. He still lives there, about 500 yards from my childhood home as it happens. The idea that a world-renowned band could be based so close to my home was intoxicating as a youngster. As I have aged, I realise that this isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but back then, when the Internet was just starting in earnest, it was a major factor towards their appeal.
Having set the scene, I must now add further context and in so doing, admit to the inconceivable. I have not really wholeheartedly enjoyed a Cradle of Filth album since around 1998. The 1994 debut, ‘The Principle Of Evil Made Flesh’, 1996’s ‘Dusk…And Her Embrace’ and the 1998 release ‘Cruelty And The Beast’, not to mention the 1996 EP ‘Vempire/Dark Faerytales In Phallustein’ are all peerless in my eyes, just about perfect. In fact, ‘Dusk…’ remains one of my all-time favourite records. Since then, the quality has diminished in my opinion. There are songs here and there that appeal but no album has reached the dizzy heights of the holy trinity of full length albums released at the beginning of the band’s career. Until now, that is.
Beset by line-up changes that would rival the comings and goings of some of the worlds’ most famous soap operas, it would appear that, based on this output, Cradle of Filth version 2015 is the strongest in the last decade and a half. With ‘Hammer Of The Witches’, Messrs Dani Filth (vocals), Richard Shaw (guitars), Ashok (guitars), Lindsay Schoolcraft (vocals/keyboards), Daniel Firth (bass) and Martin Skaroupka (drums) have finally rediscovered the magic and recorded an album that returns Cradle Of Filth to the upper echelons of heavy metal once more.
‘Hammer Of The Witches’ opens in classic Cradle of Filth style, with an instrumental, ‘Walpurgis Eve’. It is dark and foreboding but grandly cinematic, setting the tone nicely for what is to follow. First track proper, ‘Yours Eternally’ wastes absolutely no time in grabbing my attention and within seconds that trademark scream of Dani’s that reeks of barely controlled malevolence pierces through the full-on majestic tumult of double pedal drumming, scything dual guitars as well as atmospheric keys and orchestration, which provides that recognisably rich Gothic sheen. The ‘Dusk…’ overtones are there to be heard and enjoyed immediately and the track emphasises, if emphasis was needed that black metal remains at the heart of the Cradle Of Filth sound. It may have taken on new influences and directions over the years but black metal is definitely at the dark core of the band.
‘Enshrined In Crematoria’ follows and opens in a manner that immediately calls to mind the track ‘Nocturnal Supremacy’ before going in a direction that apparently borrows as much from the 1990’s Gothenburg school of melodic death metal as it does from classic black metal. But the most compelling aspect of the track is the simple but wonderfully brutal and groovy riff that is injected at points throughout its length; it is impossible not to nod your head and grin from ear to ear every time it makes an appearance, brilliantly juxtaposing the more technical and fast-paced material that surrounds it.
Next up is a personal favourite, ‘Deflowering the Maidenhead’. It spews forth with an absolute ton of lush orchestration, creating a savage and dynamic listening experience. And then, in true Cradle Of Filth style, a melody hits from almost nowhere that is stunning and beautiful. In a flash, it is gone to be replaced by frenetic guitar solos and relentless drumming. But then it returns, bigger, better and more grandiose than before, opening the door to a galloping closing sequence that calls to mind the best moments of ‘Cruelty And The Beast’ thanks to the strong riffs, the groovy tempo and the subtle cheekiness that pervades.
And then, as if that wasn’t enough, it is immediately backed up by ‘Blackest Magick In Practice’. At the centre of this composition lies the most impossibly catchy guitar-led melody. It reminds me a little of ‘The Bathory Aria’ in terms of its immediacy, hummability (if such a word exists) and its slower tempo. That said, the track soon reveals a grittier, more extreme side that works nicely atop a backdrop of tinkling keys and dark atmospherics before returning to that riff to close out another cracking piece of music.
There is simply no let-up in the quality either as the title track breaks open the harpsichord to compliment more wonderfully wrought staccato riffing and a mass of symphonic and cinematic theatrics that underline the fact that Cradle Of Filth are at their best when they are churning out pompous, grandiose and downright over-the-top music that revels in its own decadence and malevolent extravagance. Elsewhere, the lead ‘single’ ‘Right Wing Of The Garden Triptych’ offers bombast, plenty of melody and heaviness whilst also bringing the male/female vocal jousting to the fore. Lindsay Schoolcraft has a great voice that’s the perfect fit for Cradle Of Filth thanks to a demonstrable flair for the dramatic.
Importantly, ‘Hammer of the Witches’ is no out-and-out homage to the band’s past. Whilst fans of Cradle Of Filth’s early days may well rejoice, this record does not exclude or ignore the grittier and more impenetrably heavy output of more recent albums ‘The Manticore And Other Horrors’ (2012), ‘Darkly, Darkly Venus Aversa’ (2010) and ‘Godspeed On The Devil’s Thunder’ (2008). If anything, it is the mixture of all eras of the band that makes this record the utter triumph that it is.
The intensity and outright enjoyment is, after nearly an hour, finally brought to close by the ‘Twisted Nails Of Faith’-esque mid-tempo ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ which then segues seamlessly into the closing instrumental piece ‘Blooding The Hounds Of Hell’. And with that, ‘Hammer Of The Witches’ is over.
The music itself is then strengthened by the poetic, sinister and occasionally darkly humorous lyrical content that has become a staple of the Cradle Of Filth armoury as well as the first-rate production job. Praise must go to the band and to Scott Atkins of Grindstone Studios, also based in darkest Suffolk, because the entire behemoth of an album has been afforded an impressive and powerful clarity that only enhances the enjoyment of it. Put all this together and we’re inexorably heading towards an overall package that simply cannot be ignored. As I said earlier, this is the most excited and enamoured I have been with Cradle Of Filth since the late nineties and there’s a reason for that; ‘Hammer Of The Witches’ is an exceptional album, one of the band’s very best.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5
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