Album: Cryptoriana – The Seductiveness of Decay
Record label: Nuclear Blast
Release Date: 22 September 2017
1. Exquisite Torments Await…
2. Heartbreak and Seance
3. Achingly Beautiful
4. Wester Vespertine
6. Vengeful Spirit
7. You Will Know the Lion by His Claw
8. Death and the Maiden
For those of us of a certain age, it is slightly strange to consider the position that Cradle of Filth now find themselves in. For many years, the symphonic black metal band were held by many in the underground to be an example of all that was wrong with black metal, with songs drowned in keyboards, operatic female vocals and other trite pseudo-gothic tropes. Guesting on TV shows including Big Breakfast and Never Mind the Buzzcocks  demonstrated that the band had absolutely no interest in being kvlt or trve, whilst the increasingly mediocre albums during the first decade of the millenium did them no favours – and nor did covering Cliff Richard (even if King Diamond did provide backing vocals!) . Evidently, this was a band who had come a long, long way from touring with Emperor back in the mid-90s.
So, it was slightly odd to see the levels of praise being heaped on the band for their previous album, Hammer of the Witches. The keyboards and operatic elements were dialled back considerably, and in their place were much more prominent guitars from new members Rich Shaw, and Ashok (formerly of Czech pioneers Root), full of hyper-speed riffs, leads, and solos. It was Cradle’s strongest album since 2000’s Midian, and what’s astonishing about new album Cryptoriana is that it makes Hammer of the Witches seem like just the warm-up before the main event.
The continuity in the band’s line-up (this is the first time Cradle of Filth have recorded two studio albums with the same line-up) surely contributes to this. The songwriting is more consistent and stronger over the course of the album than at any point in the band’s considerable discography, with less of the bloat that weighed down Hammer of the Witches and a sense of purpose and drive that has often been lacking over the past seventeen years. Where beforehand the band may have been content to let the keyboards carry bridges between movements, and the guitars play relatively simple riffs, they now populate such movements with deft, intricate melodies and leads that keep the energy high; and when they do drop back (as around the two minute mark of ‘Wester Vespertine’), the sense of contrast and tension created is superb.
This being Cradle of Filth though, there’s more to the album than aggressive guitars and speed. Each member puts in a superb performance, with drummer Marthus in particular making sure that no one will be pining for the return of mid-90’s drummer Nick Barker – as superb a drummer as he was, Marthus puts in a superlative performance, crushing and powerful where it needs to be, deft and restrained where the song requires. Dani’s vocals make use of high-pitched shrieks well, with greater strength than has been the norm on recent albums, and adapts a deeper growl at points that provides much needed contrast (not to mention intelligible lyrics). More than individual elements though, what matters with a Cradle of Filth record is how well it captures that darkly (nec)romantic atmosphere that they made their own early in their career, and in that sense, Cryptoriana does very well, with ‘Achingly Beautiful’ in particular being full of dark lust. There will be those (myself included) who will miss that naive rawness of their early albums, but it’s made up for by the new elements that the 2017 version of Cradle of Filth have added to their arsenal. They may never write another song that has the same spirit and atmosphere as ‘The Forest Whispers My Name’ or ‘Queen of Winter, Throned’ but what’s on offer here still comes highly recommended, with ‘Heartbreak and Seance’ in particular being an excellent song, though this is one of those rare albums where every song feels like a highlight.
All of which leaves an odd question to be asking in 2017. 25 years on from their first demo, have Cradle of Filth recorded the best album of their career? It’s hard to say, and for those of us who grew up listening to, and have such emotional attachment to, Cradle’s early works, it’s practically an impossible question – I honestly can’t answer if this is stronger than Vempire, my favourite of their early works, but I’m also aware of how important a record that was for my own black metal development. The band have recovered from the fallow period that ran from Damnation and a Day to The Manticore and Other Horrors to somehow become one of, if not the, strongest of the big names in black metal. That’s something I never expected to be ever to say again, and it’s testament to how strong Cryptoriana is that it makes the considerable achievements of Hammer of the Witches pale in comparison.
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