Review Summary: There is always the Devil.
Cradle of Filth lost me with Thornography. This is not a unique statement, as I was one of the many fans of England's most prolific extreme metal act to have basically wrung his hands of the band's modern work upon hearing that record. It's not that Thornography was an awful album, far from it, but that it was the ultimate representation of what the band had become upon the commencement of their "major label era" with Damnation and a Day; a mediocre, plodding, not particularly creative or fun anymore slice of extreme gothic metal with the occasional blackened flourishes. The aforementioned Damnation was so milquetoast and uninteresting that it seems the band itself have forgotten its existence, and the followup Nymphetamine, despite being the band's breakthrough into the mainstream and a considerably better record than its predecessor, wasn't particularly compelling either, containing only a few tracks of note and a whole lot of nothing. Thornography, although boasting one of the band's underrated great tracks in "Dirge Inferno", was the final nail in the vampire's coffin, seemingly turning fans away for good, convinced the band would never regain their former glory. While it doesn't totally measure up to the likes of Dusk...and Her Embrace or Midian, Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder is absolutely a return to form for Cradle of Filth, who fused their modern, more streamlined sensibilities with the savage symphonic black metal of yesteryear.
The constant debate concerning Cradle of Filth (aside from "Does this band suck or do they REALLY suck?") is whether or not they can be considered a black metal band. For my money, anyone that denies the obvious black metal foundation of their 90s material and Midian is either ignorant, lying to look cool, or trying to pull the same nonsense revisionism that Metallica's first four records tend to get; "Oh, it's not REALLY thrash metal because The Black Album!". Shove off. I will admit that Cradle of Filth's musical balance between black metal and everything else in their sound, from gothic to traditional to even some thrash metal elements, weighed much more towards the latter side throughout the dark period that was Damnation through Thornography, but on Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder, the band jump back towards the blackened majesty of their 90s material with a force. From the moment the opener "Shat Out of Hell" bursts through with machine gun blast beats and the most evil riffs the band has written in upwards of a decade, it becomes readily apparent that this is not the same band as they were for the five years prior, and that's undoubtedly for the better. It's not an exact throwback to the glory days of Dusk... and Cruelty and the Beast however, with many of the signature elements from that period of the band's history, such as Iron Maiden-esq twin guitar harmonies and constant tempo & meter shifts, mostly missing, in favor of a more streamlined, melodic feel that never really deviates throughout the albums behemoth 71 minute run time. The only real shifts from the pummeling come in the form of the requisite "music video" song "The Death of Love", which could act as something of a sister song to the title track from Nymphetamine, and "Ten Leagues Beneath Contempt", which in all my years of listening to this album is the only one of the 13 songs on here that never held my interest.
One major plus the album has going for it is the balance between guitars and keyboards. Too often a band will sway too far towards pushing one instrument over another, leading to the dilemmas of either the guitars being so prominent that the keys are a non-issue, or the keyboards overpower the guitars to the point of consuming the music, be it through a deliberate musical choice such as Dimmu Borgir's Abrahadabra, or just through a bad mix job like on the successor to Godspeed... in Darkly Darkly Venus Aversa. With Godspeed..., the guitars are definitely the focal point of the record, but the keys and synths still do enough to warrant a prominent place in the album's musical architecture. Never once do they swallow the guitars whole, nor are they rendered impotent through a combination of inactivity and lack of prominence. They shine where they're needed, but are primarily a background element. That is, aside from the incessant, often overly long orchestral intros and outros to the majority of the tracks here. These cadences and codettas are a major contributor to the album's bulky running time, and for the most part none of them are really necessary, which is a shame since they aren't badly composed or anything, just inessential. At least the standalone synth tracks like "Tiffauges" and "In Grandeur and Frankincense Devilment Stirs" are nice to listen to on their own. The one-two punch of "Midnight Shadows Crawl to Darken Counsel With Life" (Long enough title, guys?) and "Darkness Incarnate", while mostly damn good songs in their own right, were probably not the best cuts to place next to each other, especially with songs of considerably shorter length bookending the both of them. The length of the album, while not an experience killer, doesn't really do the album too many favors, especially when the band has made better records that were upwards of 20 minutes shorter than this one. It's not a particularly brisk listen, which is something of a must for a concept record as Godspeed... is, although the songs almost universally stand up on their own merits when heard individually.
When it comes to the individual member performances, one thing nobody can ever fault the band for is that they have some excellent musicians in the fold, and this has not changed one bit here. Having downsized from their typical six-to-seven person lineup to a mere four piece, a first for Cradle of Filth, the band does not sound any less competent with lineup no. 48 as they did back in 1996 with lineup no. 14. The stars of the album are Paul Allender and new recruit Martin Skaroupka, with both delivering a performance for the ages on their respective instruments. Allender's riffs cut with razor precision and accuracy, and the few opportunities he gets to showcase his lead guitar abilities on Godspeed... indicate that he's a very competent soloist as well. Skaroupka, possibly better known by his pseudonym "Marthus", rivals Nicholas Barker's triumphs on the early records with one of the best debut performances you will ever hear from an extreme metal drummer. As good a guitarist as Paul Allender is, Skaroupka is just as excellent on drums, and he hadn't yet descended into the depths of overplaying that plague his performances on The Manticore (and Other Horrors) and, to a far lesser extent, Darkly Darkly Venus Aversa. Dave Pybus is a functional bassist, plucking away to the rhythm guitars as any bass player is want to do, and he even gets a couple moments to shine on his own, just as Robin Graves did on the 90s records. Dani Filth is so remarkably improved from his dreadful performance on Thornography that it really needs to be heard to be believed, for while he doesn't quite reach the level he did on a record like Dusk...and Her Embrace, he doesn't sound like a wheezing cat anymore, and he sounds the best he has in years. His lyrics, as always, are magnificent, which is another area detractors of the band cannot take away from them. I'm particularly fond of "Honey and Sulphur" and "Midnight Shadows..." for my favorite lyrics on the record, both featuring rather interesting wordplay and painting imagery that perfectly shows the dingy, medieval landscapes that Gilles de Rais raped and murdered in. Glorious, I say!
It's fairly crazy to consider that only two years prior to Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder, Cradle of Filth had released the single lamest record in their whole discography with Thornography. As mentioned earlier, that album's progression of the less-than-worth-it extreme gothic metal nonsense of Nymphetamine, only without most of that album's sometimes good songwriting, while not an out and out failure, seemingly shut the door on them ever making a quality record again. Two years and one new drummer later, Cradle of Filth silenced all the naysayers and detractors with the best record they had made since Midian, which itself is second only to Dusk...and Her Embrace for the band's overall crowning achievement. Unique in their modern discography for its seamless blend of riffs and atmosphere, as opposed to the poorly mixed yet still really enjoyable Darkly Darkly Venus Aversa and the riff monster that is The Manticore (and Other Horrors), Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder presents a streamlined version of what made the band's early material so great: extremely aggressive symphonic black metal with overwhelmingly gothic overtones and a heightened sense of melody you just plain don't get from a lot of other black metal bands. It set the band back on the right track for what seems like good this time, and they haven't looked back at the falters and missteps of the previous decade since.