Review Summary: the black goddess rises
For the first time in over a decade, the metal world is looking forward to a new Cradle of Filth album. Anticipation for the band’s eleventh studio effort Hammer of the Witches has been mounting, and for good reason too: with three strong pre-release singles that hearken back to the sound of yore, how could fans not begin to care about Cradle of Filth again? After the over-dramatic Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa and the overwhelmingly dull Manticore and Other Horrors, the future of the group –which had long since been in doubt- seemed irreparably bleak. The balance between grandiose orchestrations and raging extreme metal that had made albums such as Dusk… And Her Embrace and Midian genre cornerstones had all but vanished, instead replaced by gratuitous keyboard flourishes and middling songwriting.
Though a beloved fixture in Cradle of Filth, when longstanding guitarist Paul Allender departed in 2014 it was arguably the greatest thing he’s contributed to the band in years. It’s saddening to blame him for the poor quality of the past few records, but the reality is that his playing since 2008’s Godspeed on the Devil’s Thunder had become completely ineffectual. In the effort cover for his declining skills, the group maximized their orchestrations; to their detriment. Now the music was comically pompous and it still couldn’t compensate for his withering guitar-work.
This is why when the band released first single “Right Wing of the Garden Tripytch” Cradle of Filth fans couldn’t contain themselves. As an introduction to the new lineup, it brought back the duel guitar harmonies of old while retaining the aggression of the group’s latter years; not to mention the sublime gothic atmosphere and cunning dynamic shifts. When the following two tunes “Deflowering the Maidenhead, Displeasuring the Goddess” and “Enshrined in Crematoria” followed suit, what began as excitement grew into hopeful frenzy. And rightfully so: heralding the return to the majestic symphonic black metal of their yesteryears, Hammer of the Witches is Cradle of Filth’s best album in over a decade.
It cannot be understated just how important the new members were in this success. Introducing Richard Shaw and Marek Smerda on guitars and Lindsay Schoolcraft on vocals, keyboards, and violins, the impact of these three has been immense. Returning to a collaborative style of songwriting and immediately immersing themselves in the creative process, the addition of fresh blood has revitalized Cradle of Filth completely. Opening track “Yours Immortally” is all the proof you need; its first few seconds eclipse every moment of the past three albums. As a beautiful marriage of classical symphonics and harmonized guitars, the song begins on spine-tingling note that doesn’t falter throughout its entirety. It’s the kind of track every symphonic black metal band aspires to write, and easily one of Cradle’s greatest musical achievements. Considering their recent history, it’s as unexpected as it is gratifying.
Ushering in a new, guitar-dominated era of the band, Shaw and Merda ensure that Hammer of the Witches is Cradle of Filth’s most aggressive album to date. “Enshrined in Crematoria” relishes in thrash brutality before opening into a stellar trade-off guitar solo, and “The Vampyre At My Side” is brimming with memorable lead breaks. Shaw and Merda certainly have their own style, but one can’t help but notice the occasional nods to the groups past; the Pyres/Antsis days particularly. Reminiscent of Dusk…and Her Embrace’s aural mysticism, “The Blackest Magick in Practice” evokes a palpably gothic atmosphere with its beautiful harmonized leads and battering, but melodic tremolo riffs. In short, the guitar is back where is should be; the forefront.
This isn’t to say the music isn’t balanced though. By allowing Lindsay Schoolcraft’s keyboards to work more in a supporting role, the album has an epic, cinematic backdrop that has been long absent on a Cradle of Filth record. “Deflowering the Maiden, Displeasuring the Goddess” is an excellent example of this: The swirling orchestrations accentuate the black metal onslaught from a distance, and when appropriate, take a more commanding role leaving you to revel in their grandeur. The symphonic elements may not be as prominent here as more recent records, but their restraint makes them more effective.
Used more calculatingly than ever, Dani’s piercing squawk-which has decayed ever so slightly over the years- is saved for only the most appropriate moments. Instead he relies on his devilish mid-range and deathly gutturals for the majority of the record. He has always been the most controversial aspect of Cradle of Filth’s music, but here is work may be just a bit harder to criticize. Acting as more of a team player than ever, his delivery choices in “The Vampire at My Side” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” are examples of excellent vocal/instrument interplay, while the dichotomy of his wails and Lindsay’s croons provide “Ring Wing of the Garden Triptych” and the aforementioned banger “Yours Immortally” with devastatingly catchy hooks.
Undoubtedly effective by the guitar-centric songwriting of the album, Martin Skaroupka’s performance here is the most aggressive he’s committed to Cradle of Filth as of yet. Out of the all the Cradle members of the last decade he’s been the most consistent, yet here he shines even brighter than before. His playing on Hammer of the Witches demonstrates a more blast-beat oriented style that helps the record achieve a more “black metal” feeling. Of course his reliance on frenetic footwork and cymbal use remain, utilizing both in tandem to make the percussion on songs like the title-track explosive and exciting. For a band that has always been fortunate enough to feature outstanding drummers, Martin proves time and again he’s the most impressive of the pack.
It’s hard to not praise each member for their individual performance on this album. Their work together has not only helped Hammer of the Witches completely defy expectations, but put Cradle of Filth back on the extreme metal map. As a band whose lofty ambitions to create gothic hymns in an extreme metal context caused them to descend into pantomime, it’s relieving to seem them once again striking the balance between theatricality and heaviness that made them the world’s most popular symphonic black metal group. Whether or not this is their best incarnation remains to be seen; but if this album is any indication, it very well may be.