My feelings for Cradle of Filth are all over the place. My first exposure to the band was very early in my metal listening experience, coming in right after Slayer and Slipknot (do not judge my gateway to metal). I listened to Midian first, then Cruelty and finally Dusk and Vempires. Even though I had access to most of their Paul Allender era, I never cared much for the band's ex guitarist's contributions to the band. His best album with them was Midian. Hell, I even awarded their last album one out of five stars right here on this blog. Most of their albums in the last decade had at most one or two listenable songs, and even those couldn't hold a candle to their weakest tracks on their 90s albums.
Cradle Of Filth were once scheduled to perform right here in Singapore, and my friends Shiva and Ananth shared the price of one ticket for me as a birthday present (eh, thanks a lot guys!). I was still reluctant, as Dani Filth's vocals had declined tremendously over time, and the band would most probably stick to their newer songs. Imagine the shock when the gig was cancelled just days before they landed, as the suits at the venue (St. James Power Station) revoked their permission to play. The people who set up the gig could not find a suitable venue. In the end, all we were allowed to do was a small meet and greet with the band. I took a photo with the man who inspired my love for English poetry (I am not even kidding).
It was at this pivotal moment that I was compelled to go back to my roots in metal, to search the band's older songs and listen to them once more with better earphones, and to relive my youth with songs like "Funeral In Carpathia", "Bathory Aria" and "Queen Of Winter, Throned". These songs, are to this day, examples of how cathartic and majestic black metal can be when executed with passion and sharp songwriting. The twin guitar harmonics were glorious, the bass was tight and angular, the vocals were vehement and the lyrics are unrivaled even today.
The good news? Cradle Of Filth have definitely come one step back towards their prime. When guitarist Paul Allender left, Marek Šmerda and Rich Shaw stepped up to fill his position- yes, the twin guitar melodies are back. Together with new bassist Daniel Firth and Linday Schoolcraft, this is the debut for majority of the band as Cradle Of Filth. The drums are more or less serviceable, and Dani sounds a little more invigorated. Again, Dani Filth is Cradle of Filth. He shepherds the band with lyrical themes and songwriting approaches, as revealed by Schoolcraft in the band's behind the scenes video. If you never liked his vocals, you never will. His vocals are the litmus test on whether you will like this band or not.
Onto the album, sound production isn't particularly spectacular. I much prefer the band's spacey, lo-fi approach on their heyday. It isn't especially bad, it's the normal mastering and compression that is applied to most bands today. The songs are around DR6 or DR7, save for the instrumentals. The mix is standard Cradle of Filth, with vocals in the forefront. The balance between guitars, keyboards and synthetic orchestra (there are times where it works and times where it doesn't). Drums are pretty loud on this album.
As for the songs, oh boy. This is without a doubt Cradle's best album in a decade. No, it isn't better than Midian, the album that started their downfall, but it is very comparable. The songs are written in the style of Dusk... And Her Embrace, though not as perfect and with over-compressed production. The album's lowest moments are on tracks "Enshrined Crematoria" and "Blackest Magick In Practice", but even these songs aren't as bad as their last couple of albums. I usually do not bother with the segue instrumental songs like "Walpurgis Eve", "The Monstrous Sabbat (Summoning The Coven)" and "Blooding The Hounds Of Hell". As to why Cradle continues with these pointless instruments, only Dani knows.
The album's 'average' songs are the title track, "The Vampyre At My Side" and "Onward Christian Soldiers". These songs are have numerous enjoyable moments, but are marred by meandering song writing, and could be improved significantly with tighter structure, weeding out unnecessary verses. Dani tends to place his vocals on too many portions of the songs, and should practise a little more restraint.
The remaining songs are fantastic. "Your Immortality" is the first song and shows off the twin guitar harmony to maximum effect. Guitarists Marek Šmerda and Rich Shaw have excellent chemistry with one another. As mentioned, the guitars really hark back to the old days. "Right Wing Of The Garden Triptych" is the first single of the album and shows off the band's excellent use of atmosphere and tight song structures. Schoolcraft contributes a lot to this song, with memorable keyboard melodies and backing vocals that contrast nicely with Dani (though noone can replace Sarah Jezebel Deva). "Deflowering The Maidenhead, Displeasuring The Goddess" is one of the band's strongest tracks in their catalogue, which is really saying something. Tackling the unusual topic of environmental protection, the song shows Cradle in their finest, with great riffs, keyboards and a fantastic bridge. This is the Cradle of Filth I grew up with.
The two bonus songs.... why are they bonus again? "King Of The Woods" is one of my favourite songs off the record, starting off with some psychedelic effects and moving on to its main violin (or synth? Sounds off, but perfect) melody. It's very reminiscent of "Cradle To Enslave" and boasts one of the catchier choruses in the album."Misericord" is definitely a B-side though. Slower paced with sparse interesting moments (is that a sitar somewhere near the end?). This one sounds like one of the better songs off Nymphetamine. These two songs do exhibit some great basslines by Daniel Firth, who is no slouch on his instrument. Shame that the mix doesn't flesh him out as well as his fellow members.
All in all, I am very pleased with this record. This isn't going to replace any of the 90s records, but goddammit am I glad that Cradle of Filth is back from the grave.