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Rank + File: My Dying Bride, Part I – A Guest List from Ross Major of Pacific Threnodies Records

There are some bands that, for whatever reason, provoke really strong reactions from listeners – the sort of bands who don’t really have casual fans. People either love them or they hate them, or occasionally even feel both ways at the same time (see: the Cliff-era only Metallica crowd).

Over the course of their nearly 30-year history, Bradford, West Yorkshire’s My Dying Bride has consistently provoked strong reactions from fans and detractors alike. From their death/doom beginnings alongside their ‘Peaceville Three’ compatriots Paradise Lost and Anathema to their pioneering foray into melodramatic gothic doom to…well, whatever you want to call 34.7888%…Complete, their music has inspired devotion, derision, and more than a bit of frustration, even from the most stalwart of fans.

Today is sort of an unofficial My Dying Bride Day here at the Vault, because why not? And with a little help from our friends Ross Major of Pacific Threnodies Records, who contributed the first of two ‘Rank + File’ columns that we’ll be running today, and Sojourner guitarist/pianist/keyboardist Mike Lamb, who compiled an ‘A Beginner’s Guide To…My Dying Bride’ for us that will bring our MDB Day to a close, we’ll be giving you three different looks at their deep and varied discography. For the purposes of today’s columns, we’ve restricted ourselves to My Dying Bride’s twelve studio albums. If we’d considered everything they’ve released, we’d likely need more than one day for these columns.

So without any further ado, here’s Ross Major’s Rank + File: My Dying Bride.

12. 34.7888%…Complete

This damn album.

This album and its place in My Dying Bride’s discography mirror Slayer’s Diabolus in Musica, which was also released in 1998. 1998 was a bad year for these guys. It feels like both My Dying Bride and Slayer, resentful of nü-metal’s burgeoning popularity, considered a begrudging, naïve aping of that sound a good idea to try. Aaron Stainthorpe even boasted of how little work was put into the completion of 34.788%…Complete – a fitting title for how loose and unfinished the entire production comes off (though he also claims the title came from a dream about the ultimate demise of the human species). I can imagine their internal dialogue: “Those guys who play nü-metal are talentless hacks! We’re My Dying Bride, we could do that with our hands tied behind our backs.” This is a terrible attitude with which to try to make any kind of art.

I don’t dislike 34.788%…Complete because of the slamming nü elements, or the mystifying attempts at rapping. Korn’s got plenty to offer that I dig. I dislike it because it’s so smarmy while being so entirely out-of-touch… and because it’s just plain old half-assed. There aren’t any outstanding moments here that challenge, catch the ear, or pluck at the heartstrings. There are a few synth-string-heavy passages that help remind me of the more gothic My Dying Bride sound I love, like near the end of “Base Level Erotica,” but they’re not outstanding, and the remainder feels very directionless.

The guitar tone overall is mid-scooped, weak, and weird. There are a lot of chord voicings among the distorted sections that just don’t sound “metal” at all. Aaron’s vocals are boring – not disconsolate, not operatic, not ferocious, just kind of there…and at their absolute worst on the notorious “Heroin Chic.” I’m still confused about whether a version of this song exists that isn’t censored – I’ve downloaded like three or four different editions of the album and every time it has that static blast over all the naughty words. A dirty sing-rap song about being a hard street kid sung by a middle-aged white man from Yorkshire is just so embarrassing.

34.7888%…Complete is plainly a bad album. There’s no cohesion, and many parts are so bad they’re literally cringy. It belongs at the bottom of anyone’s list if we’re talking about this band.

11. Songs of Darkness, Words of Light

Now that we’ve gotten through the single release that I consider objectively “bad,” we can make it to the real meat of this list. From here on out, a low ranking means very little because it’s all truly My Dying Bride, whom I love.

That being said, this is a very mixed album that falls short of true greatness. Songs of Darkness, Words of Light opens much more aggressively than most of their other late-period albums, with an ominous barrage of martial drum fills and glossolalic death growls. “Wreckage of My Flesh” is by far the best song on this album, and also one of my favorite songs by the band in general. The clean vocal performance is actually phenomenal, with Stainthorpe sounding just as distraught as he ever did. When the church organs start seeping in over the guitar melodies about halfway through the song, I get chills. It’s a wonderful piece that does a fantastic job of balancing its heaviness and depressive beauty.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the rest of the album lives up to this incredibly strong opening. “The Scarlet Garden” features these ambling circular riffs that I find fairly uninteresting, and a couplet rhyme scheme that just feels very sophomoric (“I hope you fall/I hope you call/My filthy name/It makes you crawl”). It improves a bit when the death-doom riffs kick in, but the lyrics and vocals are still distractingly poor. The highlight of the song is the brief creepy mellotron instrumental. “Catherine Blake” is another mixed piece, featuring a “The Light At The End of The World” style storytelling motif and really very pretty instrumentals over the verses, but much less satisfying heavy interludes. “My Wine in Silence” has a wonderful post-rocky, somber atmosphere that unfortunately declines as the song progresses, but “The Prize of Beauty” has this start-stop song structure that downright annoys me. “The Blue Lotus” has this filtered spoken word gimmick that also strikes a bad note with me, leading me to usually skip this song. The closing track, “A Doomed Lover,” trudges along depressedly and eventually gets more interesting with some cool guitar melodies and piano parts, but takes too long to make its statement.

I listen to “Wreckage of My Flesh” on its own over the rest of this album probably at a rate of 10 to 1; it’s the most redeeming track by far and it’s good enough for me to rate this largely mediocre release higher than I would have otherwise.

10. A Map of All Our Failures

I remember A Map of All Our Failures being hailed as a “return to form” of sorts by fans of the band; I also remember being somewhat confused by this as their previous actual album (For Lies I Sire; we’re discounting Evinta completely for the purposes of this article), though preceding this one by a good three years, was really just fine and not a particularly experimental or offbeat record.

My personal feelings and experiences are going to play a lot into these rankings. I think this album ends up low on my list simply because I never really spent that much time with it. That being said, there are a few criticisms I have, mostly having to do with Aaron’s vocals. On the earliest My Dying Bride records we had only death growls; in the early mid-period, we had extremely monotone, nihilistic, repetitive clean vocals that were only in the most technical sense “melodic” – this is the singing style that I like best from him. The vocal melodies in this album actually go places – often covering more than one octave and including at least a dozen different notes. This has a different effect than the 3- or 4- note motifs on albums like Turn Loose The Swans – it’s more of a “song” and less of a disconsolate, bereaved moan of anguish. These melodies are, in fact, great, and there are even certain harmonized parts (the “dancing with the blind girls” line from “The Poorest Waltz”) that are downright catchy; they just don’t carry the same poignancy as the relatively amateurish melodic lines we heard in the earlier days.

The guitar lines though – this album is chock full of those perfect harmonizing and polyphonic melancholic guitar melodies that make me love this band. “Like A Perpetual Funeral” in particular showcases this aspect of MDB’s sound to fantastic effect. The introduction of Shaun Macgowan on violin this time around is also an extremely welcome addition to the album’s sonic pallet.

Ultimately, A Map Of All Our Failures checks many boxes for motifs and styles we expect from My Dying Bride, but without really excelling at any of them. Few moments feel truly memorable. It’s a passable album, but far from my favorite.

9. Feel The Misery

My Dying Bride’s most recent offering suffers from many of the same criticisms I have for their previous release – many songs that match the band’s general sound and aesthetic without really locking in those unforgettable moments. But it does have more of those than A Map of All Our Failures does. The galloping verse riff and plaintive chorus for “And My Father Left Forever” really do leave their mark, and the vocal performances offer better variety, with songs like “A Cold New Curse” exhibiting some very real angst just like the sad old days.

The eponymous track offers some wonderfully lush soundscapes as well, with the keys, harmonizing guitars, and violin interplaying with surprising deftness. This album’s “Sear Me / For My Fallen Angel” ballad, “I Almost Loved You,” however, falls far behind the equivalent songs from the past in terms of atmosphere and poignancy. Just because we have much more realistic-sounding piano and string synth pads now doesn’t mean they’re unequivocally better – this track is altogether too clean, with no foibles or charm, making it ultimately forgettable. Yes, I like this album a lot, and do consider it to be better than A Map Of All Our Failures, but out of such a stellar discography it still trails behind some of the other monumental releases.

8. A Line Of Deathless Kings

As I started writing this list and revisiting various points in My Dying Bride’s discography, I found that there were albums that I never gave enough of a chance, and would preferentially deselect in those times that I was in the mood to listen to the band. A Line Of Deathless Kings is one of those albums. I don’t know why I didn’t care very much for it at first. Maybe it’s just a grower. In any case, I had to bump it up a little bit because damn, it’s actually pretty great, and reminds me of my favorite aspects of Like Gods of the Sun. The album starts fairly strong, with some great dark and heavy riffing, alternate clean and growling vocals, and one really awesome melodic motif (the “chorus” of sorts) – “To Remain Tombless” is an obvious highlight of the album. It’s concise, at just six minutes, while covering a lot of ground in terms of emotion and musical styles.

“L’Amour Detruit” is also beautiful – lovely melodies, fantastic romantic gothic lyrics, all the good stuff. “I Cannot Be Loved” and “And I Walk With Them” strike a really nice balance between their death-doom guitar lines and dramatic clean vocals. “Thy Raven Wings” features our trademark harmonized guitars and string synth pads with a dark Christian lyrical setting. The remainder of the album follows suit and continues down this track – fairly concise songs that never really drag at all, and that balance heaviness with gothic melodies and lyrics in a very satisfying way. The only element that’s missing is that mournful violin.

7. The Light At The End of the World

The album that followed 34.7888%… Complete saw the band do a pretty complete about-face from their failed experiment, and I think they were largely successful in reestablishing their early-period signature sound. The harsh vocals, absent since Turn Loose The Swans, make a triumphant return and are used to excellent effect. “She Is The Dark” is fantastically atmospheric, ebbing and flowing from semi-ambient e-bowed sections to rollickingly heavy death-doom. The keyboard accents work so very well in these heavy sections (and everywhere else). There’s a distinct groovy darkness that I find very, very enjoyable. “Edenbeast,” the next track, does drag a bit. Many sections are great and there are some really cool guitar riffs, but I feel it just doesn’t have enough to it to fill out 11 minutes. Also, the lyrics are utterly baffling, even by Stainthorpe standards. “The Night He Died” follows a too-common chord progression and doesn’t do a lot for me.

“The Light At The End of The World,” though, is an absolutely epic song in the traditional sense of the word – it’s one of these storytelling pieces, about a lone castaway on an island who begs God for just one night with his lost love before being destined for a lifetime of solitude. The music complements this idea of a long, bored, tormented life very well, dragging on and on…I don’t often have the patience to see this song all the way through, but it’s actually quite a rewarding experience when I do. Melancholic and moving, it’s very well done, like a traditional folk ballad set to gothic doom.

“The Fever Sea” is a competent “melodic” death metal track; “Into The Lake Of Ghosts” also captures an affecting melancholic atmosphere. The next two tracks are long and heavy, also dragging a bit in their runtimes, but worth enjoying through to our return to the “Sear Me” series. “Sear Me III” is probably my least favorite among the various installations, but it’s still very good. The melodies aren’t quite as effective as the original or the dark ambient neoclassical reimagining, but it’s a very welcome gothic track to close out a largely metal album.

The Light At The End of the World isn’t perfect, but it is very, very good – it’s just too long, really. Many of the longer songs (with the exception of the title track) could have been significantly pared down and remained just as effective. It’s part of the classic canon for me, and when I have the time and attention span it’s always worth revisiting.

6. For Lies I Sire

“My Body, A Funeral” is a top-tier song and a fantastic opener. Absolutely desolate. Beautiful guitar harmonies, an endearingly simple vocal line, and tasteful violin accents deliver everything I hope to hear when I pick up a My Dying Bride record. “Fall With Me” combines a groovily heavy guitar line with another straightforward vocal melody. Great stuff. “Bring Me Victory” does a great arrogant heavy metal gallop, with the instrumentals kind of making up for the somewhat lackluster vocal performance and making the song very listenable. “Echoes From A Hollow Soul” is built around a moody piano line that sets the tone for an otherwise trudgingly slow and long song fairly nicely. Really sorrowful in a way I particularly enjoy.

This saturnine atmosphere carries through the following track “ShadowHaunt,” which builds from a sparse bass & violin duet to a minor climax. “A Chapter In Loathing” is another highlight track, with a somewhat uncharacteristic blackened death metal heaviness that legitimately surprised me the first time I heard it. The album closes with “Death Triumphant,” a well-balanced (if overlong) gothic metal track.

I’ve always really liked For Lies I Sire, and enjoy it from front to back. We’ve reached that part of the list!

5. Turn Loose The Swans

My Dying Bride’s first really “gothic doom” album is fantastically good at what it does. The neoclassical reimagining of “Sear Me” that opens the album is astonishingly good. The soulful spoken-word narration over the sorrowfully building piano and violin has always had a powerful, moving quality. The way the record is bookended by these pure gothic ambient tracks makes it hard to dislike it – “Black God” is another absolute favorite; a sparse musical setting of an excerpted Scottish poem called “Ah! The Shepherd’s Mournful Fate” that does justice to the bleak tragedy of its source material.

The five metal tracks that form the meat of the album each navigate their heavy and melodic sections with absolute deftness. The production is just right – it’s not too clean, not overladen with fancy effects or filters, and with a pleasant warmth to it. Unlike later albums, the synthesizers use more classic pads and patches rather than a clean symphonic sound, resulting in a much less overproduced and really very agreeable sound. Aaron’s clean vocals are at their best here – nothing too overcomplicated, just very expressive and sad.

It’s kind of surprising that the wonderful tastefulness of this album could be accomplished so early in the band’s career. While there are a few less-harmonic riffs and guitar parts that don’t sit perfectly with me, this album as a whole really excels over much of the more frilly later material. I just wish that they would have experimented more with the gothic neoclassical / ambient stuff in this time period, or made an entire album of that kind of material, as the intro and outro are (weirdly) my favorite parts of Turn Loose The Swans.

4. As The Flower Withers

My Dying Bride’s first full-length record begins with a foreboding symphonic synth intro, something not uncommon among their other early 90’s death metal contemporaries – but as soon as the opening notes of “Sear Me” begin, they immediately begin to differentiate themselves from the old-school death metal herd. A sparse, slow drum beat is first joined by a bass for a round before that wonderful, wonderful melody kicks in. The synthesizer and violin meet the guitars to create a massive, beautiful, darkly baroque polyphonic soundscape that is unforgettable. The transition to the thrashy death metal section, however, is somewhat abrupt, and so is the drop-out to the next doom section.

In general, the arrangements of this album feel somewhat sophomoric in this regard; like a lot of other early death metal, these are more collections of disparate movements and riffs than fully coherently crafted songs. This doesn’t mean it’s bad. This is really great, intense death-doom, with the more symphonic aspects amplifying and emphasizing a darker atmosphere than many of their contemporaries. Many riffs are a bit more dissonant than I usually prefer from this style, but they still rule. This album makes me wish that more 90s death metal bands had played with similar tastefully reserved synth additions – this textural element is a big part of why I prefer Demigod to Entombed.

I tend to choose As The Flower Withers when I’m in the mood for some atmospheric OSDM rather than scratching the gothy My Dying Bride itch. In that respect, it’s difficult to compare it to other records on this list – it’s great, but in a different way. The fact that they created a death metal album this good before zeroing in on their definitive sound really is a testament to My Dying Bride’s general musical competence.

3. The Dreadful Hours

We’re getting to the territory of scary obsession here. I can’t count how many times I’ve listened to these top three MDB albums. Long car trips and commutes, walks through the woods, working assembly lines and optical labs, studying (through both high school and college), or simply falling asleep – these have each played an absolutely massive part of my life since I was a teenager.

The Dreadful Hours gets off to a slow start with the long-form eponymous track – a sparse clean guitar section eventually builds to a surprisingly groovy doom section. This album has the best balance of clean and harsh vocals, and some of the best harsh vocal performances in general. On later records, Aaron’s deeps and screams sound incredibly strained and kind of…wet, in a gross, somewhat off putting way. Not so here, where his barks and growls are emitted with power and expressiveness. When he screams “my fucking god is my want” towards the end of “The Raven and The Rose,” my hair stands on end. Speaking of this song, holy hell does Shaun’s drum performance rule. He accents what could have been an incredibly straightforward 4/4 with swing triplets and various other fills to wonderful effect. I wouldn’t change a single riff in this song, either. Every one does exactly what it’s supposed to, with no awkward transitions or out-of-place disharmonies. And let’s talk about the gorgeous piano motif towards the end – this melody recurs later in the album on “My Hope The Destroyer,” making the whole thing an even more cohesive experience.

“La Figlie Della Tempesta” is another more sprawling, atmospheric track, and “Black Heart Romance” is more of a straightforward doom song, but both accomplish what they’re here for. “A Cruel Taste Of Winter” kicks it back up again – goddamn is this a great melody, wonderfully orchestrated. Absolutely heavy and melancholic at the same time, with perfect string pad accents. And goddamn, is “My Hope, The Destroyer” an absolute masterpiece of a song. That aforementioned romantic idée fixe provides the main thrust of the melody, which propels itself explosively from the intro through tom-pounding verses and back again. And when we get to the climax of the song – “Goodbye my lover – no sorrow, please no tears” – what an exultantly sorrowful moment that is! And the fade-out – man, this song rules, I’m going to listen to it again.

If you make it past “My Hope, The Destroyer,” we get a more mediocre offering in “The Deepest of All Hearts.” This song is just ok. It’s heavy, but the couplet rhyming scheme once again makes the lyrics kind of distractingly poor. Thankfully, this one redeems itself by the end, with the crescendoing synth-heavy, spoken-word breakdown really striking a nail to the heart. Similarly, the closing track is kind of overlong and flat. It’s a decent metal song, but could have been pared down significantly while maintaining the same effect.

In general, the production values are significantly improved over their previous album, The Light At The End of The World, while avoiding the overwrought convolution of Songs of Darkness, Worlds of Light that followed. It’s such a sweet spot in their discography. Like so many of these albums, The Dreadful Hours is imperfect – but the first half of the record shines so brilliantly I can’t stop coming back to it. Balancing heaviness and atmosphere, clean and harsh vocals, disharmony and beauty, all in exacting portions, this one represents the band doing what they do best for me.

2. The Angel and the Dark River

I think it’s going to be difficult to talk about this album. It’s just so very, very good, and I think everybody who’s interested in this style of music in any way knows it.

“The Cry Of Mankind” is an absolute classic that is nothing short of incredible. That looping, fingert-apped guitar motif, that piano line, that completely decimated, tormented, miserably draining vocal performance – it’s perfection. There aren’t enough superlative descriptors that can express how I feel about it. There are few musical expressions of sorrow and darkness that can even come close to this, unless you count the rest of the album. I love how nihilistically exhausted Stainthorpe sounds throughout this record – as I mentioned earlier in the list, this is the standard against which I hold all his other clean vocals.

Whether atmospheric, sparse, or heavy, every moment that follows is just breathtakingly sad and expressive and massive. “Two Winters Only” is another particular highlight and fan favorite, with its tragic lyrical subject matter only deepening the emotion already present in the desolate instrumentals that build to a shockingly beautiful climactic moment. After an epic this moving, the more aggressively metal of “Your Shameful Heaven” feels slightly tacked-on, as if the band was concerned about losing their edge – it’s still a great song, though, and I can’t complain too much about it. If there were any place where harsh vocals may have been appropriate here, it would have been on this closing track. But these are extremely minor criticisms for an album that is, in my opinion, practically perfect in every way.

1. Like Gods Of The Sun

Maybe it’s just that I heard this album first. As a barely-teen scouring the recesses of Kazaa for darkness, somehow I woke up to “For My Fallen Angel” in my downloads folder after leaving the dial-up on all night. I biked across my tiny hometown to the lonely record store (long-since defunct) and bought the CD that same day. There was something that felt so profound and mysterious about this orchestral funeral ballad – the dolorous, dejected spoken word, the lush and beautiful minor key string progressions, the plaintive violin. I had never encountered anything like it in all my young life, and it resonated deeply with my existential fears, depression, and loneliness.

I remember being surprised on the bike ride home with my discman when the opening chords of “Like Gods of the Sun” struck – I had no idea that this would be a metal album. But in spite of this initial apprehension, I was caught in its spell before long. Being brought up as a devout Mormon and struggling with my changing body, this album’s themes of sin, sensuality, guilt, and repressed desires both titillated and intrigued while also hitting home at maximum amplitude. This was one of the few CDs I had that I hid from my parents, and probably the only one that didn’t have the word “fuck” in it. This is the soundtrack to countless nights of existential struggle, to theological wrestling alone in the dark. Even the lovelorn rocker “For You” showed up on my Myspace profile as I pined for some crush or another.

I’ve seen people complain about the over-accessibility of this record, of the relatively simple riffs and repetitive song structures, but I’m thankful for it – it gave me an access point to a whole lot of other music down the line as I explored doom and extreme metal more and more deeply. But this one will always hold an important place deep within me. It helped me through some seriously difficult times, through heavy pubescent confusion, depression, and fear of Hellfire. I identified with it very strongly as a teenager, and still do today.

Like Gods Of The Sun may not offer the finesse or epic progressive nature of some of the other albums, but damn, does it have quite some soul to it. Beautiful, dark, sad, and heavy – just like My Dying Bride should be.

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