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Twenty Years Later: Cradle of Filth – Cruelty and the Beast

I remember picking up an issue of Metal Maniacs and seeing an article about Cradle of Filth, but I couldn’t wrap my head around how they presented themselves. I don’t even think I read the article, I just couldn’t imagine what these guys sounded like based on what the fuck they were wearing. I was coming from a mainly ‘grunge’ background, so it was sort of a culture shock. After finally finding a way to listen to these guys, I couldn’t wrap my head around the music paired with the vocals. But I kept listening, over and over. At one point, it was pretty much all I listened to. Cruelty and Dusk… and Her Embrace were my stepping stones into ‘extreme’ metal. Cruelty has a special magic to it though, and of all the bands that play whatever style of metal this is, it’s one of the only albums to really capture the concepts accurately using the music. It feels like a cheesy, wonderful 90s vampire flick. I don’t even care about the horrific drum sound, because the imperfection added a unique character. Amazing, catchy riffs, insanely well written lyrics, and Nicholas Barker’s drum performance was just as musical as the guitar riffs. It’s a masterclass in theatrical songwriting. – Alex Poole (Krieg, Chaos Moon. Skaphé, Mystískaos)

How you feel about long-running British symphonic black/goth metal band Cradle of Filth depends largely on what point during their 25-plus year career you heard them first. I’d wager most of our readers became aware of them in the mid-2000s, when their popularity peaked in America thanks in part to appearances on MTV’s Viva La Bam and the Resident Evil: Apocalypse soundtrack. However, by 2004’s Nymphetamine, still their biggest-selling album in the US, and its much weaker 2006 follow-up Thornography, Dani Filth and co. had already started drifting away from their black metal roots. As has been something of a pattern with the band, though, 2008’s Godspeed on the Devil’s Thunder was a blistering return to form that seemed to indicate the band had regained their footing.

Younger readers only familiar with 2010’s Darkly, Darkly Venus Aversa and after likely don’t understand how anyone could claim that Cradle of Filth was in any way influential in the development of black metal outside of Scandinavia. Sorry to break it to you, kids – you discovered Cradle of Filth at the wrong time. Most of this decade has seen the band in a steady decline as they’ve grappled with what seems like a prolonged identity crisis. To be fair, though, 2017’s Cryptoriana – The Seductiveness of Decay does feel like a return to form, but it’s not like fans haven’t said that before (like in the previous paragraph). It’s also pretty telling that the setlist for their current Cryptoriana World Tour leans very heavily (like 75%) on material from Nymphetamineor earlier.

Ask anyone familiar with the band’s entire oeuvre (read: old-timers like me), and we’ll tell you that the band’s best years creatively were their earliest. Their sophomore outing, 1996’s Dusk…and Her Embrace, is considered a classic of the genre for the way the band combined their very British gothic sensibilities with the sound of the Norwegian Second Wave. Their true creative peak, however, came in with the release of their third album Cruelty and the Beast. Not only has it long been my favorite installment in their discography, it’s the first album where the Cradle of Filth sound really seemed to coalesce. It also turned twenty on May 5, so this seems like the perfect time to give it the retrospective treatment.

*****

Cradle of Filth’s Cruelty and the Beast was one of the first full-length black metal albums that I listened to. My only exposure to black metal prior to that was songs here and there on tape compilation that never really caught my ear, not counting bands such as Bathory, Mercyful Fate, and Celtic Frost. A friend of mine brought two CDs over to a punk house that we all used to hang out at, the other album being Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. Both albums were the first time music allowed me to picture the setting visually. These were my gateway albums that caused a great hunger to consume as much of the genre as possible. I quit listening to Cradle of Filth’s albums after Midian, that was the last album that I was into at the end. Not sure if it was that I was being exposed to other black metal bands that had a certain sound that I wanted to collect, or just too much over the top with the vampire cheese. In the black metal community it seems like this band is put in the category of hated, guilty pleasure, or closeted taboo, but I am glad that I was exposed to this album. – Ravnblod (Black Vice, Ninhursag, Smother)

In order to truly appreciate the significance of early Cradle of Filth, it helps to understand how unique a place they occupied in the wider black metal world at the time:

For starters, not only were Cradle of Filth the first significant Second Wave black metal band to form in England, they were also based in rural Suffolk instead of London. As a result, they were very much separate from pretty much everything that was going on in Scandinavia at the time. As Dani Filth told Decibel magazine’s Justin Norton in 2014, “As soon as the second wave of black metal came we were the only people in this country to embrace it. We were always shirked by the Norwegian contingency […] Most of the band members grew up in little villages that were like satellites around larger towns. Whenever we’ve recorded we’ve always been happier in out of the way places. Nothing has ever had the same atmosphere as being locked in the countryside somewhere concentrating on your art. We thrived on isolation.” Filth credited that isolation for at least part of the band’s overall sound, telling Frank Ferro of Ferro Metal in an interview for Barney Simon’s Radio 5 program in 1998 (also reprinted in South African fanzine Dark Ages), “I think without the tranquil nature, the isolation that living in the countryside affords us, I don’t think we’d probably come up with the same atmosphere had we lived in the city.” With no ‘scene’ around them like The Black Circle in Norway, Cradle of Filth were free to develop their sound and image in any way they saw fit.

Secondly, Cradle of Filth were never really a ‘satanic’ band. Instead, they drew influence from much more classically British sources for their lyrics and aesthetic. When Ferro asked him about his lyrical themes in ‘98, Filth replied “I was brought up on nineteenth century literature, people like Byron, Polidori and Shelley, right through to things like Nietzsche and Crowley […] we have always been big fans of Hammer House of Horror stuff.” Filth expanded on that in an interview with Emperor Rhombus for MetalSucks in 2013. When asked about the role that gothic horror plays in Cradle of Filth’s music, he explained “I find that generation of gothic traditions, aesthetics, and literature quintessential […] We started in a village steeped in old witchcraft traditions. Matthew Hopkins, the witch hunter from Vincent Price’s Witchfinder General, used to live near there. A lot of that Hammer Horror-style, very British horror, is what Cradle of Filth have come to represent. The imagery of gothic culture, combined with metal theatrics and a cinematic kind of feel.” That influence shows itself in several ways: the gothic theatricality of their visual aesthetic and live performances, their subject matter, and the ornate, highly poetic nature of Filth’s lyrics. Those last two elements are especially prevalent on Cruelty and the Beast.

Finally, Cradle of Filth never bought into the whole lo-fi thing, either. As he told Bryan Reesman in an interview the Observer about the 20thanniversary of Dusk…and Her Embrace in 2016, the band’s ambitions were always a bit grander than that: “When anybody thinks about starting a band, they don’t picture themselves playing in front of two people […] In their heads, they’re going, ‘I’m here on a big stage.’ We thought about the ways to go there.” To that end, they were thrilled with former Thin Lizzy producer Kit Woolven’s work behind the boards on that album. Filth commented, “He gave us a soundtrack quality […] A really lush, really produced sound, for which we’re eternally grateful because it was a turning point in our career. We took a U-turn, as it were.”

*****

As a kid in his early teens discovering metal of the more ‘extreme’ and underground variety in the late 90’s, the name Cradle of Filth was fairly ubiquitous. You couldn’t open up a metal magazine or a t-shirt catalog without seeing their name. I went on a limb, and picked up Cruelty and the Beast at the mall out of curiosity. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t expecting this. I had already been familiar with all the American death metal bands everyone knew like Cannibal, Death, Morbid Angel, Suffocation, etc. So naturally, I knew everything, lol. The vocals really threw me off. I didn’t like them at first, but I eventually grew to appreciate it. I had an idea there would be keyboards, but I didn’t think it would enhance the material like it did. The poetic lyrics about Bathory were comical to me at first, but I later found them to be equally as important as the music. This was actually the first ‘extreme’ album I heard that put such a heavy emphasis on melody, but it never came across as soft or wimpy. I don’t know if I can properly explain the appeal to this band aside from you had to be there at that point in time at a certain age. I’ll argue with anyone about the first few Cradle records being excellent metal though. – Kyle Shaw (Obscene)

It’s somewhat ironic, therefore, that one of the only real knocks against Cruelty and the Beast is the production. Even certain members of the band hated it at the time. In a thread about a possible 10thanniversary remastered edition of the album on the Cradle of Filth forums, Sarah Jezebal Deva, who sang backup with the band from 1996-2008, commented:

I remember when I first heard it, Dani played it, I walked out with tears in my eyes, I had spent 25hrs working in the studio on that album and it sounded like I had my head in a toilet and most of my vocals you couldn’t hear. I walked out of Dani’s really angry, bumped into Nick [Barker, CoF’s drummer from 1993-99] and he said ‘You heard the album then’, I said ‘yeah, its fucking bullshit’ he replied ‘I know’. So yeah, most of us felt the album was ruined. The songs are amazing but the mix was an outrage in some of our eyes.

Deva has a point – quite a few reviews of the album have leveled a similar criticism. Pedro Azvedo gave the album an 8/10 on Chronicles of Chaos shortly after its release, but was critical of the mix in his review, saying “the drum sound is of strangely poor quality, tending to hurt the album. The cleaner guitar sound also sometimes becomes very thin when the keyboards are silent.” In a more recent 8/10 review for DemonsZone that calls it “one of the ’90s most enjoyable and worst produced metal records,” Steven Lornie lamented, “There is absolutely no bass on this record meaning that the rhythm section sounds as flat as Madonna without auto tuning. Sadly the sound undermines the fantastic performances put on by Nicholas Barker, Robin Graves and even the backing vocalist Sarah Jezebel Deva, who has been completely drowned out.” German website Metal.de had the same complaint in another 8/10 review: “The sound is unbalanced, the drums sound sterile and lifeless.”

Production elements aside, most longtime Cradle of Filth fans would agree that Cruelty and the Beast is an absolute masterpiece. The band’s first concept album, it focuses on the life of the notorious “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory. When David Lee asked him why he went with that theme in a 1999 interview with Metal Rules!!, Filth replied:

On previous records we have alluded to her in certain contexts but it just seemed the right time to do something full blown. It seemed a perfect opportunity to incorporate not only the myth behind her but the reality and give it a CRADLE OF FILTH texture, to turn it into a dark fairy tale. I have been interested in her for a long while. When I was coming up with ideas for the new record we just started to write stuff for it and had a couple of songs done and I thought ‘How am I going to dress this up a bit?’ I had just finished reading, yet another, book on Elizabeth Bathory and I have pictures of her all through my house and it was like I couldn’t see the wood through the trees.

Instead of making it a full-blown narrative, however, the album plays more like a series of vignettes that flow together to comprise a larger narrative. In the same interview with David Lee, Filth also admitted that they took a few liberties with the Countess’s story as well, admitting “We kind of played upon the concept of Elizabeth Bathory, at times, and manipulated it because we wanted to make it our own. We didn’t want to regurgitate what other writers or musicians may have touched upon.”

The band’s lineup for Cruelty and the Beast was quite similar to the one that recorded Dusk…and Her Embrace: Dani Filth (the lone constant member of the band, who adopted the ‘Filth’ surname for the first time on this album) on vocals, Stuart Anstis and Gian Pyres on guitars, Robin Graves on bass, Nicholas Barker on drums, and Sarah Jezebel Deva and frequent guest Danielle Cneajna Cottington on backing vocals. The lineup was rounded out by Lecter—aka longtime Anathema member Les Smith, who famously quipped that Cradle of Filth is essentially a Dani Filth solo project that should be called ‘Dani and the Filths’ after his departure from the band—on keyboards. They were also joined by actress Ingrid Pitt, who reprised her Elizabeth Bathory-inspired role from the 1971 Hammer Horror film Countess Dracula to provide narration on “The Twisted Nails of Faith” and “Bathory Aria III: Eyes That Witnessed Madness.” Cruelty was the last full-length for several of those members: Barker left the band before the recording of 1999’s From the Cradle to Enslave EP, and Anstis and Lecter would both be gone by the time the band hit the studio for 2000’s Midian.

From a musical perspective, Cruelty and the Beast continued to build on the ‘Norwegian second wave with Gothic flourishes’ sound that the band had been slowly perfecting since their 1994 debut The Principle of Evil Made Flesh. This time around, however, there were several key differences. For starters, Cruelty and the Beast was the second album that this particular lineup (sans Lecter) produced together, and as such they sound much tighter and confident overall. As a result, it feels like they take a lot more risks in their songwriting on Cruelty and the Beast, and they pretty much all pay off. In addition to the usual second wave and gothic elements, Cruelty and the Beast also displayed clear Mercyful Fate and Iron Maiden influences. The twin guitar harmonies that pop up throughout the album—most notably during the album’s first proper track, “Thirteen Autumns and a Widow”—feel completely natural alongside the more aggressive elements, as do the more obviously Viking-period Bathory influences that pop up throughout the album. Dani Filth’s vocal style continued to evolve further away from the one-dimensional shrieks of The Principle of Evil Made Fleshinto something closer to a black metal version of King Diamond: growls, shrieks, whispers, the occasional cleans, and that ungodly high note in “Beneath the Howling Stars.”

Only one of the non-instrumental tracks on Cruelty and the Beast (“Desire in Violent Overture”) doesn’t approach or break the seven-minute mark, and those that do are filled with enough twists and turns that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a labyrinth with a minotaur waiting at the end. The majority of the songs are violent overtures, packed with stylistic juxtapositions that wouldn’t work in the hands of any other band. The most obvious example of this is the 11+ minute “Bathory Aria.” The crown jewel of Cruelty and the Beast, the song gives a knowing nod towards virtually every single influence that went into the band’s sound up to that point – instead of sounding either derivative or like a complete fucking mess, though, the track stands as one of the most essential in the Cradle of Filth discography. It’s also one of the few instances where the band’s ambitions and songwritig fell in line.

Lyrically, the album sees Dani Filth delve even deeper into the 19thcentury Byron/Shelley poetic style he worked in on Dusk…and Her Embrace. Never one to shy away from the flowery or ornate, he turns in arguably the finest set of lyrics in the entire Cradle of Filth discography. Needlessly difficult? Perhaps. Characterized by nonstandard syntax and somewhat antiquated vocabulary? Definitely. Possessed of a musicality that’s rare in black metal lyrics? Absolutely. A few of my favorite examples:

from “Thirteen Autumns and a Widow”

Mandragora like virgins to rats in the wall,
But after whipangels licked prisoners, thralled.
Never were Her dreams so maniacally cruel,
and possessed of such delights!

from “Cruelty Brought Thee Orchids”

Midnightmare chimed thirteen in her mind.
A disciple of scars, branded years hissed behind.
Ridden split-thighed by the father of lies.
An ovation of wolves, blushed the skies as they writhed.

from “The Twisted Nails of Faith”

As shadows swelled the Countess fell,
to masturbating with her dagger as the witch gabbled spells.
Cumming heavy roses all the way to Hell,
as sudden thunder’s grue harangue announced two pincered worlds.

from “Lustmord and Wargasm (The Lick of Carnivorous Winds)”

An archangel in bondage, bediademed and souled.
With a murder of ravens, but no less Astarte to behold.
Abandoned by heaven to the dead, dark and past.
Cast her dispersions on life’s brittle glass.

And though her eyes still held fire as stonewalls caged the beast,
against the lassitudes of Death, she fought but fell to greet.
And midst lies in collusion she was martyred to teach,
that divinity and lust are forever forbidden to meet.

The cover of the 2001 Koch records reissue

The cover image for Cruelty and the Beast deserves mention as well, as it’s not only the most iconic in the band’s discography, but also one of the most striking in all of extreme metal. Taken by photographer Stu Williamson, it features Louisa Morando, one of the band’s former live dancers, in the guise of the Countess, sitting (seemingly) naked in a steampunk-esque bathtub filled with blood. As Dani Filth told Sony Legacy in 2016, though, that picture almost never happened. After complementing Williamson’s style for being “very eclectic […] almost biblical,” Filth related this story:

Having finished the solo pictures and a full band photoshoot at an old Medieval manor, Stu was left alone with his own devices to encapsulate the essence of the album […] he did a fantastic job with his interpretation, but when I spoke to him on the telephone shortly after the shoot, I asked him how the bloodbath shot had turned out.

Rather embarrassingly he admitted that he had forgotten to photograph said scene (despite it being the most obvious affiliation with Lady Bathory) and so he had to recall Louisa from the train back to London to hastily shoot the image before deadline.

*****

Even Kanye loves CoF

Fans and newcomers to Cradle of Filth alike can look forward to the 20thanniversary edition of Cruelty and the Beast, which is due at some point later this year. Boasting a long overdue remixby Dani Filth and longtimeproducer Scott Atkins, we may finally be able to hear the album with the production it’s always deserved. When talking to James Davenport of Punktastic in 2016, Dani explained:

It’s going to be great because it’s an amazing album, but the drum sound sucked and everything had to be built on top of that! […] We haven’t stripped it bare to just the audio files, it’s still got all the atmosphere but we’ve just started with the drums and worked our way up. It just sounds phenomenally bigger and better. It’s like labouring down a bridge, you can’t put too much weight on it. We’re bolstering it up and we’ve already done a couple of mixes which sound fantastic.

The fact that there’s still enough interest in Cruelty and the Beast twenty years later to warrant a remixed edition is a testament to its strength. That enduring appeal lies in the fact that it was the first—and, arguably, the only—time they managed to successfully sustain the sound for which they’ve become known for the length of an entire album. Most of their post-Cruelty catalogue is uneven at best, with only the occasional flashes of brilliance and a lot of near misses. Even so, their overall discography is still much stronger than most people would give them credit for, and Cruelty and the Beast is the perfect gateway into Cradle of Filth’s blackened gothic grandeur.

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