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Anniversaries Band Interviews Features Interviews

25 Years Later, Part I: A Conversation With Aaron Stainthorpe About My Dying Bride’s Turn Loose The Swans

Given the usual sort of bands I write about here at the Vault, people tend to be surprised when they find out what a big fan I am of My Dying Bride. On a certain level, I get it. A bunch of mopey Brits singing maudlin songs with lyrics that read like Gothic poetry? That’s not exactly a recipe for kvltness. Throw in the violin, and you’ve got something either too pretentious or too pretty (or both) for a lot of metal fans.

I fucking love ‘em, though. And I especially love the violin.

I can’t say with absolute certainty that My Dying Bride were the first metal band to use violin, but my guess is that they were the first to make it such a prominent part of their overall sound, starting with 1993’s Turn Loose the Swans, which turns 25 today. Since Swans is both such a landmark album in the development of Gothic doom as a genre, and since virtually every My Dying Bride fan still holds it in such high esteem, we’re giving it the anniversary treatment here today at the Vault. In fact, Turn Loose the Swans is such a significant album in the annals of metal history, we’re making it a two-part celebration.

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In terms of ‘heavy’ music in 1993, the Seattle sound was still king: Nirvana’s In Utero, Pearl Jam’s Vs., and The Melvins’ Houdiniall came out that year, as did The Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. In the world of death metal, Carcass released Heartwork, Death unleashed Individual Thought Patterns, and Morbid Angel sold over 150,000 copies of Coven in the US alone.

And at Academy Studio in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, England, My Dying Bride were preparing to drastically move away from the death/doom sound that they, Paradise Lost, and Anathema, their compatriots in the so-called ‘Peaceville Three,’ were so instrumental in developing. Paradise Lost and Anathema would both end up straying much further from those death/doom roots than My Dying Bride ever has, but back in the early days they definitely had more of an experimental streak. They first incorporated violin into their music on 1991’s Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium EP, and then a bit more prominently on their debut full-length As the Flower Withers. At that point, however, My Dying Bride was still very much a death/doom band, emphasis on the death. Vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe may have been writing his anti-Christian lyrics in the most elegant language possible (and occasionally in Latin), but he delivered them exclusively in his death growl.

By the time the band started working on Turn Loose the Swans, violinist/keyboardist Martin Powell had been promoted from studio musician to full member if the band, and he all but dominates the album. As such, one can only imagine the confusion and/or consternation with which the band’s fans reacted when hearing “Sear Me MCMXCIII,” the opening track on Turn Loose the Swans, for the first time. It opens with a similar motif as “Sear Me” from As the Flower Withers, except it’s played on piano instead of guitar. Shortly thereafter, the same melody line comes in, except on violin. Then Stainthorpe starts to…recite lyrics? And then…sing in that plaintive baritone that longtime fans have come to love so well?

It wasn’t exactly Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, but it has to have garnered more than its share of ‘what the fuck?’ reactions, particularly since there are no guitars, drums, or bass on the song whatsoever. For the more number-inclined among our loyal Vault Hunters, the first distorted guitar isn’t heard until 75 seconds or so into the second song “Your River,” roughly nine minutes into the album. Then on closing track “Black God,” Stainthorpe and Powell do it again, this time with the accompaniment of female vocalist Zena, who sings behind Stainthorpe as he recites the he last eight lines of 18thcentury Scottish poet William Hamilton’s “Ah! The Shepherd’s Mournful Fate.”

The five songs in between started laying the blueprint for what’s become known as gothic doom, a style they would then perfect on their next album, The Angel & the Dark River. The intro sections on “The Snow in My Hand” and “Turn Loose the Swans” feature the sort of melodic interplay between the guitars and violin that would dominate their next album, while “The Songless Bird” opens with the sort of slow, heavy riff that became one of their trademarks. The twelve-plus minute “The Crown of Sympathy,” one of the great epics in the band’s entire discography, and incorporates all of the aforementioned elements and then some into a wonderfully dramatic package.

Since the Internet was in its infancy when Turn Loose the Swans was originally released, contemporaneous reviews of the album are nearly impossible to find, aside from the oft-quoted line from the Rolling Stone that referred to it as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the ears” (whatever the fuck that means) and called Aaron’s vocals “wounded-and-pissed animal groans and growls” (also: no). More recent reviews, however, are almost uniform in haling the album as a classic. In their 2013 review of the album’s 20th anniversary reissue, Sonic Abuse called it “truly music to lose oneself to, and it’s best played when the listener is alone, with only a bottle of the darkest wine and a blazing fire for company, thus allowing the music to fully take hold of the imagination and to lift the listener into MDB’s unique, ebony-clad world.” In an undated 4-star review on AllMusic, Jason Anderson said, “gothic strains and pure depression of the band are in peak form” on the album, and that it “takes sorrow to new extreme.”

Even more recently, when naming it an Album of the Day this past February, The Sound Not the Word called it “an album of infinite sorrow and grace, its sense of drama matched only by the quality of the music contained within. Grandiose to the point of self-parody, it succeeds simply because the songs themselves are so good, and played with such conviction, that to protest about the album’s weaknesses is to miss the point of it completely.” They also summed up the feelings of a lot of My Dying Bride fans when they said “it is the My Dying Bride album I am most likely to turn to; not just for the nostalgia it brings about, but also for the catharsis and simple quality of its metal.”

If you’ve not yet heard Turn Loose the Swans, today is the perfect time to acquaint yourself with this watershed album. Indy Metal Vault is also very proud to be presenting a pair of interviews with members of My Dying Bride’s 1993 lineup, starting with lead vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe.

Indy Metal Vault: First off, thanks for being willing to answer a few questions about Turn Loose the Swans. Given that the album came in out 1993 when the Internet was still essentially in its pre-natal stages, there’s barely anything online from that period of the band’s history. So let me start by asking this: when you entered the studio with Robert Magoolagan to record Turn Loose the Swans, did you have any inkling at all that you were starting work on what would end up being considered a genre-defining album that people would still want to talk about twenty-five years later?

Aaron Stainthorpe: Well, if I’m really going to be honest here, then I certainly expected it to get plenty of respect because we’d worked so hard on it and put everything we could into it’s creation. But it could still have been a flash in the pan and easily forgotten, so I am very happy that people are still talking about it now, a quarter of a century after it’s release.

IMV: Turn Loose the Swans ended up being a pretty significant stylistic shift for My Dying Bride compared to the trio of releases that preceded it: your first full-length As the Flower Withers (1992), and the EPs that bookended it, Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium (1991) and The Thrash of Naked Limbs (1993). While there are still the occasional death metal sections on Swans, on the whole it’s a much slower album with a heavy Gothic influence. It’s also the first album where Martin Powell’s keyboards and violin feel fully integrated into the band’s sound. How much of that shift was by design? Did you start writing the album wanting to do something different, or was that just the way things evolved? How involved were each of the band members in the writing process for Swans?

AS: We knew the ‘crucial’ second album had to be special, so we did all that we could to make that happen. More keys, more violin, cleaner vocals, better lyrics, not to mention we had a bigger budget too, which always helps. We were evolving too, so some of the developments were quite natural and an obvious progression from what we had previously released, but we still made a conscious effort to pull out all the stops. Luckily we had the support of a great record label behind us who just said ‘go for it’ – so we did.

IMV: To follow up on that, “The Sexuality of Bereavement” was written during the Swans sessions, correct? That particular song definitely has more of a Flowers feel to it. Was that the only real Flowers-esque song that was written during those sessions? Was it left off of Swans due to time constraints, since the album is nearly an hour long without it? Or was there another reason? 

AS: Actually, that song was written at the same time as all the Flowers songs, but we couldn’t squeeze it on that record so held it back for Turn Loose. I think it may have undergone a tweak in the studio to bring its sound to something more like all the others on Swans. This is something we had never done before, and since as all the songs we record are normally put on the current LP its a bit of a one-off.

IMV: Perhaps more significant in terms of that stylistic shift is that Swans was the first album where you started using your now-trademark plaintive baritone and incorporating spoken word passages instead of relying exclusively on your death growl. The lyrics also seemed to move away from the mostly anti-Christian themes of As the Flower Withers to incorporate more of the sort of romantic despair I’ve always associated with a poet like Keats. Which came first – the change in lyrical or vocal approach? Did one precipitate the other?

AS: I have always loved poetry and wanted to cram as much as I could get away with into My Dying Bride, and it seems that the sky is the limit. I didn’t want to push too hard, as it may have alienated some fans, but I got a good amount in there and more with each LP after. Poetry is very subjective and not everyone gets it, so you can’t really over do it, but I had things that I wanted to say and I wanted people to read and hear those words, hence the cleaner vocals. What was the point of screaming death metal style over carefully crafted lyrics which no one could actually hear due to the guttural delivery? I needed to start singing, and if singing didn’t work, then spoken word would certainly do the job!

IMV: Is there any sort of story behind the “Sear Me” songs? The original “Sear Me” is on Flowers, Swans opens with “Sear Me MCMXCIII,” and then “Sear Me III” appears on The Light at the End of the World. Also, since “Sear Me MCMXCIII” lacks guitar/bass/drums, it was a pretty bold move to use it as the album’s opening track. With the similarly structured “Black God” closing the album, though, they work well together as a sort of framing device. Did you use it as the first song in order to bookend the album that way, or was there some other reason?

AS: The main theme for the trilogy was the music rather than the lyrics, so no point anyone searching through the words for a connection because it‘s all in the ear. I think we just had a great hook so returned to it twice to create a nice trio of pieces. Putting it right at the start of the album was of course a conscious decision and a bold one too, as it’s not what is normally done and it could easily have back-fired as a lot of folk listen to the first song first to get the gist of the band/music, and if they hate that first one then it’s goodnight to the whole record. But we wanted to make a statement, and that was it. We ended with the very lovely “Black God” as that just seemed to wind the LP down nicely – sort of a natural ending coming sweet and soft as we faded away after a deep and sincere journey.

IMV:I know it’s been 25 years, but is there anything in particular that sticks out in your mind from the writing or recording of Turn Loose the Swans? Are there any good stories from around that time?

AS: There was a rumor that Academy Studio was haunted, so whenever I went down into the darkened vocal room (a floor below the engineering room), where nobody could see me, I often got goose-bumps and couldn’t help thinking there might just be a spirit in here with me, so the whole recording experience for me was quite edgy. I’m not a believer in ghosts, but I thought about it back then. And one night, Martin and myself had to stay over and sleep there, which was a restless night full of odd noises. I guess they were just the gear cooling down from a hard days work, but it wasn’t a pleasant night at all.

IMV: Turn Loose the Swans is considered a classic at this point, and many MDB fans still consider it to be one of the band’s finest hours. Was the reception as warm when it came out in ’93? I’d be shocked if it wasn’t met with at least some degree of confusion.

AS: I think you’re right on the confusion thing, but as we were peddling ourselves as an ‘artistic/avant-garde’ band, we got away with it. And that’s not actually meant to be amusing – we liked to think that we were doing things differently and throwing the rulebook out and pushing for a new chapter in music, going boldly into new territories marrying death/gothic/doom metal and giving birth to a new movement.

IMV: Much like with Paradise Lost’s Gothic, I have never been able to figure out what that is on the cover of Turn Loose the Swans. If I’m not mistaken, you did the cover art. What is that photo? Some sort of statue covered in wax drippings? 

AS: Now, if we were not pretentious enough with the lyrics and music, then we certainly were with the art. Turn Loose The Swan shad three covers! One each for cassette, vinyl and CD – again, pushing the barriers of normal back then. Unsurprisingly, the vinyl featured a rough but simple outline, white against black, of a swan. The cassette featured the head of a statue of the Virgin Mary, with wax dripping over it and nails below in fiery colours (it was later rereleased with the same cover as the CD). The CD had the body of the same statue but in very cold colours and is a negative of the original photo I took, adding a further twist to the art-play. All the band photo’s inside were also done by myself and featured images of each band member projected onto naked parts of their bodies, thus giving two images of the same person in one photo. Yes, quite pretentious!

IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. If you don’t mind, I’d like to close by fast-forwarding to the current incarnation of the band, which I think is making some of the best music of your lengthy careers – in fact, A Map of All Our Failures is probably my favorite album in MDB’s discography. I saw the recent post about the reason for the band’s hiatus—and I cannot imagine how difficult that must have been, or how relieved you (and the rest of the band) must be that your daughter is now in remission—and that work on album thirteen is well underway. Any indication yet of what fans might be able to expect from it?

AS: My daughter is getting better with each day, thank you. It has been tough to say the least, but let’s hope we never go on another dark journey like that ever again! Much of the work for the new LP is done, but needs recording. The drums are actually being laid down as we speak (it is the start of October 2018 now) and much of the guitar work will follow in the next few weeks. My contribution has been zero so far as I have only focused on my little girl, but I hope to find my way back into the writing fold soon. The material here is the strongest you will have ever heard from us, so we are all very excited about it. I’m guessing it will be out late 2019 but I’m not sure. But it will be massive!

Cheers,

Aaron

 

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