Half-Life – Cradle of Filth, Part 1

Cradle of Filth have become one of the most recognisable and quickly dismissed names in extreme metal. Yet, although the band are widely regarded as populist, entry level rendition of the black metal formula, a closer look at their extensive catalogue reveals a far more innovative and surprisingly consistent act than their reputation suggests. Since their discography is so extensive—the band have released eleven full-length studio efforts to date, with one in the pipeline as we speak, and numerous and often notable tidbits here and there—this survey has been broken up into two sections. This first offering examines what many would consider to be the band’s classic period: moving through their early, formative years, up until their commercial breakthrough and (only) major label release in 2003; while part two will pick up from 2004’s Nymphetamine and carry through to the present day.

Dark Days: 1994–1998

The Principle Of Evil Made Flesh (1994)

Although it’s common practice for many tr[u]er black metal fans to look down their nose at the band these days, Cradle of Filth were as much a part of the second wave of black metal as anyone else. The Principle of Evil Made Flesh dropped a week after Darkthrone’s Transylvanian Hunger and it predated both Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and Emperor’s In The Nightside Eclipse by a matter of months. They were one of the first black metal bands, along with Emperor, to use keyboards and their stage shows around the time were the cliched black metal fare of pigs heads and pentagrams.

The Principle of Evil Made Flesh is unabashedly raw, and a far cry from the polished, pristine affairs Cradle of Filth have become known for. However, the added symphonics and gothic atmosphere of the record bring an added sense of atmosphere and class to the black metal template, which set them apart from the volatile Scandinavian movement, and they arguably utilised the genre’s trademark, raw production to greater and more deliberate effect on this record than any of their counterparts had at the time or have done since.

As much as they may have been forerunners of black metal’s second wave they were also always something else—something more—right from the get go. Principle’s gothic atmosphere points toward something altogether more fantastic and theatrical than mere, sublime, Satan worship. Its cover gives a clear nod to Type O Negative’s Bloody Kisses (1993) and Darren White, then-vocalist of the then-budding Anathema provides the spoken word sections on “A Dream of Wolves in the Snow.” Despite its rough production and underdeveloped aesthetic, The Principle of Evil Made Flesh has held up far better than many genre releases of the era, and remains one of Cradle of Filth’s best records more than twenty years since its release.

V Empire, or Dark Faerytales in Phallustein (1995)

This hurried and awkwardly titled EP was recorded and released in order to get out of the band’s then-contract with Cacophonous records. Nevertheless, while it remains perhaps the least-essential of Cradle of Filth’s major output—and certainly of this period—it has become a somewhat of a cult entry in their discography. “Nocturnal Supremacy” and “Queen of Winter, Throned” remain classic Cradle tracks to this day and the re-recorded version of “The Forest Whispers My Name” hinted at the more expansive and generally extreme-metal oriented direction they would take in future.

This release also marks the debut of definitive Filth guitarist Stuart Anstis, following the departure of both the band’s guitarists and keyboard player after the release of their debut, as well as that of long-time collaborator Sarah Jezebel Deva whose operatic crooning would become a trademark of their sound throughout their golden years. As far as throwaway releases go, Cradle of Filth could do, and have done, a lot worse than V Empire, and it remains an intriguing, if inessential entry in the band’s extensive catalogue.

Dusk… And Her Embrace (1996)

What can be perhaps considered as the definitive Cradle of Filth record, Dusk …And Her Embrace saw Suffolk sex/septet become the becoming the band we know and think of them as being. With this record came a greater emphasis on Dani’s trademark shriek; as well as expanded, thematic songwriting, more-prevalent gothic overtones, and some of the band’s strongest and most distinctive material to date.

Along with expanded songwriting came expanded track-lengths. Yet Dusk never feels boated and flows naturally from start to finish. The songs are more often atmospheric than abrasive and there’s a general sense of forlornness invoked in its frozen soundscapes. The album’s most extreme moments are often balanced alongside its most beautiful (see: “Funeral in Carpathia”) and, although not a fully-blown concept record, the songwriting—both lyrically and musically—took a distinctly narrative turn. Though essentially window dressing, Deva and Danielle Cottington’s soaring sopranos and spoken interludes often prove the primary driving force behind the record, with Venom’s Cronos stepping in on the album’s final track, “Haunted Shores,” to similarly celebrate and farewell much of the band’s traditional black metal heritage.

Cruelty And The Beast (1998)

Cruelty And The Beast took the template of Dusk… And Her Embrace and pushed it to more-ambitious and more extreme levels. Paradoxically, it remains one of the most inviting, as well as one of the most challenging, entries in Cradle Of Filth’s catalogue, and one which is hard to fault. The album is, of course, a concept record, based around the life and times of Hungarian countess, and infamous serial killer, Elizabeth Bathory (Báthory Erzsébet) who is said to have bathed in the blood of her victims in order to retain her youth. Bathory’s narrated sections are provided by Ingrid Pitt, who portrayed her in the 1971 Hammer Horror film Countess Dracula.

Tracks like “Cruelty Brought Thee Orchids,” “Beneath The Howling Stars” and “The Twisted Nails Of Faith” stand among the band’s best and, of Cradle of Filth’s many concept records to come, Cruelty arguably stands as their most accomplished. If there’s s fault to be found, it lies in the record’s top-heavy mix, which can be off-putting at first. However, much like The Principle of Evil Made Flesh Before it, this idiosyncratic production lends the record its own distinctive character, and any mixing imbalance is easily overcome with decent equalisation.

Cruelty And The Beast is a landmark release, both in Cradle of Filth’s history, and that of extreme metal in general, and is arguably the band’s crowning achievement. It’s bonus edition also contains two of the best of the band’s many formidable cover versions, in their frantic renditions of Venom’s “Black Metal” and Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” which surely lead to a lot of younger metal fans discovering and delving into metal’s older and more traditional offerings.

Grander Offerings: 1999–2003

From the Cradle to Enslave (1999)

Unlike the transitory V Empire, and despite the fact that it only contains two original compositions, 1999’s From the Cradle to Enslave is very much an essential moment in Cradle of Filth’s history. The title track is essentially the perfect “pop”-black metal number, and its equally campy and disturbing (and extremely NSFW) video clip garnered the band much exposure and notoriety upon its release. (This was, of course, also the era of the infamous “Vestal Masturbation” t-shirt).

Along with its trademark title-track the EP containes one other original composition, in the frenetic but forgettable “Of Dark Blood and Fucking;” along with covers of The Misfits‘ “Death Comes Ripping” and Anathema’s “Sleepless,” which live up to the band’s usual lofty standard for this sort of thing; and a couple of unnecessary remixes that everyone turns the album off before anyway.

From the Cradle to Enslave might not bring all that much to the table, but what’s there proves surprisingly tasty and deceptively nourishing. If you’re new to this band then its title track is probably the best place to start.

Midian (2000)

Midian is a far more polished release than the two that came before it, and one which took the foundation and experimentation of both Dusk… And Her Embrace and Cruelty And The Beast and rolled them into perhaps the most lethal and consistent record of Cradle Of Filth’s career. Here, the band used improved production and simplified songwriting to accentuate their extreme-metal sound, rather than overwhelm it, and—as much as it represents a high point in their career—also represents a distinctive turning point in their output.

Like its predecessor, Midian is a loose concept record, based this time on Clive Barker’s novel Cabal (1988), about a mythical hidden city that offers vampires and other monstrous creatures a refuge from humanity. Again, like Cruelty, the band managed to tap a cult horror figure to provide narration for the album—this time in the form of English actor Doug Bradley who played the leader of the monstrous titular horde in the 1990 adaptation of Barker’s novella, Nightbreed, and who is best known for playing the iconic role of Pinhead in the Hellraiser series, which is also based on Barker’s work.

However, the album is both more grandiose and more immediate than what came before, with much of its aesthetic leaning heavily toward grittier, even thrashier territory—which might have something to do with the addition of At the Gates and The Haunted drummer, Adrian Erlandsson to their ranks, along with Anathama and My Dying Bride’s Martin Powell on keys. “Cthulhu Dawn” and “Lord Abortion” remain two of the most visceral and rewarding tracks in the Cradle of Filth arsenal, and “Tortured Soul Asylum” provides the record with a majestic climax that the band are yet to top.

This album is where Cradle of Filth made a decisive turn away from the genuinely threatening toward the more more campy and theatrical. However, they did so without loosing any of the character and intensity that made them so great to begin with. Midian is the perfect blend of the rougher material that came before it and the more refined efforts to come, and is perhaps, objectively, the band’s strongest release overall.

Bitter Suites to Succubi (2001)

“Suck-you-by.” Get it? Anyway, this EP or “transitional mini-album” is easily the most inessential release from this early period, and one which can be skipped without too much fuss. Like V Empire before it, Bitter Suites is was essentially released as a distraction while Cradle sorted out their label woes. Unlike that earlier release, however, it’s a far more uneven and less rewarding affair.

There are a few highlights. “Suicide and Other Comforts” is a great goth ballad and the other original tracks are decent enough for what they are, although it’s easy to see why they were left off a major release. The re-recorded tracks from The Principle of Evil Made Flesh are less interesting, and only really go to show how much that album’s raw production went into creating its compelling atmosphere.

Given it’s obvious stop-gap nature, Bitter Suites can’t really be called disappointing, but it’s more or less the exact definition of a fans-only release.

Damnation and a Day (2003)

With Damnation And A Day, Cradle Of Filth made the jump to a major (major) label, in Sony Music, and suitably dumbed down their sound for a mainstream audience. …by making a dense concept record based on John Milton’s epic, seventeenth century poetic masterpiece, Paradise Lost (1667), featuring a Hungarian, forty-piece orchestra and thirty-two-piece film choir (also Hungarian)—as you do.

Damnation is certainly the band’s most ambitious record to date and, although it holds a somewhat overlooked position in their legacy, it remains my personal favourite of their releases. With this album, Cradle of Filth finally became the band they had been threatening to become since their inception. “The Promise of Fever” deserves to stand among their best and most well-known compositions, and tracks like “Mannequin” and “Better to Reign In Hell” provide far better examples of the kind of catchy, melody-based rockers the band would become known for over the coming years than anything on their subsequent records.

Yet, according to setlist.fm, none of these songs have been played live by the band since around the time of its release, with “Manequin” being most-recently revived as a one-off in 2011. To be fair, this might have something to do with the choral and symphonic elements, but these songs are good enough to stand on their own, and samples and synthesisers are a thing after all. There really is no reason why this album should be so neglected—bordering on forgotten. If you were, for whatever reason, thinking about revisiting only one of these records, I urge it to be this one.

So concludes our survey of the first half of Cradle of Filth’s career—consisting of five essentially flawless and consistently innovative full-length records and two more than worthy EPs. It is often overlooked just how much quality and consistency the band managed to pack into this period, and although there’s shakier ground ahead the second half of their catalogue might not be as flawed as you remember