Label: Nuclear Blast Records
I have quite a soft spot for Cradle Of Filth. They were the band that first introduced me to black metal, as I imagine they were for many people my age. It’s safe to say I’ve traveled much further down the left hand path since then, but even so, I’ll argue with anyone who doesn’t think that their early albums possess a charm and character that makes them very much worthwhile, even if only as historical documents. To deny their influence on black metal is foolish. And whilst their Scandinavian contemporaries were getting mixed up in all sorts of racist, murderous stupidity, Dani Filth and co were standing around in the woods wearing top hats, adding a sense of sexuality and humour to arguably the most serious and grim of metal subgenres.
Even so, it’s been a long, long time since I cared for their releases. Seeing them live several years back was one of the most depressingly boring experiences I have had at a show – a prime example of style over substance. Recent line-up changes had caught my attention though, especially guitarist Ashok (formerly of Czech legends Root) coming on board. With half the band being relative newcomers to the ranks (fellow guitarist Rich Shaw and keyboardist/vocalist Lindsay Schoolcraft also joined in 2014), has there been any great change? Not really. Is Hammer Of The Witches the disaster it could have been? Again, not really. Is it a return to their best? I think you can guess the answer. Whilst there’s more than a few nods to their early records here, with references in lyrics to Queens Of Winter, and a distinct Cruelty-esque storytelling nature to the album, it’s pretty much what you might expect from Cradle Of Filth circa 2015; competent, well-performed extreme symphonic metal, that would score so much higher if it was that bit more memorable. It’s still their best album in quite some time, though.
Following the requisite introductory track “Walpurgis Eve” – all choirs and melodramatic strings – we’re thrown in to the album proper with “Yours Immortally”. It’s immediately clear that it’s a heavier, more guitar-based album that any the band have released in quite some time. Sure, the keyboards are still prevalent throughout, but they’re often placed behind the guitars in the mix, rather than drowning everything else out. It also helps ensure that the album races forward, helped in no small part by the superb drumming by Marthus.
Unfortunately, the nature of the production – strong, loud, unmistakably modern – means that the songs all blur together at points. There is so much packed in to each track that it produces a kind of blandness, with no element taking a dominant role for long, and the constant shifts and largely unrelenting pace ensuring that what is most apparent is the impression the songs leave, rather than the songs themselves. On initial listens, my attention had wandered by the mid-point as it felt as if I was hearing, if not the same song, then the same idea over and over again. It feels like less of an issue now that I’ve given the album more time, and there are definite highlights on Hammer Of The Witches, but you’d be forgiven for not sticking around long enough to identify them.
It’s a shame, really, as some of the individual tracks on here are superb. “Right Wing Of The Garden Triptych” is a clear stand-out, with a great sense of dynamics and contrasts that help keep it memorable. It’ll never be mistaken for classic Cradle – the riffs are too modern for that, to say nothing of the keyboard effects at the beginning – but it’s one of their best songs in a long time. “Dewfloweing The Maidenhead, Displeasuring The Goddess” also features some nicely dramatic passages where the band slow down, the female vocals working in tandem with Dani’s to produce something worthy of praise. “Blackest Magick In Practice” makes a clear attempt at capturing some of the feel and atmosphere of Cradle’s early albums and almost succeeds, whilst “Onward Christian Soldiers” has moments that remind you of just why Dani’s lower register added so much to some of their classic tracks; and the closing moments leading in to outro track “Blooding The Hounds Of Hell”, where the guitars give way entirely, are pretty stunning.
But as a whole, Hammer Of The Witches doesn’t quite capitalise on such moments, and instead is let down by a lack of character. Whilst part of the blame for this can be placed upon some of the riffs, which often feel adequate rather than inspired, the production is the biggest culprit. It robs the music of much of its character and features when the band are in full flight, meaning that Hammer Of The Witches ends up being an album where the highlights are all the more notable because of the interchangeable music that surrounds them. It’s possible that, after another dozen or so listens, this will be less of a complaint, but I’m not convinced. It’s certainly the strongest album Cradle Of Filth have released in a long time, but it’s hard not to shake the feeling that, with a more sympathetic production and a few more interesting riffs, it would be even better. It certainly won’t win over anyone who wouldn’t give them the time of day before, but it’s sure to convince some fence-sitters; and if it helps inspire a new wave of teenagers reading Kerrang! or Rock Sounds to explore the darker sides of metal, than all the better. Superb artwork, too.
Hammer Of The Witches is available in a variety of vinyl formats, including double picture disc, as well as CD and digitally, from Nuclear Blast.