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Cruelty and the Beast, and the band who made it, is either loved or loathed. On one hand, fans praise this album as CoF's best outing and a harbringer of the band's sound, claiming it as an artistic coming-of-age; on the flip-side. those who never liked the band in the first place bash this album relentlessly, citing that the band's over-the top vampiric image had gone entirely too far, and that the music was vapid and weak. While this certainly isn't the band's best or worst offering, it has its faults which set it apart from everything else in the band's discography; which somehow seems to work in CoF's favor.
By no means does this album offer the epic soundscapes of the famous Dusk... and Her Embrace, which took gothic metal to a whole new extreme. CoF tamed a lot of things for this release: Dani's vocals are more in the style he uses now than the ear-piercing shriek seen on the preceeding album, and though the keyboards are still very much present in the mix, they've taken a backseat to guitar harmonies, leadwork, and Dani's incessant vocal patterns. The interludes/intros that CoF are known for still come through, though these one are not as spectacular as ones on later albums; they seem to serve the purpose of setting atmosphere than breaking the music up.
Another noticeable change is the production. Though everything is significantly clearer and more polished than the band's previous albums, the majority of passion and aesthetic is lost; Dusk... and Her Embrace placed the listener into a true Gothic atmosphere with its pseudo-classical flair and Byron-esque lyrics. Cruelty, on the other hand, seems more bent on brutality. Nick's drums are out front in the mix, maybe a bit too much for their own good; the bass drum is exactly the same level as the snare, so there's a non-stop pounding during the faster moments, especially "Desire in Violent Overture". Guitar work seems a bit more ominus in riff work, as seen on "Beneath the Howling Stars" and the sprawling "Bathory Aria". However, the classic Maiden-esque harmonies are still in full swing and work gloriously on "Cruelty Brought thee Orchids".
Despite the differences, this is an important release in the band's catalogue. Indeed, it was the beginning of the band's new sound. The songwriting methods have gotten slightly better; slower moments are more layered and tend to hold the listener's interest more, and the thrashy numbers have more variety. Since the keyboards aren't as obvious, the band achieved a greater sense of balance with the instruments.Furthermore, songs like "Thirteen Autumns and a Widow" have ultimately gone down as fan favorites and classic live songs. "Bathory Aria", though a bit overambitious and disjointed in the latter half, proved that the band did indeed have the balls, talent, and patience to compose a song of epic proportions that expressed the true nature of the album.
The guitar work is definitely one of album's high points. "Desire in Violent Overture" contains ripping lead work and scorching harmonies, while the aforementioned "Bathory Aria" takes the guitar work into more epic, emotional territory. The all-around atmosphere isn't as "gothic" as any of the band's previous songs, but still maintains a nostalgic, vampiric aesthetic. Wonderful harmonies weave webs around the listener on "Thirteen Autumns and a Widow", as well as the closer "Lustmord and Wargasm." Nick's drum skills are also of special note; he doesn't go apeshit here like he does in Dimmu Borgir, and does help to push the music along with swift battery and brutal double bass drumming while maintaining a degree of technicality with fills and rolls.
Cruelty and the Beast shows CoF's keyboards at their best before going cheesy. You won't find an excessive use of organs here, but instead a use of mournful string sections, powerful choirs, and some brass instruments. "Portait of a Dead Countess" is one of the best interludes the band has composed, and the waltz-like pianos on "Cruelty Brought Thee Orchids" helps bring a somewhat romantic flair back to the band's sound. "Beneath the Howling Stars" is one of the only songs to use organs, but not for an extended amount of time. Though this album doesn't have as much atmosphere, the keyboards still serve an integral role to the band's sound.
Dani's vocals certainly shifted gears. On the upside, his highs are much more restrained and comprehensible than the vocal work of the first two albums. His growls are still rough, but are better as well. There is some interesting layering here, and Dani does a wise job of crossing the highs and lows together. The lyrics certainly are long-winded and maintain the poetic flair of former works, but there is a larger use of metaphors, giving everything a cryptic veil of mystery.
Though it's certainly an oddball in the CoF discography, it's an important one; not just for the band, but also for metal.
Highlights: "Cruelty Brought thee Orchids", "Bathory Aria", "Lustmord and Wargasm".