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25 years deep into their career, Cradle of Filth would seem to have changed track from their original intentions. Beginning as symphonic black metal maestros, evolving into more general purveyors of extreme metal, then briefly dipping down into the popular waters of gothic metal, the English stalwarts have resurrected some of their black metal spirit in recent years while continuing their battle with modern extremity. And, after several albums that were met by shrugs, Hammer of the Witches finally seems to be the one to beat.
The chimerical vocals and extravagant lyrics of Dani Filth are unchanged, the symphonic interludes are still present, and the obsession with vampires and Satan continues unabated (now with extra witches!), yet two new guitarists mean that this album gets all of the riffs that previous effort The Manticore and Other Horrors lacked. Paul Allender’s lesser-known replacements impress on each of the eight main songs, with riff highlights including the cut-throat mid-section of the title track, the powerful main theme of ‘Enshrined in Crematoria’, and the backbone of two great choruses in ‘Blackest Magick in Practice’ and ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. It would seem that the guitarists were allowed free rein to be creative, not least because they take ample opportunity to play guitar leads for perhaps the first time in CoF’s history. Some songs contain several lead moments, the finest of which forms the climax of ‘Deflowering the Maidenhead, Displeasuring the Goddess’, a song that also merits praise for lyrics that portray ecological tragedy in a poignant, though typically Filthy manner. Another way in which the guitarists make this album stand out from CoF's others is the looseness of the rhythms they use. There is no sign of the yoke to black metal's stock tremolos and blastbeats, nor much of thrash's downpicked speed, meaning that most songs contain hybrid styles of playing that work well in either high or low gear and make a nonsense of such words as "bridge" and "transition", since everything fits together so wonderfully.
There are also memorable moments from the other instrumental players, but what truly impresses about Hammer of the Witches is not the strong individual contributions of all band members, but the sense of purpose and unity of focus that drives the songs forward. Not since Midian in 2000 have the band managed to combine a sense of adventure, clear thinking, and great execution with such an even balance. Past issues with production, ill-fitting ideas, overuse of keyboards, and Dani Filth’s annoying high-pitched vocals are swept aside by a remarkably consistent and exciting set of songs, which even the presence of three interludes cannot detract from. Rather than attempting to up the scale of the drama in the storytelling or the intensity of the music itself, the structuring of these songs appears to have come from a more natural source and use more traditional heavy metal tricks alongside some classic features pioneered by the band themselves.
Launched into high gear by ‘Yours Immortally’, the album gathers momentum in its first half before dropping the more risky compositions ‘Right Wing of the Garden Triptych’ and ‘The Vampyre at My Side’. ‘Right Wing…’ oddly opens with electronic sounds and female vocals, which are used sparingly and successfully throughout the album, while Dani’s return to his favourite theme of female bloodsuckers begins softly, though develops into heavier territory despite the keyboards appearing high in the mix. The former manages to diversify the album and – even if the latter song proves to be the low point – it is followed by probably the strongest closer in CoF’s career. ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ is atypical for the Filth in more than a couple of ways: firstly, the subject matter is anti-Christian but done in such a subtle manner that one could almost believe the Crusades were being glorified; secondly, the feverish pitch to which Dani’s utterings rise during the “Papal-led to die” section, which simply demands attention; thirdly, the genuine sense of emotion that emanates from that escalation into climax and the strains of the outro that bear a real-world poignance rarely felt in this band’s work.
Hammer of the Witches proves to be a great album because it contains all of the things that makes not only Cradle of Filth exciting, but also metal in general: from the heavy and intricate riffs of ‘Enshrined in Crematoria’ to the lead guitar and lyrical brilliance of ‘Deflowering the Maidenhead, Displeasuring the Goddess’ to the epic conclusion of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, everything you could want is present. This album is immensely enjoyable and rich in content and I have no regret in declaring that I regard it as the band’s crowning achievement.
Originally written in edited form for Metalegion magazine #2 - www.metalegion.com