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I have been a fan of My Dying Bride since a friend of mine copied his CD of 'Turn Loose the Swans' for me to a good, old-fashioned cassette. I played it until the tape wore out. It remains one of the best albums I have ever heard, with its oppressive gothic atmosphere, haunting melodies, crushing riffs and thought-provoking lyrics. With the exception of 'Turn Loose the Swans' and 'The Light at the End of the World', all My Dying Bride albums have required a lot of spins before I finally made up my mind about them; the band has always experimented with their sound, not much perhaps, but each album is always a little different from the others. And now, in 2012, they release 'A Map of All Our Failures', their eleventh studio album, and once again they have mixed a few new ideas into the fabric of their more recognizable musical elements. There is no doubt we're listening to My Dying Bride, of course; Aaron's characteristic voice is present and correct, Andy's crunching riffs are back and more than welcome, the drum fills are as they should be, and the lyrics and atmosphere are top notch My Dying Bride.
However, at the same time, the band has taken their music in new directions. Perhaps most surprisingly is the fact that most songs have moved into funeral doom territory. Slow and ponderous, heavier than anything they've released so far (with the possible exception of last year's excellent 'The Barghest o'Whitby' EP), with the type of harmonies that fit this kind of music so beautifully. Another fresh element is that Aaron has injected more melody into his vocal lines, and also uses to great effect doubly recorded vocals to give the music an extra layer.
A few small details also add to this half-new perspective, such as the acoustic guitar strumming along with the electric guitars, and we get a nod to 'Songs of Darkness, Words of Light' with the return of the church organ. In "Abandoned as Christ", we get an unusual sort of riff from the band, a riff more reminiscent melodically of a band like Deathspell Omega (which I believe Andy's been listening to). Only in this case, the riff is played against a slow-moving, epic background of beautiful synthesizers and Aaron's sad vocals. It's a great part.
Classic elements like the violin and the growling have been pushed into a corner for this album, however. I was misled by the pre-released edit of "Kneel till Doomsday" into thinking we'd be getting a more savage album filled with bestial growls and shrieks, but this is reduced to a couple of lines in a couple of songs. True, the band hasn't used much death metal vocals since 'Songs of Darkness, Words of Light'. Personally, I prefer the albums where there's a good mix of both clean and growled vocals, but on the other hand most songs on this offering have excellent clean vocals and so I can't really complain; after all, I can go back to previous albums any time I want to hear them be more aggressive.
Though one can argue that the album is their slowest and heaviest, there is still room for elements from all previous outings, making it in some ways a good representation of everything that the band is. "In the Presence of Absence" echoes the longer material from 'The Light at the End of the World', as does "Hail Odysseus". The excellent "Abandoned as Christ" both reminds me of the darker parts of 'For Lies I Sire' and the doom elements of 'Turn Loose the Swans'. Explosive growled parts in "Kneel till Doomsday" and "A Tapestry Scorned" takes me back all the way to 'As the Flower Withers'. The drumwork in the title track could have been on 'A Line of Deathless Kings', the last half of "A Tapestry Scorned" would fit snugly into any song on 'The Dreadful Hours'...and so I could go on, finding small bits here and there that remind me of previous work -
- but the great thing is that, even after eleven albums, My Dying Bride still manage to come up with songs that stand on their own, with their own identity so to speak, and have yet to copy/paste any of their previous material. It's fresh, it's a band high on creative energy, and I dearly hope they will continue with many more albums.
"Kneel till Doomsday" is the standout track on the album, not because it differs wildly from the rest of the album, but because it's simply a great song with a lot of variety, good chugging riffs, some death metal aggression to offset the haunted clean vocal parts, but the other tracks are also great though there is less variety within each track. They are long, drawn out, mournful dirges - with the exception of the second track on the album, "The Poorest Waltz", which feels a bit more upbeat than the rest. It is not a happy tune by any means, but less depressive than the others. It also features some great sing-along lines, making it the 'hit' of the album, like "Bring Me Victory" was on 'For Lies I Sire', or "For You" on 'Like Gods of the Sun'.
"A Tapestry Scorned" took me a couple of spins to fall in love with; on first listen, the track sounded somehow disorganized; the vocals did not seem to mesh rhythmically with the rest, but like a black rose opening up, the song has become a favorite with its unusual hooks. A song to get used to, then. The melodies employed in this track are beautiful and dark, the song structure somewhat progressive.
These first three tracks then are the odd ones out; with "Like A Perpetual Funeral" and onward, the songs become more cohesive and stylistically more similar, making it harder to differentiate between them on the first rounds of listening. These songs will need more time to stand out, but I am sure they will, as most My Dying Bride songs eventually do. At the same time, these songs are what gives 'A Map of All Our Failures' its identity that separates it from earlier works. Of these five songs, it is "Abandoned as Christ", the last track on the regular edition of the album, that is currently whispering for my attention, making me want to listen to it again. It is strange to think that in a month or so, these songs will be ingrained into my being just as the other eighty or so My Dying Bride songs are, and I'll have no trouble keeping them apart.
One thing I haven't mentioned yet is the lyrics. I am a huge fan of the early lyrics from Aaron Stainthorpe, when they reveled in grotesque and disturbing imagery, and were more profoundly hateful toward Christianity; ever since 'The Angel and the Dark River', Aaron's lyrics have become softer and less original (in my opinion). The gothic vibe is still present, and especially "Kneel till Doomsday" almost reaches that height where Aaron's lyrics used to hang out, but unfortunately many of the lyrics here are more on par with what we've been given on the last six or so albums. It's a minor nitpick, to be sure. I just find it harder to engage with, say, the story about Rosie in "A Tapestry Scorned", than the apocalyptic visions presented in classics such as 'Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium'' or the gothic poetry of 'Return of the Beautiful'. There are flashes of inspiration, to be sure, and I believe these lyrics on a whole are an improvement on albums like 'A Line of Deathless Kings'.
As I listen more to this album (listening as I write), I'm getting more addicted to it. I just realized there's a great melodic part in the second half of "Like a Perpetual Funeral" that is now working its way into my head; the first sing that the song is making its presence known, so to speak. I look forward to revel in this dark music for a long time to come.
I guess metalheads who are not into My Dying Bride can deduct a cool 10% from my final score.