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n 1991, My Dying Bride followed up the Towards the Sinister demo with Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium. This E.P. was vastly superior to the demo, in terms of sound quality (though the fact that my copy was a third-generation cassette may have played some role in this). While the basic ingredients that were found on the demo were still there, the overall result was refined and the doom element had come to dominate the sound.
This E.P. became known to me, some years later, in late 96 / early 97. It was a short time after being turned onto 'The Haunted Mansion' and my best friend and I were being exposed to a wide variety of Black and Doom Metal, as well as some Death Metal that we were not yet familiar with. My Dying Bride marked the beginning of my foray into the sub-genre of Doom Metal. In particular, the title track of this very release. Despite being well-versed in 80s metal, I had managed to miss out on even Candlemass. It was this five-piece from the UK that introduced me to such melancholy sounds. From that point on, all of their albums served as a sort of soundtrack to my most dismal moments. Oddly, it was mostly at the darkest points in my existence that I turned to these records. There's no telling whether it was simply because the miserable sounds matched my own mood, or if I was feeding the wretched feeling and making it worse. Whatever the case, the early works of this band captured those haunting moments and retained some flavour of the pain as good things faded and passed into the realm of decay; as those close to me died and went below the surface of the earth. In some sense, it's almost difficult to listen to these albums, due to the dark periods that they hearken back to. However, these days, this existence is such a bleak and dreadful endeavour that past suffering is looked upon with nostalgia, by comparison.
The E.P. begins with the title track, "Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium". It begins with the woeful sounds of Martin Powell's violin. Even from these initial seconds of the piece, a dreary sense of sorrow and loss descends upon you, like the darkness from an ominous cloud, blocking out the light. Even more strange is that the atmosphere almost wakens images of medieval times, creating a vast distance between the listener and the modern world. One can envision ruined battlements underneath a gloomy sky, as unspeakable torments are being suffered in the cavernous chambers below. The music is very slow-paced, and is the epitome of Death/Doom. The production exceeds that which they had previously achieved, though this did not require much effort. The guitars and bass are soul-crushingly heavy, as the violin wails in despair, slicing through your flesh, like a fresh razor. You begin to wrap yourself in this shroud of misery, letting the darkness swallow you, whole. Blood flows freely, then turns into crimson serpents of malice and hatred, turning back toward you as you descend into the black abyss... Falling, ever faster. The blood coils around your neck, like hands of ice, as you gasp for air. A few minutes in, and the pace briefly picks up, though not much. Like all things in this cursed world, it is ephemeral. The rawness and power of the vocals is complimented by the funeral bells that begin to chime. Doom is upon you. Your existence is dominated by grief and anguish. Nothingness is all that awaits you. But the path toward the endless sleep is fraught with afflictions that you cannot possibly bear. Some minor relief seems to be on the horizon, as a mid-paced thrash riff leads into more typical-sounding Death Metal. In a strange sense, this allows you to breathe. Though, in truth, it is more like some chaotic free-fall that you cannot control. You only wish to land somewhere safe, but you know better. Deep within your twisted mind, you realize what fate has in store for you. And then... it happens. The slow, suffocating pace returns. In the depths of the abyss, you are utterly devoured by spirits of torment. They feed upon your black suffering, having long ago set you upon this course. As the pig that is fattened up prior to being slaughtered and eaten, so you have also been fattened up on pain and agony the likes of which you have never even dreamed of. But that was the point all along. This was always your fate. The frail hopes that you have been clinging to since birth were but an illusion.
Why is it that humanity is so drawn to darkness and negativity? Why are sorrowful events so much more poignant that any other experiences in life? It is because those are the instances when we are closest to true reality. The fantasy of an existence of peace and happiness is so easily shattered, like the glass windows of the feeble Christian churches; like bones crashing down on jagged rocks. People do what they can to numb themselves to this; they lead lives of excess, decadence and debauchery. Those that possess wealth seek to fill the void with material things or by traveling or surrounding themselves with others that go along with their delusions. The rest simply seek out whatever substance they can, be it drugs or alcohol, as they desperately struggle to escape this harsh reality. Yet, in the end, we all find ourselves in the same place; rotting in the stinking earth. And whether or not we are surrounded by loved ones or we face this inevitability in solitude, we all must face it alone. Successes, achievements, past glories... they're all meaningless. It's all a big nothing. There is absolutely no way to defy this one truth.
As the E.P. continues, the Death Metal influences take center stage. "God Is Alone" still manages to possess some tinge of despondency. Certain mournful melodies weave throughout the song, passing like a shadow. This would function as one of the earliest examples of My Dying Bride's use of religious themes.
"De Sade Soliloquay" concludes this recording. Possessing a slower pace than the previous song, it seems to bear some strange serpentine quality as it slithers through your mind, injecting its venom into your very being. Before this can fully take effect, the pace quickens, mixing some thrashier riffs into the song. Still, there remains some essence of depravity. Aaron's vocals take on almost a sickening tone, momentarily. A couple decent guitar harmonies creep through the soundscape, though one may miss them if not paying full attention.
Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium marks the beginning of the mournful rise of this UK Death/Doom Metal band. Of the three songs present, only the title track warrants repeated listens. The other two are not without merit, but they each pale in comparison to the epic sense of misery conveyed by the opener. This E.P. is extremely difficult to obtain, these days, though the material was re-released on the Trinity compilation, so it is easily accessible.
Brevity has its rewards and advantages. Not that My Dying Bride, even at this stage, weren't given to elaborate arrangements and lengthy running times, but this EP is just long enough to blow your head off with what was a completely innovative take on death metal in 1991. The guitar sound isn't as clean as it would be on their debut album ('As the Flower Withers'), having loads of fuzz and grit, while the drums rumble and spill out in the chaotic haze with a much more convincing sound that the feeble, thin slap heard on the debut album. And the material itself? Transcendental, esoteric doom-laden death metal majesty.
Indeed, this is death metal. Some of the paces stretch into the gloom of true doom, but behind even these passages lies a bloodthirsty intent that the band shoved away on future releases, trading them for romanticism and refinement. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but maybe they could have released a few more albums in this vein before leaving behind the murky, utterly sinister death heard here. It's just too damn good, and while 'As the Flower Withers' delivered what it set out to deliver, it wasn't as hellishly convincing as this gem of an EP.
Comprised of three songs, the opening title track introduced an ambitious, literary, progressive twist on early '90s UK death metal. Clocking in at almost 12 minutes, the prominent violin and keyboards that open the track seem absolutely necessary to create a somber, medieval mood--no suspicion of novelty can be entertained by the listener. The violin dances and darts around the crushing doom that opens the track, achieving total purpose. Its effect is chilling, and an utterly convincing addition to the apocalyptic tone set by the other instruments (which would've been quite fucking haunting enough even without the ghostly fiddle). Remember the wayward, directionless flute heard on the otherwise awesome 'Forest of Equilibrium' debut by Cathedral that same year? ("Reaching Happiness, Touching Pain")...This ain't that. So the track weaves, slowly, through various corridors, as some cool subtleties engaged the ear with each change in mood and tone. The tolling bell that comes in and out of the song drapes yet another layer of dread on top of the experience. As for Aaron Stainthorpe's vocals, this EP finds him at his absolute best. Death metal vocals should be otherworldly, inhuman, cruel and cosmic all at once, and Aaron achieves this here. Those who admire the powerful vocals in contemporary death metal band Necros Christos who are not familiar with Stainthorpe's early work will be duly impressed--and I think he offers a greater dynamism than Mr. Mors Dalos Ra. The music-box chiming at the end of the track only stabs another knife of creepiness into the gut before bowing out. This track is beyond epic.
"God is Alone" manages to impress at a little over a third of the running time of the title track, with floating psychedelic guitar melodies hovering on top of a lusty death attack, propelled by one main riff, different variations on that same riff, and even more galvanizing supporting riffs. All of it rides along various tempo waves, a virtual lesson in sublime death metal art at four minutes and 51 seconds. And yet more damning bloody-throat exhortations from Aaron. God is alone, indeed...
The EP ends with "De Sade Soliloquay," propelled by insistent double-bass work--more Andy Whale than Pete Sandoval in its mid-paced lurch, and even a couple riffs akin to their English bolt-throwing brothers (and sister). Angular tempo change-ups are introduced before the song comes to a doom-ish halt and a few final seconds that almost recall early Carcass in its mess and tangle. Again, vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe rules the day with his dominance (no submission, thanks).
Yeah, this is just about as great as My Dying Bride would ever get. I totally love the albums that followed, up to and including '34.788%...Complete,' but there's something so pure and inspired about every single second of this 20-minute EP. 'Symphonaire...' shows a band on the cusp of greatness at a very early stage, convinced that what they're doing is important and totally killing without getting too full of themselves. It's a special sound that they would never quite recapture. And it sure as hell leaves all of their post-'34.788%' albums in the dust.
Following the limited release of their â€˜God is Aloneâ€™ E.P. earlier that year, Halifaxâ€™s My Dying Bride re-recorded their two rather basic death metal offerings and added an unexpectedly sophisticated and compelling title song that inaugurates their classic sound. The bandâ€™s penchant for classical and romantic themes is evident both in their moniker and the elaborate title of this three-track E.P., but it would take a couple of years and a couple more releases for their aspirations to be fully merged with their sound, which here has its foot trapped in the insidious casket of death metal.
Despite being an early release, the line-up of the band would remain remarkably stable for most of the decade, although only vocalist and tortured songwriter Aaron Stainthorpe and guitarist Andy Craighan remain today. Despite its historical significance in developing the bandâ€™s sound, thereâ€™s little to hide the fact that this is an early E.P. from a band struggling to find its feet. The production quality is noticeably poor and weak (which I often find adds to the grim and funereal atmosphere of recordings such as this, but for others will present a problem), and although the musicians are skilled at playing fast as all death metal performers should be, thereâ€™s very little to distinguish their talents from their obvious influences. Aaronâ€™s vocals in particular sound exactly the same as every other British person growling in a death or grind band at the time, and whatever achievements Rick Miah may be performing on the drum kit are lost behind the fuzzy sound quality.
The most notable addition to the music comes in the form of violin passages pervading the first half of the title track, something that would later become a staple of the bandâ€™s music until Martin Powellâ€™s departure in 1998. This demonstrates the bold and experimental side of the band that would see them record some wildly divergent albums as the decade continued before settling down on a sound not dissimilar to this one. Catching the band at its genesis, with a mass of potential and ideas floating just out reach, â€˜Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyriumâ€™ is a nice E.P. for the serious collectors, bordering on essential for its unique and impressive titular piece, and little else.
1. Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium
2. God is Alone
3. De Sade Soliloquy
The first song of the E.P. consumes over half its playing time at a staggering eleven and a half minutes, and puts the time to good use with multiple speed, rhythm and style changes, best expressed in the switch to pure death metal around the half-way point. Beginning with a chiming harpsichord and screeching violin whining in the darkness, the primary instruments thunder into life after one minute and the violin is shocked into a greater degree of intensity. The sound is classic and distinctive My Dying Bride from the onset, and itâ€™s regrettable that the song veers increasingly away from this direction as it continues, the slow and memorable main guitar riff eventually giving way to thrash-influenced scratching that canâ€™t possibly achieve the effect it desires on such a limited studio budget. At its slowest, this song evokes sadness and a general feeling of gloom, though Aaronâ€™s largely unintelligible vocals make it difficult to really invest emotionally in the song. After being excluded for several sections in favour of a greater focus on the guitar, the violin is lost completely as a momentary pause signifies a major change.
The second half of the song, coming after the five minute mark, is essentially a traditional death metal song that varies in speed and intensity somewhat, but is still entirely derivative of the American scene of the time. The riffs sound dirty and grimy as they scratch along the ground, the bellowed vocals implore the listener to do something that they know not what, and the papery drums can rarely be heard as anything other than cymbal fuzz. While depressed black metal from Norway is right at home in this low level of production, angry and brutal death metal lacks a significant punch, and without the punch thereâ€™s little of interest. Nevertheless, the band perseveres and explodes into an assault of pure death metal fury after seven minutes that surpasses anything else on the recording in terms of sheer intensity, but still makes me yearn for a higher quality version (ultimately provided by the long-overdue live album â€˜Voice of the Wretchedâ€™ in 2004). Despite slowing back down for the end and rejoining the main riff, thereâ€™s little notion of natural progression in this song, something that isnâ€™t aided by its use of pauses to signify a change of direction, but it nevertheless foreshadows the direction the band would take after it had shaken off the restrictions of its death metal origins.
Inevitably, the remaining two songs are fairly disappointing, but viewed purely as novice death metal rather than My Dying Bride that doesnâ€™t sound anything like My Dying Bride should sound, itâ€™s still enjoyable and worth the listenerâ€™s time, as the band continue their experiments to some small degree. The re-recorded â€˜God is Aloneâ€™ is sharper than the earlier version, but this time the slightly longer length is to its disadvantage. Although five minutes is a lot easier to digest than the previous eleven, and the bandâ€™s energy commendably remains throughout its duration, the exhausting pace and repetitive riffs serve to bore me as the song approaches an overdue climax. The thrash-influenced guitars are performed well, and in their more creative sections reminiscent of bands such as Testament, but my biggest problem comes with the weak sound allocated to the drums through the production; itâ€™s no fault of Rick Miah, but the brief solo spot unwisely granted to his double bass drumming sounds more like rain pattering on a plastic bag. The relentless song is admirable as a slice of British early nineties death metal, but itâ€™s nothing that hasnâ€™t been heard before.
The final song returns ever so slightly to the direction that fans of the bandâ€™s later work will be craving, but remains essentially a slowed down death metal song with little in the way of innovation. Itâ€™s refreshing to hear a slower pace for the guitars, drums and growls after the previous song, and thereâ€™s a great, short solo towards the end that again reminds me of Testament, but on the whole this sounds like the sort of song that any budding death metal band could come up with, if they couldnâ€™t be bothered to play their instruments too fast. Itâ€™s obviously unfair to compare this E.P. with the classic, more refined albums My Dying Bride would produce throughout the decade, but it does sound to some extent like a split release between a budding experimental death metal band and a more mundane one, the former side providing the more worthwhile listen. This E.P., along with other rare material, was later collected into the more widely available â€˜Trinityâ€™ compilation where it sits uncomfortably alongside some great material from a few years later, but to listen in isolation isnâ€™t an entirely unrewarding experience. â€˜Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyriumâ€™ is a grand and complex piece with its heart in the right place, and â€˜God is Aloneâ€™ is the most brutal thing to come out of Yorkshire since Peter Sutcliffe.
“…dragged out through war torn lifetimes and death shall feast on us all…”
Up to the summer of ’96, even vocalist Aaron didn’t own a copy of his own band’s thousand-pressed God is Alone 7”. It happens. Perhaps he had the foresight to tuck a copy of their ’90 demo Towards the Sinister away in his sock drawer. Either way, scarcity of these items testified how diminutive a buzz this West Yorkshire band generated prior to the ep’s release. That wouldn’t start until zine editors and disc jockeys pulled the cd from its padded envelope and peeled eyes on a disc obscure at any angle. With its strangely personal and paradoxical first person moniker, long Homeric title, and its dreary cover abstract, it burned some hands with promise. For others it was already too far-fetched and/or otherworldly, and much of the reason for either behavior is because of the promo write-up’s unabashed allusion to a semi-full time violinist in the quintet’s ranks. Simultaneously, both outlooks said ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ and threw it on.
Now Celtic Frost, the proverbial road builders to the avant-garde, dabbed its sound with eccentric individualism first clandestinely, then with more liberal strokes with the often-misunderstood Into the Pandemonium lp: would its then derogatory degree of success be a detriment to metal bands’ possible experimentation with unconventional (i.e. unmetallic) influences? About a year later, Nocturnus would graft the sound of keyboards to much of its early death metal din; a breakthrough for extreme metal, yet in the ears of the world keyboard wasn’t so eye-opening considering new wave resonated from every speaker from MTV to Burger King. 1989 saw Morbid Angel briefly dangling the keyboard carrot in “Immortal Rites”. Finally in ‘90 Christian thrash band Believer would imbue “Dies Irae (Day of Wrath)” with unhindered violin. Yeah, the instrument only entwines half of one (long) track here, but unlike Believer that made the listener thrash through about five songs before “Dies Irae” paraded into earshot, My Dying Bride throws its opus to the wolves immediately, then with only two shorter songs trailing it doesn’t wander far from the forefront of a listener’s mind. But these examples, My Dying Bride included, are still fleeting ones, near-secret single shot deals that served to merely tease anyone interested in what they heard. For some, the less is more theory was the way to go, but not for me. I wanted more.
For those unaware of the band’s biography, the chiming string-laden start of the title cut that’s too long to write out had 'introduction' glazed all over it; a forlorn and romanesque awakening that should explode like something akin to Kreator’s “Choir of the Damned/Ripping Corpse” or Possessed’s “Pentagram”. Aye, there's an explosion, but it's…different. It's more a bludgeon of abject elegance, vast and discordant like a beautiful valley where animals go to die. In the center stands a grim, sunken-eyed druid whose life-giving powers have perverted to the necromantic, roaring guttural Frostian lyrics echoing beyond deep rhythmic carnage that ricochet between ‘slowly I turn’ doom-step, chugging bulldozer mid-pace, and death metal rampage sweating in all its glory. Crestfallen violin drunkenly weaves a theme song for a medieval penal system, gliding in its distorted course of bloated riffs awash with tragedy that is the true innovation in this trio of tunes.
The remainder of the material is formidably frightening in memorable doom/death fashion, but because the string-driven excitement surrenders halfway through “Symphonaire…”, the atmospheric panache capitulates as well. Regardless, “God Is Alone” literally bellows into existence, savage in speed as well as more moderate moments and doesn’t rest until the initial anvil-heavy drone of “De Sade Soliloquy”. Animalistic in its d.m. ferocity, Aaron’s vocal style is a perfect fit for a deep-pitted sound that will be the future for this band for about another two or three albums.
Common in these tracks is an unorthodox writing style that is more death than doom; rhythms that jump and shift speeds almost by the seat of their pants, like sentences without conjunctions, but despite these arrangements, a lack of solos, and not a chorus to be found they manage to flow rather effortlessly, and imaginative focus doesn’t stop at the band’s musical prevision. Text as enigmatic as it is dark paints luridly close caricatures of two guys from Switzerland who had already cornered the market on darkly lit prose, meanwhile square-shooting monikers such as Gorefest, Deicide, Immolation, and Entombed merely threw pebbles at provocation and it would be awhile before the mid/late ‘90s deluge of abstruse and eclectic names like Darkwoods My Betrothed, Gospel of the Horns, and On Thorns I Lay decided to get with the program.
Lots of cognitive advances here, but the true creative momentum of My Dying Bride would be felt in about a year, and many waited with bated breath.
“…my blood has learned what fear is…”