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A tarnished tale - 87%

gasmask_colostomy, October 27th, 2015

Looking at the other reviews for this album, it's clear that there's a Marmite reaction going on here. Either you're going to find yourself adoring 'Dusk and Her Embrace', you're going to find yourself staring at your toilet bowl for an hour, or, like some of the few more balanced reviewers, you're going to dislike a few elements and find abundant quality in others. I wish to firmly place myself in the middle ground, though I could go either way in different moods - there really are some things to lap up and some things to spit out.

This CoF album has one thing that almost every other one lacks (the preceding EP 'Vempire' is the exception) and that's magic, to give it a simple name. The whole point of Cradle has always been to drag the listener away from their humdrum life and into a world of terror, blood, lust, and cool stories, but many of their albums have failed to actually capture much atmosphere beyond haunted house keyboards and cheesy narration. 'Dusk and Her Embrace' has the distinct advantage of beginning with some concrete musical quality before it starts to heap on the extras and, in fact, one finds that those extras are largely unnecessary when the basics are done so incredibly well. The keyboards that were overplayed on many later albums are here controlled so well that they can be called features, not merely distractions, detailing the slower parts when the guitars drop out and daubing some of the tooth-rattling tremolo sections with epic colours that they would never otherwise achieve. The mid-section of 'Funeral in Carpathia', for example, begins with a sweeping, aching melody over the riffs, then the song winds down before the keys lead the band into the lighter riff section that follows.

I'm also noticing many more of the riffs and musical movements in here than I would normally expect to on a CoF album. In the first place, this is most definitely a black metal album, and if the additional pomp and ambition had been dropped and we were left with 7 four minute songs, this could still have been a big success, though probably only in underground circles. The violence of 'Heaven Torn Asunder' is a complete revelation for critics of latter-day Filth, with its vicious assault of churning riffs and frighteningly accurate battery from Nick Barker. The production suits the style well too, despite a less attacking sound than 'Vempire'. The drum tone echoes 'De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas' and can be both aggressive and huge, although the guitars are slightly thin and could have done with the treble turned up, yet that might have ruined the grandiose effect that Cradle were going for. The melodic sense of this album is also highly developed, including a lot of classic twin guitar melodies that have come to assume a crucial place in the band's sound, in addition to a few out-and-out lead moments, which are always sparse in black and symphonic metal, yet are here used skilfully and tastefully.

Songs run the gamut from the full-blooded terror of the opener and 'Haunted Shores' to the classical/melodic combo of 'A Gothic Romance', which dials back the heaviness and goes for the drama and atmosphere that the title would suggest, though without the requisite terror that made the early Gothic novels so gripping. The darkly musing 'Malice Through the Looking Glass' also represents another change of mood, this time more quietly sinister, while the title track is full-on grandiose black metal and will make you spill your chalice of blood (or coffee, depending on how much you go for the whole vampire thing) when that strident riff section appears after 3 minutes. The slower and less heavy numbers fare well due to their strong sense of atmosphere, but don't have the same energy and timeless "magic" that the other tracks possess, since it is actually the drop from rage and speed to a sinister crawl that conjures the creepiness on 'Funeral in Carpathia' and 'Beauty Slept in Sodom'. The latter in particular has a pearl of a doom riff at 4:30 that can send shivers down your spine, then back up it when the solo soars out of it on top of a deep tremolo. However, it will take a number of listens before any song fully discloses its secrets, since there are a hell of a lot of elements at play, even in the more straightforward black metal sections, which reach the same emotional plateaus of early Satyricon and Emperor without sounding distinctly Nordic or nostalgic.

There is one very distinct problem for 'Dusk and Her Embrace' and that is Dani Filth. It's difficult to say whether the effect is intentional, but his very high-pitched shrieking vocals are absolutely horrible and do nothing for atmosphere or musical skill. As if he was losing his voice and took it upon himself to childishly taunt an enemy, some of the vocals lines end up as mere "la la la" chants devoid of lyrics, rhythm, or any other redeeming factors, ruining any of the music that is going on around him. There are many instances of this, though one of the most excruciating examples would have to be the first two verses of 'Haunted Shores'. That said, he uses many different vocal styles (I'm not counting, but he's up there with King Diamond), many of which fare much better than the failed black metal shriek. The slightly deeper howl is excellent and when he decides to go into yawning chasm mode, he brings a whole different dimension to the music. There is also a fair bit of narration on some of the songs, which isn't always great, but isn't as cheesy as some other CoF albums, while the interplay between Dani and the two female vocalists (although Danielle Cneajna Cottington is a bit mechanical) adds drama and dynamics to the lyrical poetry, which is something close to what Baudelaire and Keats would have produced if commissioned to write an epic vampire comic with Gustave Dore illustrating.

What emerges from the marriage of these extraordinary and unsavoury aspects is an album that occasionally manages to be mind-blowingly powerful and sometimes sounds laughably inept. The choicest cuts are 'Heaven Torn Asunder', 'Funeral in Carpathia', and 'Dusk and Her Embrace', though all of the full-length tracks offer something beyond the ordinary, even if some sections are ill-advised. The only reason that this doesn't oust 'Vempire' as the best Cradle of Filth album is its slightly greater length and those vocals, which remain a blot on an otherwise captivating manuscript.