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Ambitious extreme metal - 85%

gasmask_colostomy, August 25th, 2015

Cradle of Filth started off as a symphonic black metal venture that was only a mild sidetrack from the more orthodox Norwegian bands of the early 90s: those albums showed a willingness to go further and be more varied than the Darkthrones and Burzums of the world, but they were not experimental in any sense, and sometimes could appear one-dimensional. A transition occurred around the time of the millenium, which led to CoF incorporating more outside influences into their black metal template and significantly broadening their appeal, perhaps watering down their extremity. 'Midian' is the first very deliberate step away from the underground and into the eerie spotlight of a red dawn, but it doesn't feel like a band abandoning their scene and grabbing for the coattails of another; it feels like a step forwards.

There are a few things that are apparent upon listening to 'Midian', some of which will be more apparent if you are already familiar with the band behind its creation. Firstly, this is clearly the most successful Cradle of Filth have ever been at getting all their ambition in the same place and making it come off. The band never had a problem with creating bombastic soundscapes and detailed songs, but they did sometimes have a problem incorporating those symphonic elements into their sound and crafting songs that required extra levels of performance. All of the songs on 'Midian' are fully realised and rarely suffer from sounding either overblown or lacking in ideas. There is intent. There is focus. And, more often than not, there is execution too. Take a song like 'Death Magick for Adepts': this kind of composition usually ended up very messy if it was recorded later than 2002, while it would probably have been orthodox and flat had it been recorded in 1998. Here, it does everything right even with the odds stacked against it. After the grandiose build-up, there is a guitarless verse with blastbeats, followed by a mindblowing riff that isn't black metal, nor quite death, but simply extreme; a classic melodic riff follows in the vein of Iron Maiden, then some sludgy death and sprightly melodeath accompany the sputtering of Dani's squealing vocals; we are brought to the calm narrative section, which surprisingly barely features keyboards except in a kind of awed silence; a majestic riff follows to close the song - one that Amon Amarth would kill many armies for and would repeat more than four times. That's the kind of ambition we're talking about.

The second thing that one notices from this description of 'Death Magick for Adepts' is that nothing in that song is described as black metal. 'Midian' is not a black metal album, but none other than the most obstinate purist would refuse to accept that this bears more of an adventurous spirit and dangerous whiff than 'Cruelty and the Beast', which was uninspired in places. CoF combine black, death, melodeath, classic metal, symphonic music, and something slightly unique into an amalgam of general extremity. This might imply confusion and sudden switches in style, though mostly those elements coalesce into one chimerical beast who rears different heads - both vicious and more docile - as needed. Freed from the shackles of the restrictive black metal template (which CoF were never quite masters of), their creativity makes songs more unpredictable and rewarding, since there is no longer that laboured transition between blastbeats and gothic symphonic interludes or narration which was more common on their 90s material. There are some of those moments, but they are used sparingly or in an interesting way. Take 'Lord Abortion', one of the nastiest CoF songs ever recorded. It's heavy as fuck in a steamrolling death/black style, yet it doesn't become monotonous in its downtuned riff assault: we get a furious death metal riff which trades off with a choral lick, plus another tremolo that has its ending lick embellished with a choral cadence, several extreme riffs with a melodeath edge of catchiness, and the interlude (while overdone vocally) fits well within the composition and makes use of a simple cello rather than the whole gamut of the keyboard and orchestra.

This kind of variety and subtlety gives the album depth and rewards intensive listening, though there are also recognisable hooks that I find easy to remember. Barring 'Tearing the Veil from Grace', there is something in every song - sometimes many things - that I can call to mind immediately and feel pleasure in recalling. Those inspired riffs in 'Death Magic for Adepts', the gorgeously fluid solo in 'Amor e Morte', the frantic melody and bowel-churning scream of 'Cthulhu Dawn', the eerie vocal motif in 'Tortured Soul Asylum', the heroicallly un-gothic thuggery that heavies up 'Her Ghost in the Fog'. 'Cthulhu Dawn' is probably the pick of the bunch because it doesn't let up from beginning to end, assaulting the listener with four or five fast-paced extreme riffs (thrash and death fans will lap up the verses), that crazy melodic motif, and great structuring that allows the heroic guitars to stand alone at times.

Those guitars are audibly downtuned, which would become a problem for CoF before long, but here they have riffs to play, so sound more ruthless or like the yawn of the abyss, which is no bad thing. The riff creativity is fantastic and unrestricted, even if one might like to see more solos, since the only one present here is clearly a success. The keyboards will be a problem for some listeners and are overdone. Some songs would have benefitted from losing about half of their accompaniment, especially those parts where it just seems unnecessary, since the rest of the band is already holding one's attention and need no distractions. However, 'Saffron's Curse' works a surprisingly high amount of keyboard presence into its shape and triumphs for the most part, keeping its character and adding extra magic to slower and more chaotic sections. Keeping the interludes to a minimum is also a blessing: 'At the Gates of Midian' is a typical CoF introduction, though actually decent, while 'Creatures Kissed in Cold Mirrors' is three minutes of nothing, and the mercifully short 'Satanic Mantra' doesn't do much harm, though is decidedly surplus to requirements. The rhythm department are important, maintaining extremity and focus throughout the larger movements and actually adding atmosphere to the guitarless sections. Vocals are the usual mix of every creature under the sun plus Dani Filth's own take on God and Satan, so listeners are bound to find him ridiculously overblown at times, though he will also raise the hairs on the back of your neck every now and then. He dropped the undetectable screechy vocals, but his narrative vocals are tiring (not the deep-voiced speaking, more the huffing and puffing of different characters), and the more straightforward death metal tones work best, especially when he varies his range.

'Midian' is an album with a hell of a lot in it and much of it is worth listening to. Out of eight songs, there are five that will draw you back time and time again, while the end of the album is slightly weaker and occasionally descends into riffless gothic cliche. Every song has a surprise and the number of great riffs is still apparent to me eight years after purchasing, though the keyboards have worn on me, as well as the vocals and lyrics, even if they are an amazing feat of poetry. This doesn't quite match the overall standard of CoF's earlier 'Dusk...and Her Embrace' or 'Vempire', but the general ambition as well as some individual songs rise mightily high in their discography and should be saluted for exciting and unique services to metal.