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Appallingly boring and cliched - 23%

gasmask_colostomy, September 21st, 2015

I've noticed that 'Songs of Darkness, Words of Light' has seen some very positive reviews and little comment about the faults of the album. There are some glaringly obvious problems with this release, particularly if one comes at it from a neutral point of view, which I believe many of the previous reviewers have failed to do. However, the problem (and probably the greatest asset) of My Dying Bride is that you shouldn't be able to remain objective when listening to their music, since the emotion and drama is designed to sweep over your body and mind and remove you from your world. There are some MDB albums that achieve this objective, but I don't believe that 'Songs...' has nearly so much engulfing power as much of the band's earlier and later work.

One issue that certainly splits the opinion of listeners is the balance between doom metal and gothic elements in MDB's work. From 'The Light at the End of the World' to this album, the band maintained very similar elements and a fairly uniform style that was based on slow, melodic doom riffs, a lamenting atmosphere, and Aaron Stainthorpe's tales of woe and misery. There was no violin in the band's sound at the time and keyboards were often used to enhance songs, with occasional piano insertions in a couple of numbers. On this album and the former one, MDB mainly steered clear of anything fast-paced or extreme, with maybe 5 minutes of death-influenced work on 'The Dreadful Hours' and almost nothing here beyond the vocals. Having an album (and a long album at that) which doesn't change pace is potentially a problem, since the material must be of a very high quality to remain interesting, with a lot of atmosphere, emotion, or creative playing - and that's where MDB fall flat in 'Songs...'.

There isn't a great deal of content to some of these songs, certainly not to justify running times of 8 minutes. The first problem is the guitars: I'm not sure what was going on with Andrew Craighan and Hamish Glencross, but they came up with an alarmingly small number of riffs between them, neither in a doom style or any other. There are a few that I can pick out as examples of what went wrong here. 'The Wreckage of My Flesh' has an immensely slow and broad doom riff that sounds almost orchestral in its solemn progress, and this riff would be fine if it formed part of the song - the introduction, an interlude, a verse - but it just goes on and on, droning into oblivion. When a second riff replaces it, it's back to a more classic MDB style, though there's no energy and no frisson of excitement about it. Then 'Catherine Blake' has a chugging riff that should batter and pound the listener, yet there's absolutely nothing, no effect, just some noise filling the space behind the vocals.

Here lies the greatest problem with 'Songs...'. The guitars are behind the vocals, just as they are behind the keyboards too. All the power of the metal band has been swallowed up by the mixing, which leaves only the most melodic parts audible and everything else - guitars, bass, drums - utterly naked and feeble. This is the slowest MDB album by a long way, so it is absolutely necessary that the rhythms are bold and authoritative to keep the songs under control and that the guitars are fat and crushing to provide some ballast. Shaun Taylor-Steels actually gives a very good performance on the drums, using a great variety of fills and extra parts to busy up the droning riffs, but he's rendered ineffective by the mix. Those riffs wouldn't be all that bad if we could hear them, but again, I have to go searching for them and there are some that are played for too long or just aren't very interesting because of their monotonous pace. For this reason, 'My Wine in Silence' ends up as one of the best songs due to its semi-clean style, which succeeds in a way that the heavier songs can't.

The levels of the mix leaves 'Songs...' with a very relaxed feeling, almost as if this were easy-listening doom metal. To some extent, that's not too bad and it suits the kind of gothic mood music genre very well: I can read, I can write poetry, maybe go for a long walk, perhaps take a nap while this album is playing, and sometimes that suits me fine. However, that doesn't make this good music, since it rarely grabs my attention and doesn't reward intensive listening. The first time I heard this album, I was bored by it, and while I write this review, I'm bored by it too. Some blame goes directly to Aaron Stainthorpe for putting in his most horrible contribution to any MDB album barring 'Like Gods of the Sun'. That album had incredibly repetitive and hammy lyrics (always the same themes about love and death) and his performance was none too good either. Here, he thankfully avoids the trap of every song sounding the same, but the lyrics are piss poor on occasion and the themes often tepid and cliched. This is the entirety of 'My Wine in Silence':

Where are you now my love?
My sweet one.
Where have you gone my love?
I'm so alone.

I only think of you.
And it drives me down.
I only dream of you.

I'll come to you. Take my hand.
Hold me again. Please take my hand

Please me now my love.
Where are you now, oh my sweet love.

I mean, what the fuck, how generic and snivelling can we get? The fact that he seems to put very little emotion into his clean vocals is also a fucking massive problem, because he's supposed to sound emotional, not as if he's caught a cold and needs to rest all afternoon. The harsh vocals and narration work a little better, injecting variety and energy into the songs. The harsh vocals are in fact very sick-sounding, more so than ever before, and have a ton more personality than any of the whining clean parts, even if they require slightly heavier backing from the rest of the band. The narration is often powerful, although compromised by dull and obvious rhymes, which seem to have crept into Stainthorpe's lyrics. From 'The Wreckage of My Flesh':

With utter loathing and scorn.
I was somehow born.
Strewn in black decay.
None shall I obey.
The wreckage of my flesh.
The nakedness of my death.

There is, believe it or not, a further problem with 'Songs...', and that is - ironically - the songs. All of these issues could be tempered if there were well-written songs to enjoy, and at last count there was one, maybe two, which are worth your time. 'Catherine Blake' has a slight advantage of switching between slow melodies and mid-tempo chugging, plus some strong keyboard backing, which creates a modest sense of drama along with the album's best set of lyrics. It's 'The Blue Lotus', though, that goes above and beyond everything else, even though it reverts to a (fairly detailed and nuanced) story about a beastly woman that ends in death. The song, however, is crafted so much better than the rest of the album, with several guitar sections strung together in succession, a memorable clean vocal melody from Stainthorpe, and even a squall of guitar that more or less resembles a lead, though much different to the melodic meandering in the opening track. 'The Blue Lotus' stands out so much because it doesn't waste any time and fall into the endless repetition of boring parts in the quest for atmosphere, like so many of the tracks here. The first two songs both piss about for far too long without really progressing, 'And My Fury Stands Ready' has about 4 redundant minutes out of 8, 'The Prize of Beauty' is a fucking mess at first and achieves nothing memorable in the end, then 'A Doomed Lover' only impresses as it moves towards the outro, which is 2 minutes of Monolithe-esque atmospheric doom.

Perhaps you can tell, as I went through all the faults of this album, that I actually began to grow angry and shout and swear a little. This is exactly what MDB deserve for making 'Songs...'. There was nothing too bad about 'The Dreadful Hours' and the band had carved a comfortable niche at the more melodic and sorrowful end of doom metal, so why go and make background music for stay-at-home goths? And if they wanted to make gothic music, why not actually have a fucking go at it, instead of this half-assed nonsense? From a long-term My Dying Bride fan, don't listen to this album, you will be sorely disappointed.