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Come inside, never leave - 93%

gasmask_colostomy, November 16th, 2015

I waited a long, long time to review this album, and I think that wait may have been necessary. My Dying Bride has a very special significance to me and nothing is more significant than 'Turn Loose the Swans', though I feel that if I had reviewed it a few years back, when I was so deeply bond up in its labyrinthine depths, I would not have been able to give an accurate representation of the music. For an album as strongly emotional as this, a little personal context is perhaps forgiveable, since it will most likely incite a personal reaction rather than a general one.

Some years ago (5 if we're being exact), I had the longest summer of my life, which, for many reasons, also turned out to be the gloomiest period of my existence. Depression, or boredom, or angst - call it what you will - I was pretty miserable for several months. Looking back, I can't say specifically what caused it, but I do know that music played a very important role at that time, both driving me deeper into the darkness and bringing me back to the surface of reality. I mostly dwelt in the expansive precincts of doom metal, favouring the crawling, ugly doom death to the more traditional Sabbathian exponents. 'Turn Loose the Swans' had been sitting in my collection for more than a year at that time, largely ignored due to its plodding speed and occasional lack of metal influence, but I returned to the album during that time and found myself captured by contrasting beauty and monstrosity, finding that I could hide in the twisting song structures and escape into the anachronistic lyrics.

Things have changed over the years and I no longer find myself using 'Turn Loose the Swans' as a crutch, though the album hasn't lost its original magic, which is more than I can say for several of the band's other efforts. The reason that this kind of music works so wonderfully for some people and leaves others completely cold is that you must be completely invested in the experience to profit from it. Those who arrive expecting crushing riffs and morbidity aren't going to depart empty-handed, but they are going to struggle to comprehend what all the fuss is about and start asking questions about song lengths, structure, and instrumental choices. Arguably, listening to Paradise Lost at a similar period in the band's development is a more musically satisfying experience, but I would rarely find PL an equal for the sheer distance that MDB put between the listener and reality. 'Turn Loose the Swans' is the band's most successful example of this because of its complexity: it doesn't cop out and become lyrically familiar or musically self-referential like their later works, nor does it spend too much time in the grim dungeons from which their earliest squalid releases oozed. We are provided here with the whole gamut, from the bitter fury and faith-turned-to-scorn of 'As the Flower Withers', the doubt and regret that beckons sensations of misery and hopelessness, plus the ephemeral gothic beauty on which the band overindulged later in their career. That mixture is carefully yet idiosyncratically balanced, feeding the listener first the shimmering mirage of hope, then the poison of despair, which grows sweeter and stronger as one returns to the mirage for solace. It's a captivating cycle, and, once inside, it can be tempting to stay trapped.

Without that additional personal attachment, 'Turn Loose the Swans' doesn't make a great deal of sense. It has none of the pure riff nirvana of Trouble or Pentagram, doesn't project itself with deathly heaviness like Paradise Lost's debut or Autopsy, has little of the epic triumph spawned by Candlemass and ably upheld by Solitude Aeturnus, possesses none of the morbidity of Cathedral, though the esoteric nature of that band is recognizable here, yet they hardly sound similar. The closest comparisons also sprang out of 1993, those being the debut albums of Katatonia and Anathema, both of which make use of the melodic lead style (all these three albums include lead guitar playing, but definitely do not include solos or lead breaks), unconventional structures, and atmosphere of gruelling emotional trials that are found here. Those leads, played here by guitarists and violinist, are intrinsic to the density of the compositions, sometimes overpowering the rhythms and causing the likes of 'The Crown of Sympathy' and 'Your River' to float and drift hypnotically instead of thudding and plodding along. The sinuous melodic riffs thus open the songs wide and lengthiness never becomes a problem, since time expands to accomodate the listener, as should happen with all great doom metal. What is also vital to that encompassing experience is that the songs never progress simply, eschewing verses and choruses, sometimes progressing linearly, sometimes referring back to familiar themes, though the shifting of gears rarely sounds awkward. As such, once inside the album, the listener is swept along and never quite gains a full mastery of the musical patterns, leaving a slightly mysterious quality long after the first listen.

Added to all this, the vocals and lyrics are a shining example of how inspiration can come and go in a flash. Aaron Stainthorpe has disappointed me on almost every MDB album since this one, in part due to the abandonment of his original lyrical style, but also because the sincerity of his performances have fallen so far behind this. On 'Turn Loose the Swans', he has all the advantages of diversity, when a song like 'The Snow in My Hand' starts off with slow harmonic cleans, suddenly bubbles up into quaking death metal with truly dangerous - not merely perfunctory - growls, snapping the trembling tension of violin and guitar leads and branding the meaning of lines like "Get away from me, man of stories, robe of lies" into the listener's mind. His cleans are used more sparsely than on future efforts, which results in a deliberate and necessary delivery of these parts, often following riff or violin melody, as if in a moment of weakness or carried away by the overriding emotion. It's a stark contrast to the deliberately lamenting style that he would later pursue, which felt forced and occasionally monotonous. With the lyrics, we are treated to personal anguish performed convincingly, in addition to the more narrative/poetic escapism included in the title track:
"My quill it aches.
Turn loose the swans that drew my poets craft.
I'll dwell in desolate cities.
You burned my wings.
I leave this ode, splendid victorious through the carnage."

The main issue that I can foresee others having with this album is with those knotty structures, some rare weak musical ideas, and the opening and closing pieces. The structures, as I have mentioned, aren't conducive to casual listening, while there are a few riffs and instrumental parts that don't attain the same high level of quality found elsewhere. Parts of 'The Songless Bird' are slightly plain, though these are offset by the gorgeous middle part of the song, with clean guitar gradually growing into a fuller swell augmented by violin; however, the outburst that cuts it off is abrupt and unseemly within the context of the composition. A similar event occurs in the title track, which pursues a rather mindless riff for too long, yet the smoothness of the interplay between guitar and violin which follows it, plus the charmingly clean vocals from Stainthorpe ensures it is quickly forgiven. The opening and closing songs are more problematic, since 'Sear Me MCMXCIII' and 'Black God' are both performed exclusively by violin and keyboard, with no metal elements and gradually narrated lyrics. In fact, both are well-developed, particularly the former, which sounds grandiosely baroque and romantic, but the slow pace renders them of little interest to metal fans beyond their atmospheric appeal. For me, both have their place on the album, even if the running time could have been cut down slightly to avoid prolonging the musical ideas beyond the necessary limits.

This review has basically taken me five years to write, commencing from the moment I discovered the Metal Archives (my first reviews were of MDB material) and ending when I click "publish" in a few minutes. Even now, I'm not satisfied that I can fully express why this album is good and what its problems may be, though I can't stress enough how a measure of its quality must take both objective and subjective arguments into consideration. 'Turn Loose the Swans' is arguably the pinnacle of My Dying Bride's recorded output, in large part due to the successful combination of twisted and beautiful music and lyrics, plus the emotional range and intensity that it exudes. Music of this nature will not be equally attractive to all who experience it, though from my own experience I recommend that you give the album some time before judging it too strongly. Either way, I've still not been turned loose from its nets.