With the rise and rise of extreme metal came a competing trend for many musicians to return to music of humanity. Away from esoteric spiritualism, death, gore and war, a clutch of artists arose who wished to leave their own stamp on familiar themes, and started writing what can only be described as loves songs for metalheads. Well, not just love songs to be fair, but songs from a universally human centric perspective nonetheless. With this came music of a more understated nature, laced with melody and unabashed romantic passion. Pianos, violins, and strings sit alongside melancholy music. This style is often held up as being the metal equivalent of classic gothic rock of the 1980s, but in reality this is far more down beat than all that.
Yorkshire’s My Dying Bride formed in 1990 and their debut of two years later offered promise of a more melodic approach to depressive death/doom metal. Follow up ‘Turn Loose the Swans’ released in 1993 surprised many with its shift in direction. The death metal elements were played down in favour of melodic doom riffs, clean vocals and spoken word passages, and musicians that tried composing original music in order to stand out rather than relying on a smack-in-the-face gimmick. Although Paradise Lost had been preparing the ground for this gothic inspired death metal, My Dying bride excelled in taking it to a truly depressive direction.
For starters it was a bold move to open the album with a seven minute poetry reading underpinned by keyboards alone. When the metal actually does get going the pace is slow and ponderous, real violins complement the melodic doom riffs, and clean vocals abound with lyrics perfectly audible. As with all metal that flirts with doom, I will not stop banging my ‘importance of drumming’ drum. Although this is nowhere near as slow and sparse as some doom metal the pace rarely picks up, making creative drumming essential to tie the music together. Rick Miah steps up to the mark where this is concerned and holds together this plodding, depressive music with a comparatively lively drum track.
Not to play down the performances, but this album (and its follow-ups) also benefits from improved production. Whilst ‘As the Flower Withers’ has its lo-fi charm this more regal approach required a cleaner, fatter rhythm section, and enough nuance to capture the synths and violin leads. Despite being the originator of many colours of metal and punk, there are few styles the UK really excelled at in the same way as our European and American cousins. The exception being this niche gothic doom metal that would prove to have a mass appeal across subcultural divides. And it started with albums like ‘Turn Loose the Swans’ and Paradise Lost’s ‘Gothic’.
For a completely different approach to gothed up romantic metal where better to turn than to Brooklyn and a little known band called Type O Negative. Love them or loathe them, Type O struck a chord when they released ‘Bloody Kisses’ in 1993, which found an audience in metal, goth, and alternative rock circles around the world. The leap from the sound found here to Peter Steele’s previous project Carnivore was somewhat dramatic, and only achieved through Type O’s transitional debut album ‘Slow Deep and Hard’, which works more like a romantic hardcore punk album with keyboards.
But for ‘Bloody Kisses’ Type O Negative would truly let loose and set the formula for all their future works. This formula being a genre spanning journey usually well over an hour in length, punctuated by awkward interludes and tongue in cheek comedy. When Type O Negative are good, they’re really fucking good. They write catchy commercially viable goth metal that does not shy away from at once being expansive yet poppy, and yes, with some well-placed tongue in cheek humour to the lyrics.
However, Type O Negative seem to lack the attention span to carry this out for a full album. Or rather, they have a good album’s worth of cheesy yet tasty goth metal on every album they released, but they insisted on breaking this up with awkward interludes or comedy punk songs that completely kill the mood that was building. For instance, after the lengthy tongue in cheek single ‘Black No. 1’ we are treated to an interlude followed by the comedy thrash punk of ‘Kill all the white people’ before we can get to their cover of ‘Summer Breeze’ which continues in much the same tone as the opening two tracks.
In isolation it may work, but Type O seem undecided as to whether they are going to write a self-aware yet ambitious goth metal epic laced with radio friendly singles, or a more experimental lucky dip of different styles and moods in line with a trend in early 1990s alt-rock to be at once comedic, self-aware, and musically curious all in one. A trend exemplified by the likes of Primus et al. But I can’t bang on about this album’s short comings for too long, because it’s high points – the longer battle ship tracks that move and build in tension – make the album worth a regular spin no matter what. Indeed, it’s the fact that Type O are so good at writing a pop hook that it often comes as a surprise how involved some of their songs are, and how much composition and planning went into them. Subversion of musical norms in more serious subsets of heavy rock is expected, in pop it comes as a welcome surprise.
So what we have here is an album that makes a deeply serious attempt at introspective meditation on the human condition, and an album that makes a disjointed attempt at tongue-in-cheek goth metal via drab humour and pop hooks. So to some extent, given how different the intentions of each artist were this may be an unfair comparison (more so than usual). But despite both My Dying Bride and Type O Negative being broadly metal bands with mass appeal well outside of metal in the goth milieu, their approaches are so wildly different that my ‘unfair comparison’ riff really does hold water this time.
But if we look at the intentions of each artist and the finished product the pick of choice this week is clearly ‘Turn Loose the Swans’. Simply because it succeeds by its own standards. There are many great tracks and moments on ‘Bloody Kisses’ which have earned it its rightful place as a classic. But there is still too much chaff between the wheat to call this album a resounding success. Not until 1999’s ‘World Coming Down’ would Type O Negative truly achieve their vision of humour, depression, and infectious groove unsullied by filler. There’s still much to love about BK, but this week, light a candle, hit play on ‘Turn Loose the Swans’, and have a good long think about why everything is so shit all the time.