Corpse paint cabaret: Cradle of Filth and Gehenna

For many, black metal was ruined long before the hipster got their pale hands on it. The corpse paint cabaret it had become by the mid-1990s eclipsed the musical accomplishments of more serious artists at the time. But I would argue that there is a sweet spot of melodrama and tongue in cheek theatrics that still holds credibility. When one is in the mood for indulgence, the early releases of a style now called symphonic black metal are a worthy addition to any collection. Whatever crimes these artists committed in terms of craven tackiness, they were certainly not subtle about it. It is bold, over the top, in your face music, and they do not hide behind any intellectual or philosophical veil to justify their works, besides unabashed entertainment.

Cradle of Filth are pretty much ground zero for the dumbing down of not just black metal, but extreme metal at large. But their debut ‘The Principle of Evil Made Flesh’ (1994), while certainly not offensive to the trained ear, is hardly remarkable. A hammy attempt at melodic/gothic death metal…of sorts. The music itself was relatively simple and production too basic to carry the more epic goth aesthetic they would become known for. Follow up, 1996’s ‘Dusk and Her Embrace’ is right at that sweet spot I mentioned above. Like it or not, this revamped incarnation of Cradle of Filth were talented and creative musicians. Perhaps the stars aligned after the initial turmoil and splitting the band experienced after the release of their debut.

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The riffs are made up of deliciously melodic harmonies and melodies, with twin leads ripped straight from Iron Maiden. Drumming is simple yet creative. Indeed, CoF’s rhythm section under Nick Barker’s stead is one of the most underrated in metal. It is the perfect balance between complexity and subtlety. He allows the guitars to shine certainly, but one’s ear is often drawn to how the drums contribute to the dynamics of this music, through sweeping tom rolls and breakneck blast beats to simpler trancelike rhythms, it’s all there. Dani Filth’s voice is also at its best here. Rather than his later style from ‘Midian’ (2000) onwards which is a little all over the place in terms of pitch and dynamics, here for the most part he indulges in out of control screeching at the very high end of his vocal range. There is much emotion behind this otherwise typical black metal technique, which lends to the theatrics of it all. There is also a great deal of spoken word passages given in a deep, croaky voice, offering more than a nod to his gothic influences as he works his way through his Romantic poetry over flowery keyboards.

It all pretty much amounts to melodramatic goth metal with a heavy leaning towards black metal (through the various musical techniques employed at least). But this does not pretend to more. It is horribly entertaining, well written, creative and varied in terms of tone, mood, and dynamics. There is nothing more to it. If it’s not for you then so be it. It’s over the top and obviously pretty hard for some people to buy. But at least it’s honest. Many would argue it opened the door for the ultimate dumbing down of black metal. But I don’t believe this is the case. Many artists went on to fight the corner of more serious endeavours. And yes, CoF’s later releases dribbled into self-parody. But whatever damage this style did to underground metal was nothing compared to what was brewing in the coffee houses of Brooklyn some ten years after the release of DAHE.

Norway’s answer to the cheese call, aside from the infamous Dimmu Borgir, came from one Gehenna. 1994’s ‘First Spell’ was an EP that showed much promise. Pitting it against a full-length may not be entirely fair but it is nearly half an hour length and does a good job of representing their sound at this time. The music is classically gothic in aesthetics. Church organs, ghoulish and understated distorted vocals, haunting minor keys, all add up to a big barrel of clichés. Tempo wise it rarely gets much beyond 150 bpm I would say, with simple 4/4 rock rhythms underpinning layered keyboards, and basic minor chord progressions.

The production is better than most Norwegian releases at this time. The guitar tone is full bodied with much weight behind it, which mitigates the need for overly complex riffs. Drums are relegated to simple time keepers with little to no creativity required. But this is not a detriment to the music. Far from it. The whole kit is perfectly audible, and they play their role as pace-keeper perfectly. Anything more would be a distraction.

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Gehenna construct their music by first introducing a simple riff played in a minor key, overlaid with church organs or strings, and continue on in the same mood for a few passages. Then half way through the piece there will be a dramatic climax that was never built to. This usually involves a dramatic key change, a tempo shift, or both. This is often accented with basic tritone guitar leads. Once this has played its course the original theme or themes will be returned to, with the hope that the listener will view the opening riff when played post-climax in a new light. This method really shines when the same tempo is maintained but the key and mood shift dramatically, it frees up the music to explore its full dynamic range while maintaining the same level of intensity.

It’s a classic compositional technique. But I fear there are just not enough basic components to the music on ‘First Spell’ to make it reach its true potential. The music is just too basic and cliché ridden to really teach the listener anything they didn’t already know. However, it is an intriguing approach to black metal for anyone looking for something a bit different within the style. But it does not lend itself to repeated listens, and has not stood the test of time well.

So in every possible way (aside from that foggy notion of being ‘true’) Cradle of Filth’s ‘Duck and Her Embrace’ is the superior release out of the two. Even if one finds the melodramatic, gothed up black metal a bit hard to swallow the sheer talent and creativity of this incarnation of Cradle of Filth is hard to ignore. Gehenna showed much potential on ‘First Spell’, and they should be commended for doing something a little different with the black metal mould, at a time when the creative space was filling up quickly with much better known and more infamous artists. But there is simply not enough going on in this music to encourage a listener to come back for more.

Cradle of Filths approach to metal can (and did) go very wrong, when the drama and imagery overtake the actual weighty musical ideas behind it then a hollow circus of contrived drama can result. But for fans of over the top black metal, even outside of DAHE there is much to love in the early years of Cradle of Filth’s career, and they are responsible for drawing many people in to more serious black metal artists as well. Levelling all or even some of the blame for black metal’s demise at their door remains one of the great injustices of extreme metal. They have always been completely transparent about the fact that they wanted to be rock stars from the get go, and if you don’t like what they are serving up, then get out of the way.

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