There's been buzz-a-plenty on ye olde interwebs about the triumphant return of UK metal icons Cradle Of Filth, who recently teamed up with FEARnet for their upcoming 2011 North American Tour along with Turisas, Nachmystium and Daniel Lioneye. That tour, of course, promotes tomorrow's US release of the band's ninth full-length studio album Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa – a massive concept piece which weaves an elaborate, millennium-spanning tale of the mythical demoness Lilith. Epic concepts are this band's forte – especially if they're about demons, vampires, occultists, necrophiles, historical serial killers, or some combination of each – and they don't skimp on any of the above this time around.
Noted by band founder/frontman Dani Filth as a return to creative freedom after several albums under the umbrella of major record labels, in some ways this record marks a return to their roots, while retaining the production chops that they've acquired over the past decade. Read on to discover what devilish temptations are waiting inside...
What first struck me during my first pass through Darkly, Darkly was how quickly it took me back to the days when I'd first discovered the band – around the time when they were still operating mostly independently, but had finally managed to break through on a wider scale with the release of Midian, a concept album based on Clive Barker's novella Cabal (which Barker would himself adapt into the feature film Nightbreed). The ways they managed to conjure cosmic-scale atmospheres and terrifyingly brilliant musical configurations were both baffling and entertaining, challenged my ideas about music and seemed to push the envelope of horror in entertainment in the same way that many independent filmmakers were doing at the same time.
I'm still nostalgic for that period (can't you tell?), and sure, they'd kinda lost me during their big-label years... so maybe that colored my feelings toward this release a bit. But I still think it stands up very well as a musical achievement for a band that likes to shake the dust off the usual tired occult themes and transform them into an exaggerated vampire circus. Those out there who tend to miss the whole point of this over-the-top approach (and who insist on stamping black metal dogma on a band that doesn't really fit that genre's mold) probably won't dig this record any more than their earlier efforts... and frankly a lot of haters also tend to fling poo at COF because they've achieved financial success. But I've always had a good time with their music, and they tend to deliver where it really counts.
Another interesting revelation about this release was the heightened energy level of the tracks. Seriously, these songs rip along at a breakneck pace, with very almost no pause for breath. The band was starting to head in this direction with their previous release Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder (to which this serves as kind of stylistic "sister" release) but Darkly, Darkly feels even more stripped-down that that record, with fewer lengthy transitions, overtures, interludes, chants or ballads. That said, there's still a powerful gothic instrumental component – sometimes verging on operatic – that unites the material like the liturgy of a creepy black mass.
This tone is firmly set with opening track “The Cult of Venus Aversa,” which runs the dangerous risk of front-loading the album with the strongest and most memorable content, beginning with Lilith's own spoken introduction before launching quickly into Dani's trademark demon screech – which admittedly has mellowed a bit over the years. The blastbeats from versatile drummer Martin Skaroupka thunder almost nonstop alongside guitarist Paul Allender's smooth tremolo riffs, and the sparkling keyboard passages are pushed much higher in the mix than usual. Dani's remarkably nimble guttural vocals in the chorus are mated with choir layers that add some luster to the dirty-angel quality. More choirs take us into “One Foul Step from the Abyss,” which roars along at an even quicker tempo, employing some intense tumbling rhythms from the kick drum, swift riffs and orchestra stabs, and segues perfectly into “The Nun with the Astral Habit,” which adds some bright, brisk piano lines to a similar formula. Relentlessly grimy riffs kick off “Retreat of the Sacred Heart,” dropping into a lower range and filling the soundspace along with a vast expanse of choir washes before opening up with a nice lead guitar line at the halfway mark.
The pace slows down ever so slightly for “The Persecution Song,” but don't expect Dani's vocals to suddenly go clean; instead, the moody piano and guitar arpeggios that drive the song occasionally bust loose and go haywire as Dani hisses approval, and soon we're blasting our way out. “Deceiving Eyes” opens with a supremely cool sleaze-rock riff before entering march-metal mode, adding up to some of the album's best guitar work, as well as smooth piano from keyboardist Ashley Jurgemeyer. “Lilith Immaculate” crafts a vast, grandiose setting (including some unusual major-key passages) for introducing the clean female vocals of Lucy Atkins portraying the title character. The sampled choirs that open “War” come off as a bit thin against the crushing guitar attack that follows... but frankly nothing could really stand up to that particular assault, and the mix does come together nicely in the end.
“Harlot on a Pedestal” employs a synchronized organ & guitar riff technique that Cradle has always done well, and while they kinda blow through it in a hurry, it's always good to hear, and Paul finally gets to shred his ass off for a brief but memorable solo. “Forgive Me Father (I Have Sinned)” is clearly the most accessible and single-worthy of the group, but certainly the least Cradle-like, with partially melodic vocals from Dani, whose chorus duet with Atkins lacks the dramatic punch of the other songs and doesn't really cut through the mix the way it should – although I have to say Paul's lead work is excellent here. “Beyond Eleventh Hour” brings closure to the album on an epic note, bookending the story by incorporating most of the same operatic elements as the opening track, climaxing with Lilith's sultry laugh as Dani rasps “These words I speak are gates to Hell...”
So much of this record brought me right back to the first time I spun a Cradle Of Filth album one chilly, damp October afternoon over a decade ago. The dark poetry of Dani's lyrics counterbalanced with his schizoid vocal delivery, the aggression of the guitar riffs matched by the frenetic, quickly-changing rhythms, all fall in line with the band's mid- to late-'90s output, while the production budget and technology available have caught up enough now to allow them to realize their dark visions more fully. If you love being alternately seduced and terrified by a musical experience, Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa is a great addition to your collection – and if you're a newcomer to COF, this might be a decent introduction. I'd say start here, but be sure to dig back to those earlier classics and keep exploring that nightmare terrain.