Cradle Of Filth: 'Midnight in the Labyrinth' – CD Review

If you hang out here a lot (and you should... all the cool kids do), you've probably heard plenty of interesting news about the UK's legendary metal outfit Cradle Of Filth and their cinematic sounds of darkness. Long before the symphonic metal wave surged across Europe, frontman Dani Filth and his crew were employing vast orchestral backdrops for their savage riffs, thunderous beats and demonic vocals. While most of this material has been performed on keyboards using layers of samples, some of their grander-scale concept albums like 2003's Damnation and a Day have incorporated massive live orchestras and full choirs. When I chatted with Dani recently, we talked about the band's latest project Midnight in the Labyrinth, their first album to place those symphonic elements on center stage. Midnight was originally released on Record Store Appreciation Day (April 21), but the worldwide drop happens today. Read on for a preview!

"We've always had cinematic parts in our records – it's just part of the character of Cradle Of Filth," Dani told FEARnet. "Then there was the opportunity to re-record some of our earlier material, and we thought, 'yeah, that's cool, but what's the point?' So we came up with the idea of building upon various tracks – tracks that the band and the fans had decided upon – to create a montage, a kind of soundtrack for these labyrinthine, cinematic dreamscapes. It's huge... it sounds really big, really eerie and very dark. There was one week around Halloween, as we really got into working on it, when we came up with some really good samples and weird noises, recording things that rattle and go bump."

That Halloween spirit does come through in this record, which reminds me how well Dani and company can use elaborate soundscapes to create an immersive dark-metal experience. In fact, their albums are often structured like symphonies or operas, complete with overtures, interludes and a wide range of dynamics to set the mood according to the tales told in the songs. With Midnight, the mood's the thing, and comes across very well... but mainly when the music is allowed to speak for itself.

Arranged for orchestra by Mark Newby-Robson (who has played keys with the band several times since 1999) and conductor Ralph Woodward, the material adapted here comes from their first four official studio releases: The Principle of Evil Made Flesh (1994), Dusk and Her Embrace (1996), Cruelty and the Beast (1998) and the 1996 EP V Empire. The content spans two discs, the second with instrumental versions only, and the first featuring hushed narration by Dani and guest contributions from the band's former backing vocalist Sarah Jezebel Deva. Both discs are unique among the Cradle catalog, but between the two, I found the straight instrumental versions much more appealing, with the exception of one very cool bonus track on the narrated disc (more on that in a moment).

The orchestral performances on all of the tracks are top-notch, but without the driving pace of the band's core, only a few of them summon the same energy; also the introductions and narration from Dani, who speaks mainly in deep, raspy tones, and Sarah, who both speaks and sings, become more of a distraction. That's not to say many of the straight instrumentals aren't very cool, particularly the epic "Summer Dying Fast" from Principle of Evil Made Flesh (which the band previewed in demo form on the 2011 EP Evermore Darkly), "The Rape and Ruin of Angels (Hosannas In Extremis)" from the V Empire EP, and a sweeping rendition of "Dusk and Her Embrace" – already one of my favorite COF tracks – that would make an ideal end-credits crawl for an apocalyptic horror film. But apart from those strong entries, many of the others tend to become too repetitive and even a bit sluggish.

Disc 1 is not without merit, though: it offers one of the band's coolest, scariest works ever in the form of the 13-minute séance "Goetia (Invoking the Unclean)," a supremely sinister ambient nightmare that conjures up true sonic horror. "We almost didn't include [Goetia] on there," Dani told FEARnet. "It's just really mad. It's got lots of those 'brown notes,' so it kind of punctures people's lungs just to listen to it." That's an understatement... it punches a few holes in your brain too, but in a wickedly fun way, and reminds me of the classic haunted house sound effects records that scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid.

Although it's really a one-off curiosity project, I expect this record is still going to polarize a lot of people: fans of the unflinching brutality of the original four albums covered here will probably think of it as mere "muzak" versions of those early landmarks (the same crowd has  probably given up on the band ages ago, so I expect they're not even reading this), but those who embraced the horror atmospheres that the band summoned in epic works like Midian (a concept album based on Clive Barker's Nightbreed, featuring spoken vocals from the film's co-star Doug Bradley) might find this a decent companion piece to the band's straight-up metal offerings. It's certainly not the touchy-feely side of Filth, but more a concentration of the cinematic environment the band has used to often amazing effect. Separating that element out from the metal, however, often steals the dark heart from these tracks, taking much of the original songs' maniacal energy with it. Personally, I'm scooping up "Goetia" and the Disc 2 instrumental versions for my haunted-house playlist, but I doubt I'll revisit most of Disc 1 anytime soon.

Here's one of the many dark corners of the Labyrinth, in the form of the opening cut "A Gothic Romance (Red Roses for the Devil's Whore)," which the band released as an advance single. Take a listen and decide for yourself...