Formed in the early '90s, UK band My Dying Bride are widely considered one of the pioneering names in the doom metal genre, characterized by their massive, drop-tuned, down-tempo riffs that saturate the sound space, creating the feel of epic funeral dirges from hell, with rich and complex lead guitar harmonies on top. Since their early singles and EPs caught widespread attention in Europe, the band has undergone several lineup changes, with guitarist Andrew Craighan and vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe the only remaining original members, but their sound has remained fairly consistent over the course of the past two decades (unlike their fellow doom pioneers Paradise Lost, who have folded many other ingredients into their recipe, including synth-pop and electro beats). In addition to dozens of successful tours and fests, the band has also released ten full-length studio albums, two live records and a handful of EPs prior to this week's colossal offering A Map of All Our Failures, which to my ears represents one of the band's career landmarks, even topping their excellent 2009 record For Lies I Sire.
Map contains some slight variations in texture and tone from Lies, but it comes more through the removal of certain sonic aspects, in an effort to get back to the core sound the band helped to define. “We try to vary it a bit for our own sanity, and a variety for the fans,” Stainthorpe explains. "Enough to spice up a little bit, to keep it different from the things we've done in the past... but we have a recognized sound, and we're gonna stick to that, because that's what we enjoy doing.” That added spice has often included more atmospheric and symphonic elements, which the band explored on a grand scale in last year's experimental three-disc album Evinta (itself an epic entry in the gothic/neoclassical field and well worth checking out, even if doom metal's not your cup of tea). But while those touches are still in place on this record, the band has peeled back some layers to reveal a raw core of doom/death metal with lyrical themes of ultimate despair, punctuated by moments of horrific fury.
Funeral bells announce the opening track "Kneel Till Doomsday,” a somber gothic gateway into a land of despair, as Stainthorpe's clean, often multi-tracked vocals combine with the creeping guitar harmonies to create a Black Sabbath vibe before exploding into a short but intense burst of dirty death, complete with growls, adding up to the most varied song on the album.
After that strong beginning, the second cut "The Poorest Waltz" actually ups the game with heftier riffs, smooth vocal harmonies and some surprisingly warm guitar leads that trade off with amplified violin by Shaun MacGowan. The vocals come further forward in the dark ballad "A Tapestry Scorned,” alternating from a sorrowful spoken-word passages to double-tracked growls, underpinned by a cool bridge of thunderous drumming and eerie pipe organ, which eventually falls in unison with a low guitar line. If you're into true gothic-style doom, this track will certainly top your playlist.
The song title "Like a Perpetual Funeral" could easily be the band's motto (it certainly defines this album well), and the track itself is a good example of the band's ability to imprint the trademark doom sound on softer, cleaner guitars, pulling back the thick dirge beats in favor of a more free-flowing feel. The title track follows in the same low-key vibe, with Stainthorpe softly muttering the opening lyrics as if lost in thought. When the intensity picks up, the vocals slip further back into the mix, disappearing into whispers beneath the weight of the stacked guitar chords. The lyrics and tone shift to a more adventurous vibe for "Hail Odysseus,” which mimics the crash of ocean waves with grinding surges of mega-dropped guitar chugs, anthemic shouted voices and keyboard washes, with breathtaking results. Violin and lead guitar introduce "Within the Presence of Absence,” which incorporates folksier elements in the mode of an ancient minstrel's tale of doomed love. Closing the album is "Abandoned as Christ,” a tale of cosmic despair that opens with a lonely, echoing guitar solo, then builds on that simple melody with vast, wandering chords that finally restate the theme with a majestic closing harmony.
I sometimes find myself on the fence when it comes to classic doom metal, tending to prefer a darker, more evil occult-oriented tone over the bitter melancholy that is My Dying Bride's specialty, but that's just my personal taste; musically, they are still masters of this genre, and I think that their ventures into neoclassical, folk and ambient territory have helped to enrich their style without stealing from their skills with slow beats and flowing dark harmonies. A Map of All Our Failures demonstrates how easily the band can snap back into classic form, and it stands up mightily among their twenty-year body of work. I also recommend picking up the Special Edition of this album – not only for the excellent bonus track “My Faults Are Your Reward,” but especially for the DVD containing the feature-length documentary An Evening with the Bride, which documents the band's history in interviews, studio and tour footage, and an in-depth look at the band's songwriting and recording process for the new album. Check out the clip below for a preview...