After playing a pivotal role in popularizing extreme metal in the late-1990s by ingeniously co-opting the aesthetics of goth metal and Norwegian black metal and transforming it into something completely different and over the top, Cradle of Filth has struggled with inconsistency ever since their 1996 breakthrough Dusk…and Her Embrace. It’s not as if the English band has been resting on its laurels; anything but, in fact, as they’ve been churning out a heavily hyped new album every two years like clockwork, but for all the overblown arrangements and extravagant conceptual ideas by diminutive frontman/impresario/corpsepainted carnival barker Dani Filth, being prolific seems to have come at the expense of putting out a quality product. While Cradle of Filth continues to be as popular as ever, their studio output has been decidedly up and down, especially in recent years, 2003’s symphonic opus Damnation and a Day ambitious but horribly, horribly bloated, 2004’s Nymphetamine a welcome return to form, and 2006’s follow-up Thornography subsequently taking another step back.
With Godspeed on the Devil’s Thunder, all the ingredients are there for a very good Cradle of Filth album. Always fascinated with the idea of the concept albums, having covered everything from Clive Barker, to John Milton, to Countess Bathory, Dani Filth takes on the story of notorious French serial killer Gilles de Rais on his band’s eighth record, and the tale fits this band like a bloody glove. You’ve got a French nobleman who fights alongside (and is presumably in love with) Joan of Arc, delves into sorcery after her execution, proceeds to sexually abuse and murder of dozens, perhaps hundreds of children, and is eventually arrested, tried, and hung. Filth, a master of macabre imagery and savage wit, is the perfect person to deliver an opera based on the exploits of one of the most infamous sadists in history, so you can’t blame fans for getting their hopes up.
What we’re stuck with, though, is yet another Cradle of Filth album that drags on for more than 70 minutes, and although Filth’s lyrics and flamboyantly eccentric vocal performance are as deliciously demented as ever, the actual musical arrangements don’t reach anywhere near the level they’re supposed to. Written by guitarist Paul Allender and keyboardist Mark Newby-Robson, there’s plenty of flash, loads of musical pyrotechnics, and all proficiently performed and recorded, but all too often, actual hooks are nonexistent.
When the songs do work, though, the results are extraordinary. “Shat Out of Hell” is the prototypical Cradle of Filth opener, bursting out of the gate with it’s straightforward black metal approach of rapid-fire blast beats and melodic, tremolo picking by Allender, Filth leading the charge with his bizarre voice, spitting out his clever lyrics in a dry rasp, a troll-like growl, and his piercing, hawk-like screeches. Filth has always proven very adept at creating some of the finest male-female duets you’ll ever come across in goth metal, and the gorgeous, unapologetically maudlin “The Death of Love” is no exception, as he trades lines with silken-voiced singer Carolyn Gretton (singing as de Rais and Jeanne d’Arc respectively), making for the band’s catchiest song since “Nymphetamine”. After the grim “The 13th Caesar”, we’re thinking that this could very well be the best Cradle album we’ve heard in a very long time, but it’s not long before that momentum is quickly snuffed, as the bulk of Godspeed on the Devil’s Thunder downshifts, coasting for close to an hour.
We do get the odd moment that wakes us from our stupor, as “Honey and Sulphur” is predictable fare but still an effectively moody track, while the lavish, nine-minute epic “Darkness Incarnate” contains some of Allender’s most memorable riffing. Sadly, that’s about as good as Allender gets, as he and Newby Robson continually, and annoyingly, revert back to pedestrian playing and uninspired melodies. As for Filth, he does everything he can to engage the listener, his lyrics simultaneously goofy and grisly, clearly relishing lines like, “Demons in his semen / That clung about the throats / Of children dragged from cellars to his rooms,” but too often the arrangements fail to hold up their end. Filth needs better songwriting partners, plain and simple.
Over the last decade, Cradle of Filth’s career trajectory has run parallel with that of Norway’s similarly cartoonish Dimmu Borgir, but while Dimmu Borgir has taking their time carefully and calculatedly crafting consistently enjoyable extreme albums, Cradle of Filth’s output over the same time has focused more on quantity over quality. While we do get a moment of inspiration or two, the band’s inconsistencies continue to dog them. Sure, the fans will continue to lap it up, but for how much longer?