Totter ye down the smelly annals of black metal history, and you will find lo-fi aesthetics deployed, at first unavoidably, and then deliberately. It’s a sound that’s been widely imitated since the cash-strapped pioneers of the first wave stumbled upon an atmospheric peculiarly suited to their theme. Since then, from the reverb-sodden monolith of Grieghallen, where many early Norse black metal bands – hell-bent on sticking two
matchsticks fingers up at the commodification of extreme metal – recorded their albums under the tutelage of producer Pytte, to the apocryphal forest in which Nattens Madrigal was allegedly recorded, and down to the present day, it remains what is known in metal journalese as a ‘genre signifier’. Today, it’s largely used either as a sort of elitist homage or as a technique in its own right, excised from its original historical circumstances and taken towards innovative new frontiers.
But in the case of Cradle Of Filth‘s third album, 1998’s Cruelty And The Beast, there’s every reason to believe that its famously anaemic production was never intended to be so: whence, this 21st anniversary ‘Re-Mistress’ that has swooped into our inbox (21st anniversary, and not 20th, because in a reprisal of the in-band scuffling that dogged its early incarnations, a legal tussle with one or more former members apparently prevented its release in 2018). Chief among these reasons is the testimony of the band members themselves – Cradle’s most iconic line-up – but you don’t need to be familiar with the back-story to note the incongruity of the album’s mix within the Cradle canon as a whole. It’s a testament to the strength of the tracks that it’s still nevertheless widely considered the band’s best, regularly finding itself atop essential black metal lists. Cruelty, along with that documentary and that t-shirt, catapulted the Filth into the public eye and served as a wide gate by which the many (present author included) could enter into the possession of the few – to wit, the considerably less friendly faces of the Scandinavian second wave.
Its credibility as a black metal album – and the band’s credibility as a whole – remains, of course, viciously disputed: but few ask whether it’s what they were shooting for in the first place. Let’s pause to consider this for a while, as it’ll help to shine a light on why a remaster (usually a bit of a non-event) has been so sorely needed. By the time of its writing, Cradle were already a successful band, Cruelty’s predecessor on Music For Nations, 1996’s Dusk And Her Embrace, having sold half a million copies – reason enough for them to be dismissed by some as too commercial to qualify any longer as black metal. But despite their many contact points with the Norwegian scene, including supporting Emperor on their first UK tour in 1993, the band drew from a distinctive (and decidedly English) palette of influences, towards an entirely separate end – one which did not exclude the possibility of reaching wider audiences, as we shall see. Musically, these influences began to crystallise on Dusk with the debut appearances of drummer Nick Barker and lead guitarist Stuart Anstis (who was responsible for all guitars despite Gian Pyres’ credit in the liner notes), and the sound of its follow-up was the sound of a line-up hitting its stride before its untimely dissipation.
At a time when Iron Maiden released the single worst album in the entire heavy metal catalogue (and most of your other favourite bands went to shit, too), Cradle Of Filth snatched up the gauntlet. Their essence was the twin guitar of Smith and Murray with a Bathory/Slayer black thrash backdrop, married to the pantomime blasphemies of Venom and King Diamond and then marinated in the romantic melancholy of the gothic death/doom of British bands Anathema, My Dying Bride, and Paradise Lost. The sound bore more than just a familial resemblance to the latter set – Cradle has shared members with all three throughout its history (Cruelty’s keyboardist, Les ‘Lecter’ Smith, for one, departed for Anathema after follow-up EP From The Cradle To Enslave, to be replaced by Anathema’s Martin Powell).
Forged in the crucible of England’s witch county, Suffolk, it’s no surprise that early iterations of the band, steered by vocalist and lyricist Dani Filth, who soaked up the lore as a youth, gravitated towards a fuller, earthier feel than their counterparts across the North Sea, realised perhaps definitively by producer Kit Woolven on Dusk. What coldness bit at the edges of their sound was not inspired by majestic frozen landscapes (this is England, mate) but by the gothic horror of the Victorian era – vampires and their psycho-sexual allure featured prominently on album artwork and formed part of the band’s aesthetic. You could argue that satanic/anti-Christian sentiment was never a central theme or motivation – rather, it was a mode of delivery, or a lexicon (cf. Dani’s lyrics, often peppered with impious punning). Elements of the first wave that were used by the bands of the Norwegian black metal revival in the service of constructing a romanticised, heroic and pre-Christian national identity, were delivered by Cradle Of Filth in the original vein, i.e. with a sense ov humour. They didn’t give a shit about ‘lost pride’: by dousing themselves in the camp top notes of the British satirical tradition, they effectively ruled themselves out of being taken seriously for good – a clever move.
There’s one thing satire needs, and that’s a knowing audience with whom to share the joke. Cradle may have courted the public gaze, but more importantly, the sound delivered on what the visuals promised – and that’s because it had a strongly cinematic, horror film soundtrack feel, with a perceptible narrative flow. This was the near-genius of Cruelty And The Beast, which marked the beginning of a trend towards concept, or at least conceptually contiguous, albums for much of the Cradle discography up to the present time. By taking inspiration from the legend of Hungary’s famously problematic countess, Cruelty directly invoked the first wave in two obvious ways – Venom’s ‘Countess Bathory’ on 1982’s Black Metal, and the Swedish band helmed by Quorthon – whilst continuing the band’s arc towards a cleaner NWOBHM-infused delivery. And, by presenting a more modern, sexed-up, vampirised version of Elizabeth Bathory, they appealed to audiences recently primed by box office hits such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview With The Vampire, whilst also boasting the implicit endorsement of British horror institution Hammer Film Productions in the form of an appearance from Ingrid Pitt, who played the original Bathory in Countess Dracula (1971). These were songs made for the stage, and they demanded a suitably magnificent production.
Reader, that production is not what they got. History has handed us an easy explanation for this: the band’s first choice of producer was Dusk engineer Mike Exeter (later: Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) but the label instead anointed Jan Peter Genkel to the role (Exeter retains a co-production credit, however) – a choice that on the surface seems to explain everything, as Genkel had previously produced gothic and symphonic metal acts such as Therion, EverEve and Darkseed. A cold, thin air might well have been expected to pervade Cruelty as a result and, given its setting, was even appropriate. But that shouldn’t have come at the cost of the production value itself, so what happened – indeed, how much of the resultant sound reflected a conscious choice, and how much was actually just damage limitation? Dig deeper and the real culprit seems to be Nick Barker’s experimentation with drum triggers – the emaciated drum sound being the main complaint lodged against the album – which necessitated a corresponding weakening of the other tracks as they were layered on top, most significantly the guitars. This weakening only served to expose the drums further during the more intricate guitar parts, such as the waltzing passage in ‘Beneath The Howling Stars’, leaving both the vocals and the keys unsupported.
Clearly, none of these peccadilloes harmed the album’s commercial performance or its enduring reputation as a jewel in the ’90s extreme metal crown, but if there’s ever a time to right these wrongs, it’s a big anniversary remaster. For this purpose Cradle have enlisted longtime producer Scott Atkins to construct what Dani has referred to as an “anatomical remix” rather than a straight-up remaster. The physical release has been rejuvenated with artwork from original Cruelty photographer Stu Williamson and liner notes from ubiquitous scene chronicler Dayal Patterson. One danger here might be a temptation towards revisionism – that the band’s present (now rather more big budget) tastes would be cynically transposed onto the ’98 version in order to paper over the large gap in quality between the studied viciousness of the sophisticated Cruelty and the moribund commercialism some find in the band’s subsequent output. But happily, what we get is faithful to the raw creativity of the original, and, trust us, it sounds like a bastard.
For a start, you can now listen to the album through crappy headphones without doing your ears a permanent mischief. That cheesegrater treble has been dialled back, and a whole world of low-end has been unveiled, including the bass drum, which no longer sounds like somebody typing an email (gone also is the toy soldier snare). The restored drum sound now allows for the sometimes painfully sinewy guitars on the original to be significantly fattened out, and Lecter’s ecclesiastical flourishes have been amplified whilst steering clear of egregious assault on the senses. Fans will be aware of operatic vocalist Sarah Jezebel Deva’s complaint, in her customary vernacular of the tavern, that Genkel’s production of her vocals led to an echoey head-down-toilet sound, and whilst a faint whiff of the lavatory remains, this is one of the “flaws” in the original that many found added to its vaulted Romanesque atmosphere. While her vocal lines sit a bit higher up in this mix, revealing some that were implied but not explicit before (particularly on ‘Cruelty Brought Thee Orchids’), there is nothing here of the overcooked sound that occurred later on tracks such as ‘Amor E Morte’ or ‘Her Ghost In The Fog’ from follow-up Midian.
Now, as in the ’90s, what comes out of Dani Filth’s mouth proves for some to be too insurmountable a barrier to fully embracing the CoF universe, but it must be agreed, firstly, that such chicanery now feels almost endearing when held up against the undisguised fascism of some of today’s headlining acts, and secondly, that what comes out of his pen is of a much higher order – matched perhaps only in literary value among his contemporaries by Byron Roberts of former Cacophonous labelmates Bal-Sagoth. What captures this writer’s thirty-five-year-old imagination as much as it did at fourteen is, ultimately, not only the macabre story Cruelty tells but the manner in which it’s served – with copious erotic license, delivered via Dani’s trademark bastardisation of English romantic verse, spat forth in a spray of advanced syphilitic mania. It’s said that few effects other than reverb were used on the vocals, which is impressive when you consider the wide range of styles employed, whether or not the shriller end is your thing; and now, riding atop this mix’s newly muscularised workhorse, the lyrics – delivered, as always, with perfectly metrical precision – acquire an even more powerful narrative force.
Only one blight is there on this otherwise polished ornament, and that’s the bonus track: a cover of ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name,’ which has appeared on some previous reissues of Cruelty but now also receives the remastering treatment. It’s not that it’s not good (it’s very good) – and at least it’s not ‘Helter Skelter’ (just why, Samael?) – it’s just that a concept album is something of a sacred circle, and breaking it with such a thematic redundancy is needlessly jarring. Nor does it tell us anything we didn’t know, the Maiden reference being clear enough on the album’s finisher ‘Lustmord And Wargasm’ without having to be ruined by being made explicit.
While a ‘Re-Mistress’ is on some level supererogatory – welcome, but not essential – it metes out a bittersweet twinge to longtime fans, opening a small counterfactual window onto what this line-up might sound like now if it hadn’t disintegrated. For with the departure prior to Midian of Anstis, Barker and Smith, Cradle lost its creative nucleus and, with it, a magic that’s never since been recaptured. The chances of a reunion are vanishingly small, especially as the band has settled into a more stable entity than it once was and is now producing its strongest material since the early 2000s (especially 2017’s Cryptoriana). If you regard the original as an unfuckwithable classic, then feel free to pass, but you might be missing out, as Cradle’s last word on its finest hour is more than an erratum. Our memories tend to gift those albums that changed our lives a sound as large as their effect on us, and while we can’t claim with any confidence that Cruelty now sounds as it was originally intended, we can certainly venture that it is now as many of us imagined it all along.
Cruelty And The Beast Re-Mistressed is out now via Music For Nations and can be purchased here.
Words: Jordan Summers Young