Okay, so you might be thinking to yourself, 'Why the fuck is he reviewing a heavy metal band on a horror site? I don't even like that kind of music...' Well, allow me to give a 'small' explanation...
Despite what some might try and argue to the contrary, metal and horror have a strong and often intertwining relationship. I truly believe this goes beyond the occasional usage of metal tunes in films, or the fact that a lot of horror writers seem to love heavy rock, metal and punk - writers like Stephen King, Adam Nevill, Rich Hawkins, Adam Millard, Jim Goforth, Mark Morris, Paul Finch, Steve Harris (Byrne), Andrew Freudenberg, Laura Mauro, Ginger Nuts' very own Kayleigh Marie Edwards and Kit Power (and myself, obviously) and Simon Marshall-Jones, to name just a tiny few. No, beyond these things, I feel that metal - at its more extreme end, its more obscure and less commercially palatable side - and horror share a similar sense of the disenfranchised, wearing the mantle of the outcast; derided by the general masses, looked down upon as inferior and crude.
Both had big surges in popularity in the 80s that have never been since matched (though still never fully accepted by the general public), both seemed to dwindle to invisibility in the 90s (aside from a handful of perennial giants, metal and horror headed deep underground) and both are now in a period - in my opinion - where there is more variety, innovation and energy than at any time before; mostly coming from small, independent proponents of each respective discipline. And then there is the subject matter; both - horror pretty much by definition - tend towards the dark, the dreadful, the horrific. I do find it tends to be that metal fans are big into horror than horror fans (and writers) are big into metal, but there is still that almost symbiotic relationship. There's even a sub-genre called Horror-Metal, for fuck sake, and that's not even taking into account such diverse bands as Iron Maiden, Metallica, Cannibal Corpse, Death, Slayer and even Black Sabbath who all used horror imagery and subject matter - films and books, I mean - in their songs (Sabbath even taking their name form an old horror film). Conversely, there have been many books and anthologies which have centred themselves around, or featured heavily the music of metal bands. Stephen King has name-checked various hard rock and metal bands in many of his works, Joe Hill's first novel Heart-Shaped Box features an ageing ex-hard rock star as its protagonist, Adam Nevill has used the mystique and controversy of Scandinavian Black Metal bands in his novel The Ritual, and there are many, many more. Metal - like horror - also has moments of pure, fragile beauty, of transcendence and wonder, a sense of crushing awe. For my own part, I grew up in the early 90s getting deeper and deeper into both almost simultaneously. Though I'd watched a number of horror films in the 80s, I'd say my true horror education began when I started to devour the works of King, Masterton, Lumley, Herbert and others. Similarly, my immersion proper in metal began with my first Iron Maiden purchase - although my first album had been Appetite For Destruction by Guns N' Roses in the late 80s - and thereafter, I endeavoured to push further into harder and harder stuff. Which finally brings me to this review...
Reviewing a metal band - especially one which occupies a very specific niche of music - for a horror fiction site might, at first, seem a little strange. But - as I've said above - I suspect many people may appreciate such a thing. Further to that, I feel that this band - My Dying Bride, and how perfect a horror title is that name? - encapsulates more than most all the grandeur, depravity, beauty, violence and atmosphere of the best horror, despite not actually writing songs specifically about established horror books, films or concepts. Their music is, by turns, harsh, melodic, funereal slow with bursts of short-lived, frenetic speed, sidling up to the line of caricatured and camp melodramatic, Gothic horror, but never quite crossing it, never becoming a parody of themselves. Yes, it's heavily distorted guitars, but there's also an elegance, an epic, classical feel too much of what they do. Lyrically, they tend towards the classics - Greek tragedy type of stuff, medieval references, Gothic splendour and grandeur, myths and legends, and an almost nod to cosmic horror in places without being overt or explicit. For me, they represent the same sensibility in their music as the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein do in fiction, but they also have a touch of the Hammer horror films about them (and that isn't an insult, by the by). I've been into this band since, oooh, certainly their first album As The Flower Withers (more lovely horror titles...), which would make it early 1992. I've bought every album since (and most EPs), and they were one of the few bands - possibly the only metal band - that I continued to follow through the dark years when I virtually stopped listening to metal. Beginning as a doom/death band with touches of the gothic, they slowly evolved into something far more ambitious, adding in violins, piano and other orchestral instruments to their trademark epic, crushing riffs. Vocalist Aaron began to sing cleanly on their second album Turn Loose The Swans and by CD three, The Angel And The Dark River, the harsh, death growls were gone. The songs also became shorter, almost standard radio length - where before it wasn't unusual to hit the eight minute mark and beyond - and for a few albums, this was their template. The Light At The End Of The World saw them return to their earlier aesthetic, mixing clean and harsh vocals with longer songs, and since then, they have continued to produce albums in this vein (it's interesting to note that while two of their contemporaries, Anathema and Paradise Lost, both morphed into different bands - PL producing two very interesting albums with virtually no heavy guitars on before coming back to the Gothic metal of before, and Anathema following their own path down into beautiful, ethereal and melancholic music that's about as far from doom/death as you can get - MDB have pretty much kept to what they clearly love doing. Even the 'experimental' album, 34.788%...Complete, isn't really all that different from their other stuff). Feel The Misery is their twelfth studio album and, I'll say it right off the bat, I feel it's their strongest work for a long time. Don't get me wrong, I've liked everything they've done to one extent or another, but the last few albums felt that they were merely coasting along, producing competent if not exceptional work, with the occasional flash of excellence (though the last album, A Map of All Our Failures and the EP that followed it, The Manuscript perhaps stand out a little more to me). But with this CD, I was blown away.
The album kicks off with the epic (over nine minutes) And My Father Left Forever, which is a stonking mid-paced number with some great riffs. This is something which informs the whole album - a stronger focus on powerful guitar work, spot-on pacing and songs that feel crafted. While the sound is nothing new for MDB, the quality of the music feels far more assured and accomplished than recent releases. Continuing, and even upping the quality is second piece, To Shiver in Empty Halls, another nine minute plus track which genuinely made me shiver with its central, emotive riff. There is a definite sense of a band with purpose, with intent to create the very best they can. Everything feels in its place, with not a moment wasted on filler or padding. It's an extremely listenable album - if you're into this kind of stuff - but beyond that is the memorable, strong song-writing. Each piece is distinctive from the last, managing - incredibly - to outshine its predecessor, all the while sounding as part of an organic whole. It's an album that encompasses the entire history of the band's output, from the glorious heights of Turn Loose The Swans to the distinctive production values of 34.788%...Complete, the acoustic beauty of the song Two Winters Only, even what sounds like the drum intro to the wonderful and majestic Sear Me. Though they skate closer to those boundaries of self-conscious melodramatic campness like never before with title track Feel The Misery, it all feels intentional, gleeful even. It's the sound of a band playing and toying with the excesses of a music genre they virtually created, and managing to do it with far more verve and style than any of their more po-faced 'progeny'. Yet even amongst the heavy guitar work, there are moments of quiet reflection, of pained beauty; breakdowns featuring melancholic piano, violin, organ or clean guitars; Aaron's distinctive spoken word pieces, lyrics uttered with a penchant for the evil (listen to the pagan, folksy horror on the outro of To Shiver in Empty Halls, where Aaron whispers in cruel delight as a creeping, jaunty guitar melody plays out). And not just moments. The penultimate track, I Almost Loved You, is an almost completely guitar free, piano led mournful ballad, which hits heights of painful beauty and depths of utter despair. It's a great lead-in to the epic ten minute closing track, Within a Sleeping Forest, a funereal, mournful piece complete with haunting organ music and violin.
But it's not all more of the same (as wonderful as more of the same is). There are snippets of riffs that put me in mind of the driving force of bands like Amon Amarth, or sections of music that soared like no other MDB music I've ever heard before. Aaron's vocals are on form as always, switching from harsh death growls to clean singing, oscillating between moments of misery-filled, plaintiveness and a voice that revels in evil, but this time around, he seems to really inhabit the vocals, the words. To paraphrase Spinal Tap, it's like a my Dying Bride album turned up to eleven. Though I've only had the CD a few days, I've already given it quite a few spins and feel I won't get tired of playing this one for a while. The more times I listen to it, the more is revealed, layers of intricacy hiding beneath a seeming simplicity that only appear after you think you've got a handle on it. I can see it easily becoming my second favourite of theirs after Turn Loose The Swans.
So, in summary, probably not a band or album you'll like if you don't like heavy metal (though as much as I adhere to an 'each to their own' policy, I do feel dismissal of such a huge and wide-ranging musical style is no different from those who dismiss horror because they think they know what it's all about...), but if you have even the tiniest of open minds, it might be worth giving it a go to see what you think. As for my colleagues and friends who do love metal; if you haven't given the Bride a listen, or haven't listened to them in a while, it might be worth checking them out, and you could do worse than this particular album, which I feel is a very strong example of what they're capable of, and a great showcase for their particular aesthetic.
Thanks for reading.
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PAUL M. FEENEY
THE HEART AND SOUL OFHORROR REVIEWS