It's a wonder Dani Filth has any tissue left in his esophagus. If any one person aurally represents Nuclear Blast Records, it's this guy, who's a vocal detonation with his elongated screeches peeled at will. For his abusive throat inflictions, Dani and CRADLE OF FILTH remain one of the finest extreme metal bands on the planet. Leave it to debate whether or not CRADLE OF FILTH is still a black metal band or not, given their "Vestal Masturbation" t-shirt or Dani Filth sporting a crown of thorns intermittently within the band's new video for "Right Wing of the Garden Triptych". Whatever you want to call them at this point (Dani will smarmily tell you it's "heavy funk"), Dani and the band will push buttons if there are any to be pushed. Consider the appearance of kinbaku bondage artist Gestalta within the "Triptych" video and the fleshly Baroque cover art by Arthur Berzinsh on the band's eleventh album, "Hammer of the Witches".
CRADLE OF FILTH welcomes two new guitarists to the flock, Marek "Ashok" Smerda and Richard Shaw as well as keyboardist/vocalist/harpist Lindsay Schoolcraft, bassist Daniel Firth and drummer/orchestral wizard Martin "Marthus" Skraroupka to round out the band's 2015 lineup. Having Ashok and Richard Shaw allows CRADLE OF FILTH to re-emphasize the twin guitar attack that was missing on the band's last album, "The Manticore and Other Horrors" and 2008's "Godspeed On the Devil's Thunder", fielded singlehandedly then by Paul Allender.
The departure of Allender after so long a stay in CRADLE OF FILTH could've been debilitating, along with the exit of Sarah Jezebel Deva, who'd first made her mark on the band's 2004 breakout, "Nymphetamine". Yet Dani Filth (the only remaining member from its inception in 1991) has masterminded an exceptional outing with "Hammer of the Witches", one of the band's most encompassing albums yet. The album is Faustian in sound with eerie and somber violins penetrating the omnipresent thrash and grind of the album. It is also Faustian in Arthur Berzinsh's titillating cover painting, which he describes as "the ambivalent art of Renaissance that reanimated motives of pagan mythology after the Middle Ages, and, of course, the darkly beautiful and charming spirit of Goetia traditions that is filled with the atmosphere of hermetical rituals".
Like most CRADLE OF FILTH albums, "Hammer of the Witches" is an investment of time, as each of the major songs span six to seven minutes. As ever, there's a grand scope to this project as weepy violin and backing orchestral strings open the album on "Walpurgis Eve", only to be whisked away by a tsunami of thrash and grind on "Yours Immortally…" There's very little slowdown on "Yours Immortally…" save for a couple of brief pullbacks to serve as decorative regeneration points to kick the track back into speed. Dani Filth at one point hits a shriek so devastating it'll cause mass squinting, but Lindsay Schoolcraft joins in during the cascading progression leading to the outro, acting as momentary voice of reason, much as her predecessor did.
It becomes nearly wondrous how tight and effortlessly the refurbished lineup of CRADLE OF FILTH plays this album. With "Marthus" Skraroupka holding the longest tenure since 2006, the band is seamless in threading power modes and rocketing thrash on "Enshrined in Crematoria" while all of the choral and orchestral supplements shower the faster parts like a whipping storm. The traded guitar solos on "Enshrined in Crematoria" are perverse and wicked, to the good. Speaking of perverse and wicked by mere suggestion in title, the next track is "Deflowering the Maidenhead, Displeasuring the Goddess". This one rattles and flails mercilessly after a lavish intro and the same haunting melody swirls about the tireless speed like a Hammer film score stolen by black metal thrashers. Exquisite.
The speed only increases on "Blackest Magick in Practice" after Lindsay Schoolcraft lures the listeners in with a dark lullaby. The more intense this composition gets, the more Dani Filth peels his listeners' eardrums apart, receptors already skinned by pounding velocity and left vulnerable by gorgeous keys and violins eddying about like a false sense of security. The slowdowns are equally powerful and filled with even more grandiosity than anyone could expect, even from CRADLE OF FILTH.
Schoolcraft brings extra artillery with her harp on the sensuous interlude "The Monstrous Sabbat (Summoning the Coven)", which sets up the mostly-mid-tempo torrent of the title track. Schoolcraft and Dani Filth vie for attention as the orchestral segments rise higher, and then the song bolts away with piano and strings matching the tornado gusts of the guitars. Harpsichord serves as momentary quietude on "Hammer of the Witch", which grows more and more epic with each movement.
Is Dani Filth enjoying a political play on words with "Right Wing of the Garden Triptych"? You be the judge amidst the wailing calamity, the will-severing violins and Lindsay Schoolcraft's siren chimes, then enjoy the scalding ride to "Hammer of the Witches"' finish. A CRADLE OF FILTH album can be like a corkscrew-laden rollercoaster ride and "Hammer of the Witches" is no exception. It's frequently astonishing, always outstanding. It's one of the most layered and confident albums Dani Filth's written and this ensemble is dialed in to his devilish whims. Played to near-perfection, "Hammer of the Witches" can be extreme metal, black metal, dark orchestral metal, whatever. It's freaking metal, period, and high caliber, at that.