British goth-metal mainstays Cradle of Filth have had a bumpy ride since the new millennium came about. I’ll admit to checking out after 2000’s Midian, and from what I’ve seen, between members jumping ship en masse, half-inspired songwriting, and bad dance covers, I didn’t really miss much. Sure, I’ll check out the occasional song here and there, but for the most part, Cradle of Filth seemed to lack the ferocity that made the period between 1996’s Vempire EP through Midian such incredible albums. It doesn’t help that half of the band up and left between 2012’s The Manticore and Other Horrors and now, including long-time guitarist and songwriter, Paul Allender. With yet another new line-up and with the chips stacked heavily against them, does Hammer of the Witches, an ode to the Malleus Maleficarum, return them to the forefront of extreme gothic metal, or should we just burn this shit to the stake and be done with it?
After a very atmospheric intro in “Walpurgis Eve,” “Yours Immortally” blasts forth, and immediately you notice some major, welcome changes. Martin “Marthus” Škaroupka cements himself as a worthy follow-up to previous drummers like Adrian Erlandsson (At The Gates, Paradise Lost) and Nick Barker. Dani Filth’s screams, though still annoying shrill and overbearing when he hits the higher registers, are kept at a pretty comfortable mid-range, allowing for not only the enjoyment of the listener, but also enabling him to enunciate better, making his usually poetic lyrics easier to discern. But the biggest change is with new guitarists Marek “Ashok” Šmerda (ex-Root) and Richard Shaw (NG26). To put it simply, the two more-than-competent guitarists injecting some much-needed new (tainted) blood into the Cradle. There are twin-guitar melodies everywhere, recalling great memories of masterpieces like Dusk & Her Embrace. Hell, even Daniel Firth puts in a great bass performance with a good flourish near the end. Cradle, at this point in time, needed that shot in the arm in a huge way. In fact, I came away from this song very, very impressed, and I haven’t felt that way in a long time with their output.
By and large, this is a very guitar-driven album. There are no shortage of hooks, such as the main riff on “Blackest Magick In Practice,” which almost immediately reminded me of “Beauty Slept in Sodom” from Dusk. “Enshrined In Crematoria” and “Right Wing of the Garden Triptych” both possess strong tremolo melodies, the latter also benefitting from vocals by new keyboardist Lindsay Schoolcraft. But it’s “Deflowering The Maidenhead, Displeasuring the Goddess” that hits hardest. Between the incredible leads by Ashok and Shaw, and the frantic energy and atmospheric backdrop of the music behind them, I found myself returning to this song quite a bit. Again, when’s the last time I felt that way about Cradle? Yeah.
As with all Cradle of Filth albums, the production on Hammer is grandiose and thick, often to the detriment of the drums, with the bass drum especially sounding off kilter. The other, bigger problem is that the album is very long in the fang. 56 minutes of Cradle of Filth is a lot to take in, and I can only take so much of Dani’s screeching or keyboard fluffery. In fact, if the last three songs were omitted, this would’ve been a stronger record, as everything preceding was pretty solid.
So I went into Hammer of the Witches with some major trepidations, and came away quite impressed. Not a bad outing for Cradle of Filth. In fact, if (and it’s a huge if) they can keep this line-up intact for the next go-around, I’d love to hear what they come up with. Don’t shut the coffin on these guys (and girl) just yet.