It should be relatively uncontroversial to suggest that Cradle of Filth’s finest days are almost certainly in the past. That’s not intended as a withering indictment of the band’s recent output, but one imagines the contingent of fans who would argue that post-2000 Cradle bests pre-2000 Cradle (in particular, the band’s pinnacle run of Vempire/Dusk…and Her Embrace/Cruelty and the Beast) is a distinct minority. Nevertheless, The Manticore and Other Horrors demonstrates that a band’s waning influence doesn’t necessarily need to coincide with a dimming of the wind-guttered flame that animates the best in heavy metal.
Cradle of Filth’s general approach throughout the album is sturdy, straight-forwardly aggressive, and more riff-based than they’ve been in quite some time. Martin Škaroupka’s drums blast, pummel, swerve, and even tip into a polished almost-d-beat here and there. The symphonic elements, ever an integral part of the band’s sound, are quite nicely integrated so as not to be particularly overbearing. For many skeptical listeners, however, the most crucial detail may be that Dani Filth’s voice has aged notably. He resorts to his banshee screeching much less frequently, and generally utilizes a wider range of lower tones and vocal styles that suit the music quite well.
The attribute that works most in this album’s favor, however, is the fact that the band has kept the songs trimmed down to the 4-5 minute range, compared to the frequently meandering songs and bloated run-time of the previous two (still rather good) albums. Apart from these slight modifications, The Manticore is largely late-period Cradle business as usual, which means, for the uninitiated or easily distracted, mostly stout, late-period Iron Maiden-repping heavy metal draped liberally with the faintest memory of the gothic black metal the band used to peddle. Nevertheless, there are some nice touches and surprises, including the majestic, darkly melodic midsection and guitar solo of “For Your Vulgar Delectation,” the melancholic “Frost On Her Pillow,” and the nice texture provided by grand piano keyboard settings on “Siding with the Titans.” The lead female vocals provided sparingly by Lucy Atkins also work wonderfully, in particular on “Succumb to This,” where her deep, rich voice serves as an excellent complement to the song’s overall tone.
Perhaps because Cradle of Filth carved out such an idiosyncratic niche so early in its career, the more difficult it is, even as a longtime fan, to get all that excited about a new album. Though this is likely an unavoidable fact in the life of a careerist band, to ignore the new shadings and periodic recalibrations to Cradle of Filth’s sound would be to willfully overlook the band’s professionalism and impressive work ethic. How many bands get to ten albums and still have something to say? Cradle of Filth sustains a self-summoned universe through remarkable willpower, and in light of the continued decline of the music industry, we could all use more of that: a functioning snow globe nestled amidst the sodden timbers of a shipwreck.