Some are born sad, some achieve sadness, and some have sadness thrust upon them. In the case of West Yorkshire’s incurable sad sacks My Dying Bride, it could be that all three are true.
Formed amidst the leading tail of death metal’s fermentation into a recognizable draught, the band staked out a unique claim from very early days and has never since let up or been bettered. The association with West Yorkshire’s own Peaceville Records right from the start has led legions of armchair historians (hi, hello, how are you) to lump My Dying Bride in with Anathema and Paradise Lost as the “Peaceville Three,” but handy marketing heuristics aside, each band made similarly swift moves from relative death metal orthodoxy to farther-flung landscapes. In fact, My Dying Bride was arguably the most initially idiosyncratic member of the Peaceville Three, and the first to most fully embrace and personify the possibilities of the sadder, softer edges of the doom/death sound, which makes it somewhat ironic that in many ways, theirs is the sound that has changed the least over the past 25 years.
Although My Dying Bride has seen a fair amount of personnel change over the years, the core has always been guitarist Andrew Craighan (who surely gets short shrift in most conversations of heavy metal’s riff royalty, despite penning such an unerringly colossal body of riffs that in another, fairer universe he might properly be seen as one of Leif Edling’s finest disciples) and vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe. Of course, from the band’s very first EP and album, Martin Powell’s violin provided a novelty that has been copied with surprising infrequency based on how successful it was in their hands. But in truth, while the violin is an essential part of so many My Dying Bride songs, it has flitted in and out of the picture with personnel turnover to such an extent that it cannot be seen as defining the band as a whole.
In fact, if you want to get really well and truly down to the business of Truth, what honestly defines My Dying Bride isn’t even the alternately crooning, gnashing, snarling, and weeping vocals of Aaron Stainthorpe, which I wager many fans would nominate as the band’s most easily identifiable feature. Rather, what defines My Dying Bride is sadness. Sounds pretty ho-hum, but think about it, because over a 12-album and nearly 30-year career (no, we’re not counting Evinta, and neither should you), My Dying Bride has explored nearly every possible shade, shadow, corner, and categorization of sadness: from Sad (A Little) to Sad (Very) to Sad (Extremely); from Sad (Religious) to Sad (Violent) to Sad (Horny) to Sad (Grieving) to Sad (Mythological) to Sad (Existential); from Sad (Vague) to Sad (General) to Sad (Specific) to Sad (Universal); and so on and on down an endless chain of sorrow, misery, despair, malaise, lugubriousness, unease, gloom, wretchedness, dejection, woe, melancholy, depression, mournfulness, heartache, and dolor.
My Dying Bride Sadness (c) Exhibit A: Word Cloud of Sadness
Join us, then, in getting just ridiculously sad and stoked on the very best songs from this very best band’s sad catalog (sadalog?). Even as we voted on and finalized the songs for this piece, we were nearly rent with our own sadnesses at what we had to exclude (“A Kiss to Remember”? “God is Alone”? “The Wreckage of My Flesh”? “Le Figlie Della Tempesta”? “A Sea to Suffer In”? “The Light at the End of the World”? “Santuario di Sangue”? “L’Amour Détruit”? Are you kidding me? Shame on all of us, forever and ever). But really, that’s what makes this band so special: no matter how silly you may think they are (and – full disclosure – it is super easy to think of this band as extremely silly), they persist down the only road they’ve ever known because they know, sooner or later, you’ll join them. The sorrows they sing are universal, and it only takes the first chill breeze of October, or the half-forgotten memory of someone you used to love, or the empathetic drinking in of a stranger’s imagined pain for you to join the choir.
By amplifying and dramatizing every possible sadness, My Dying Bride validates my sadness and yours, allowing us to see that whether they are trivial and embarrassing or catastrophic and soul-shaking, we are not alone in our sadnesses. That’s the true cry of mankind.
[Turn Loose the Swans, 1993]
Key among their many traits is that My Dying Bride is the sound of being drained. It is exhaustion — physical, emotional, mental — put into sound form. Many of their songs encapsulate this quality, but “Your River” was among the earliest, and still one of the purest examples. Its opening minutes feature naked, chiming clean guitars, lumbering doom riffs that pair perfectly with Martin Powell’s violin (an essential element in early MDB), neck-wrecking death metal, guitar banshee wails out of the background, and finally, reflective, somber leads. It isn’t until the leads that Aaron Stainthorpe’s singing enters the picture, and by then, the listener’s gas gauge already reads E. From this point on, the song’s job is merely to hold the listener in stasis, unable to move due to both the feeling of exhaustion and (obviously) the gorgeous music. When the heft picks up and Stainthorpe starts growling, the effect is less that the listener is renewed with energy, but rather that the song has found a new way to pile on the despair. “Your River” grips, drains, and devours, with 40 minutes of Turn Loose the Swans still left to process. Exquisitely merciless, and quintessential My Dying Bride.
SYMPHONAIRE INFERNUS ET SPERA EMPYRIUM
[Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium, 1991]
I’m not certain who we have to thank for bringing violins into extreme metal, but it’s probably Celtic Frost. Thank you, Celtic Frost. And thank you, My Dying Bride, for being the first (I believe? Maybe someone can confirm or veto that fact) to incorporate them into death/doom several years later. The demo version of “Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium” was wonderfully rotting, heavy and atmospheric in its own right, but the addition of violin (and harpsichord) for the rendering dropped via Peaceville in 1991 for the band’s first official release gave the song a firm medieval embellishment that would only escalate as the years piled on. The longer EP interpretation of “Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium” is absolutely unmitigated death/doom in its truest form, with a perfect mix of vulnerable weepiness, dark & sloooow heaviness and fleeting bursts of speed, and the added Baroque slant provided by the outsider instruments give it a nod of arrogance that makes the song simply irresistible. Sweeten the brew with Aaron Stainthorpe’s poetic and often disturbing savvy in the lyrical department and you’ve got a legitimate classic on your hands.
THE RAVEN AND THE ROSE
[The Dreadful Hours, 2001]
A ton of My Dying Bride’s best tunes start in a morose manner, letting the tears really settle in before the riffs take hold. Not “The Raven and the Rose,” however. Sandwiched between two of the moodier, driftier songs on The Dreadful Hours, it grips the listener, and fast. The opening chord progressions carry with them a sense of heightened intensity and foreboding, but it’s the big snare hit and introduction of stomping heft that really pairs well with a “shit just got REAL” look from your buddy. Organs add a gothic flair to the extra deathy doom/death of the verses, while the somber, softer response acts less as a release than a temporary respite from the onslaught. A monstrous, rage-ridden climax shows that Aaron Stainthorpe is as much a hall of fame growler as he is a mopey crooner, while touches of piano and then a somber resolution bring the song out of the aggression and back into typical MDB melancholy. A full tour of the band’s various modes, just not necessarily in the order expected.
TWO WINTERS ONLY
[The Angel and the Dark River, 1995]
As the word-cloud up top can attest, MDB is not particularly well-suited for summer. Even so, great music is universal, and the fact that it was a blazing hot summer’s day when, on a pure blind whim, I picked up a used copy of The Angel and the Dark River at Cheapo Records in Saint Paul, Minnesota, ca. 1999 or 2000, did absolutely nothing to hinder my dropped-jaw astonishment at this record that was literally unlike anything I had ever heard. It was heavy, I guess, in its way, but also very clean and soft and sad and had an electric violin tone that sounded, well, really shitty. I remember at the time feeling a bit shocked and wondering if the band had wanted the album to sound like this on purpose. Even from that first encounter, though, cranking this weird and weepy metal album with the windows down in the black 1990 Acura Legend I drove for years until I fell asleep at the wheel and crashed it into a tree (not before, some years prior to that incident, accidentally blowing out one of the speakers with the bass on Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U”…), something about this album hooked me and never let go.
“The Cry of Mankind” is the undisputed classic, but my favorite has always been “Two Winters Only.” The acoustic-picked opening gives the song a madrigal feel, and even as it builds in slowly but fiercely determined intensity, the song is almost an elongated, doom-dredged chanson. In its crescendos, the song squeezes the most emotion out of the guitar riff and its crucially keening violin adornment, but it may actually be the drums that provide the most compelling narrative energy. And the truly crucial element here (and throughout the album) is that Aaron Stainthorpe sounds… utterly hollowed out. This may sound like damning with faint praise (which it’s not, because Angel remains my favorite MDB album), but part of what works so well about the album is that its emotions are wrung out across a nearly horizontal surface. The songs bloom and circle and pause and breathe, but the dynamics are almost flat, as if the entire band is just exhausted by the weight of their despair. Come fall, winter, spring, or even summer, if there’s a MDB song lodged in my head, three hundred velvet-draped candles to one says it’s “Two Winters Only.”
AND MY FATHER LEFT FOREVER
[Feel the Misery, 2015]
If ever you wanted to spot a perfect album opener, “And My Father Left Forever” has got you covered. Waltzing straight out of the gates with a brilliant riff that both chugs and smoothly stutters, the song quickly gives way to some unusually choppering rhythm guitar and a strikingly high and plain vocal turn from Aaron Stainthorpe. Soon enough, though, it all sinks back – as, metaphorically, it always must – to doom and well-met ruin. Although to their detractors, My Dying Bride had long since sunk to the realm of self-parody, Feel the Misery is every bit as important a rejuvenation as The Dreadful Hours was 14 years earlier. While it remains to be seen if it portends a similar stretch of brilliance as followed The Dreadful Hours, if the band dissolved tomorrow it would be with a truly classic swansong. “And My Father Left Forever” is one of those wonderful My Dying Bride songs where every section of the song is immediately recognizable, and it leans even heavier than usual on indelible vocal hooks. Just as the song feels like it has settled into a comfortable groove after the first few minutes of its introductory melody, the 4:00-minute mark brings a perfectly timed transition into an even greater vocal melody, and then at 5:03 there’s a H.E.A.V.Y. metal doom riff that the likes of Grand Magus wishes they could still write. You’re getting the point, no? It’s a great fucking song from a band whose frankly lugubrious and borderline gimmicky style never had any business being as good as it ever was, let alone 25 years into its career. And they know it, too! Listen to that closing couplet: “The Devil, he is very old indeed. / We sit with a few stories to tell.” It’s both a magnificent kiss-off and a well-taken promise to the long faithful. Why not pull up a chair?
[Songs of Darkness, Words of Light, 2004]
More than perhaps any other My Dying Bride record, Songs of Darkness, Words of Light acts as a cohesive picture. From the foreboding opening of “The Wreckage of My Flesh” through to the crawling, actually palpable doom of finale “A Doomed Lover,” the album carries an arc that is sometimes subtle, and sometimes overt. In the first half of the album sits “Catherine Blake,” a song that is as eerie as it is overcome with rage, connecting the whole of the album through its various threads. The stunningly beautiful chorus — which is presented twice with very different background music — connects the song to its more melodic surroundings. The harsher moments, which see Stainthorpe screeching at his most haggard and desperate, provide a link to later, more oppressively heavy and hate-fueled songs. There are even spoken word passages added towards the song’s finale to add to the overall narrative quality. On its (her) own, “Catherine Blake” is a spectacularly nuanced My Dying Bride song with a huge range, but the true value of the track is within the context of its greater album as an essential linchpin in one of the band’s finest album arcs.
LOVE’S INTOLERABLE PAIN
[A Line of Deathless Kings, 2006]
Catch me on the right day and I might just waylay you at some dark bar with a glass of wine and talk your ear off about why A Line of Deathless Kings is actually the connoisseur’s dark-horse favorite MDB album. The album’s grand sweep and immaculate arc are nearly unmatched in the band’s catalog, but of course, as always and forever, it’s the songs, dummy. And nothing in the album hits as impossibly hard as the 3:00 minute mark of “Love’s Intolerable Pain.” Of course, much of the magic comes from just how we get there, though, because the first few minutes of the song set a chugging pace with almost robotically dour vocals. If the remainder of the song limped along in that mode it would be a flat disappointment, but instead it sets up the necessary context for the unreasonably emotional crescendo that comes midway through. It starts, as so many of this band’s best moments do, with the contrast of Stainthorpe’s desperately feral snarl against his pleading croon setting up some truly affecting lyrics (“What if love’s intolerable pain never leaves? / What will your life’s mark leave upon this world?”). It doesn’t last long, but then watch what happens again just before the 4:00 minute mark, when the same heart-rending melody is taken up by a single leading guitar, and how pitch-perfectly the drums carry it relentlessly forward. That’s really the magic of the moment – it takes the pent-up tension of the song’s first minutes and outruns it in a glorious (but tragically brief) fit of musical optimism that’s simultaneously second-guessed by the melancholy lyrics, and then is subsumed back into the opening plod, leaving the astonished listener behind to decide which part carried the argument. This is an absolutely indispensable song.
SHE IS THE DARK
[The Light at the End of the World, 1999]
After two decent but not great albums in Like Gods of the Sun and yep-that’s-really-the-title 34.788%… Complete, My Dying Bride suddenly found themselves as a veteran band performing far below their full abilities. While not all of The Light at the End of the World sees them fully recapturing their greatness, certain songs do. Chief among them is opener “She is the Dark,” and it succeeds by taking full advantage of the My Dying Bride breadth. The track begins in almost painfully maudlin fashion, with Aaron Stainthorpe’s wails seemingly emerging from and returning to the background, refusing to lead the song. It builds in a manner that is key to so many of the band’s great songs, by being simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, a trick they use to make their heaviest moments a welcome relief from the suspense. And when the music gets heavy and Stainthorpe fully indulges all his growling wrath, it’s like the moment of a horror film when the monster finally reveals itself and starts the killing. It’s painful, horrific even, but it’s better than not knowing what is just around that corner.
THE RETURN OF THE BEAUTIFUL
[As the Flower Withers, 1992]
Although it wasn’t arguably until Turn Loose the Swans that MDB found their true identity as a fully gothic doom/death act par excellence, to neglect the noisier, more deathly clatterings of their very early career is a mistake. On As the Flower Withers, the listener can hear most clearly a band holding on to some semblance of death metal orthodoxy (despite the fact that in 1992, death metal was in a dual process of expanding outward while consolidating several of its chief varieties) while at the same time testing its limits and sounding out a future course. “The Return of the Beautiful” is easily the definitive track from the debut, as it spends much of its time in languorous, violin-assisted riffs (even getting nearly funereal around the 5:00 minute mark), but also shows MDB honing its compositional craft, with distinct sections, repeated motifs, and a smart sense of pacing. The re-recording on The Dreadful Hours is something of a victory lap for a band emerging with a newfound drive and confidence after a string of less than stellar albums, but for all its ragged edges, this version’s youthful clunkiness makes it all the more striking. You could already tell by their smiles that they weren’t here for the sunset.
A CRUEL TASTE OF WINTER
[The Dreadful Hours, 2001]
The Dreadful Hours is an almost miraculous album. Certainly The Light at the End of the World was hailed as a return to form after the divisive (but unjustly maligned) 34.788%… Complete, but it was mostly an overlong recitation of the expected motions. The Dreadful Hours, by contrast, feels wholly rejuvenated and constantly surprising, from the windswept ambiance of “La Figlie Della Tempesta” to the galloping triumph of “My Hope, the Destroyer.” “A Cruel Taste of Winter,” though, shows MDB’s canny sense of pacing and sequencing, kicking off the album’s second half with a greatest-hits-styled breadth – the midsection is one of the most deliciously heavy digressions the band had taken since As the Flowers Withers (with that utterly ruthless “No sympathy… for humanity!” passage). The song is littered with small, unifying touches, and forms as essential hinge in the tapestry of an album that served notice that the masters had returned with dreadful fire in their bellies.
THE BARGHEST O’ WHITBY
[The Barghest o’ Whitby, 2011]
“The Barghest o’ Whitby” is the result of the My Dying Brides asking themselves: “What if we didn’t write a song based on existing English folklore, but similar to such stories?” The song, which is the longest of their career at a full 27 minutes, tells an original story written by Aaron Stainthorpe about a wandering, vengeful dog and haunted swaths of Yorkshire countryside and all sorts of other things you might relate with rural England at night. It applies some truly gloomy subject matter to some of the band’s gloomiest music. Through the long stretches of barren violin and interwoven leads that accompany Stainthorpe’s wails, one can easily conjure images of old, decaying Victorian mansions, or foggy, damp fields where the only sound is one’s inner fears. For much of its stretch, “The Barghest o’ Whitby” is a quite minimal song, taking many of the band’s classic tools and stretching them out to create a ghost story in song form. It communicates sadness, fear, guilt, regret, and ultimately reflection, all with the most subtle changes in tone and rhythm. It is beautiful and harrowing, as My Dying Bride is meant to be.
Thankfully, the band tosses all subtlety out the window for the song’s massive coda. Right as the brooding mood reaches a boiling point in the song’s second half, the band explodes into a doom/death fury and all hell breaks loose. Double kicks, effectively chugging guitars, and particularly hoarse growls from Stainthorpe build constantly in intensity and heft until the song and story basically implode upon themselves. There is no point of reflection after. No melodic return as a safety net. Just death and silence.
THE CROWN OF SYMPATHY
[Turn Loose the Swans, 1993]
With Turn Loose the Swans, My Dying Bride truly came into their own. Although the album is still densely heavy, the weight is all telegraphed through an intensely forlorn retreat into doomed, eternally unspooling leads that act like midwives to a shadowy underworld. Gone are nearly all the traces of gut-level death metal aggression from the debut and early EPs, and although Aaron Stainthorpe was still figuring out all the various facets of his voice, album standout “The Crown of Sympathy” finds him embracing with gusto a truly maudlin performance – listen to how he drags out his lines to tangle with Martin Powell’s violin. The song’s lengthy interlude sees MDB touch on some of Mortiis’s early ambient/darkwave terrain, with synth horns and chimes accompanying a truly sedated drum performance. But what really pushes “The Crown of Sympathy” into the realm of legend is the heartbreaking outro, with its interlocked guitar leads and patient snare hits like the tolling of the bell of all the end times. Utterly miserable and wretched mastery.
THE CRY OF MANKIND
[The Angel and the Dark River, 1995]
My guess is that Calvin Robertshaw didn’t intend to pen one of gothic metal’s single most distinctive and contagious guitar licks, but he sure as hell did. And his co-guitarist, the guy responsible for the entirety of The Angel and the Dark River‘s songwriting, Andrew Craighan, recognized its power and allowed it to repeat for the full 12 minutes of “The Cry of Mankind.” Outside of that simple little arpeggio, the song does a fantastic job of setting the stage for My Dying Bride’s most (wonderfully) miserable, crawling and eerie records by surrounding said lick with Craghan’s signature gloom riffs and Stainthorpe’s now completely deathless yowl. What makes the song even more remarkable, however, is how it manages to maintain its full strength, despite the fact that the final five minutes is devoid of anything metal and instead opts to envelop Robertshaw’s brush with a swirling assemblage of waves, nighttime insects, some sort of haunted didgeridoo and a perfect touch of a spooky choral chants.
“The Cry of Mankind” represents one of the greatest openers My Dying Bride ever produced, and Craighan’s mission to adorn such a simple and effective(/affective) lick with as much gutsy intrepidness as this song submits is testament to the band’s overall innovation and authority within extreme metal.