No, really, I’m not here to make you care about Cradle of Filth. If you’ve wandered the dusty hallways of heavy metal for even a relatively scanty amount of time, Cradle of Filth has been a universal constant. You know who they are, even if you don’t like them, or even if you’ve never listened to them. In fact, it’s hard to think of many underground bands of similar stature from the same general time frame that seem to provoke such polarized reactions. I guess the only thing I’m really trying to say is, if you think Cradle of Filth is a punchline, that fact speaks volumes more about you than it does about the band. The band’s ubiquity is already, sight unseen and sound unheard, testament to their success and lasting influence.
Still, twenty-five years ago, on the eve of the release of their debut album The Principle of Evil Made Flesh, was any of this preordained? Sure, black metal’s second wave had been cooking up in Norway for a couple years, but English black metal was barely a whisper. (Thus Defiled was active around the same time Cradle of Filth was in its demo stage, but groups like Hecate Enthroned and Bal-Sagoth had yet to either form or make much of a mark.) Given the germinal state of the country’s scene, and – to be frank – of the genre at large, what indication could there have been that this band of young whelps from the United Kingdom, having released a handful of rather poor demos, was on the cusp of releasing a major landmark of black metal?
The Principle of Evil Made Flesh was the inaugural full-length released on Cacophonous Records (catalog number Nihil1CD), the British label that played an outsized role in expanding the reach of black metal, not only by releasing homegrown talent like Cradle of Filth and Bal-Sagoth, but also emerging luminaries like Gehenna, Sigh, Primordial, and Dimmu Borgir. Principle goes even further in its British metal pedigree, as it was produced and mixed by Robert “Mags” Magoolagan of the Academy Studio in West Yorkshire, one of the key players in British underground metal of the early 1990s who had a hand in landmark recordings from Anathema, Primordial, My Dying Bride, Hecate Enthroned, and Solstice.
After the requisite intro of “Darkness Our Bride (Jugular Wedding),” the album’s title track spends precisely 0.0 seconds fucking around. Yes, if you squint a little, the opening is rather similar to Slayer’s “Angel of Death” (same key, same chords, fairly similar rhythmic feel), but Cradle of Filth takes that initial thrash intensity and levels it up several times throughout this titanically destructive song. The riff and d-beat drum pattern that switch the song up into near half-time at the 0:49 is a ridiculously neck-wrecking move that would stand up all on its own, but then they pull yet another switch-up at 1:10 that rockets off to another thrash pace while welcoming an overlay of strings. The mid-section rips through some brittle blasting before resetting with a false ending and a loose-stringed bass solo that reintroduces the opening theme. Point being: this is an utterly fantastic riff parade that owes no clear allegiance to any given sub-genre. Although Cradle Of Filth were undoubtedly a black metal band, style-agnostic masterclasses like this song offer ample proof that, above and beyond all else, they’re simply extreme metal.
If Cradle was without a great number of immediate peers, they hardly sprang up in a vacuum. In fact, particularly in their earliest guise, it’s easy to hear some of the same tension between guttural, flailing death metal and weeping gothic melodrama that animated the haltingly evolutionary steps of their fellow countrymen in Anathema and My Dying Bride. The late album standout track “Of Mist and Midnight Skies” has a slow passage that recalls the gothic doom/death of MDB/Anathema, while also previewing a tragic-sounding riff that sounds eerily similar to their own later work (compare 2:30 of “Of Mist” to around 1:05 or so of “Dusk and Her Embrace”). This track is about as close as the band would come to something like My Dying Bride’s “Symphonaire Infernus et Spera Empyrium,” while also providing a real visceral thrill of blasphemy in its penultimate lyric (“I learned how to curse and to spit in the face of their… Jesus fucking Christ”) and gleeful valediction – “We will ride again!”
To be fair, in many ways, The Principle of Evil Made Flesh is a rough approximation of the mastery the band would soon achieve on the unholy trilogy of the V Empire EP, Dusk and Her Embrace, and Cruelty and the Beast, but looking at the album as merely a piecemeal step on the band’s evolutionary ladder does a great disservice to their cagily complete package. Sure, they already had their sound pretty much developed as of ‘94, but even more than that, they had their brand developed. Talking about a band as a brand seems cynical and hardly complimentary, but in this case it simply means that from these very earliest days, Cradle of Filth demonstrated not only aspirations of future greatness, but also some evidence of how to achieve that greatness – how to get from a bunch of knuckleheads making a clattering racket on tape to the vanguard of a wholly new type of music. From the lyrics to the sound to the cover art to the merchandise and everything in between, the band had a gestalt presence that either predicted or enabled their swift ascent to notorious darlings of underground black metal.
Nevertheless, one area in which Principle pales in comparison to later triumphs is its flow – there are simply too many interludes, and they interrupt the momentum gathered by the otherwise uniformly excellent “proper” songs. And yet, in a way, because the recording quality hadn’t yet caught up with their songwriting ambitions, the raw and occasionally ramshackle production and somewhat haphazard construction of the thing makes it easier to appreciate the frankly absurd songwriting and stylistic prowess. Although these influences are hardly quoted outright, it’s not a stretch for the attentive listener to identify bits of Iron Maiden, Candlemass, Sabbat, and plenty more in this delightfully chewy self-bricolage of an album.
Speaking of Sabbat, one has to imagine that Martin Walkyier of Sabbat/Skyclad was a big influence on Dani Filth, both for the densely packed vocal cadence each of them uses, and for the highly literate, poetic, and yet often pun-filled and tongue-in-cheek referential lyrical style. Filth’s caterwauling screech remains a sticking point for many who might otherwise embrace the band’s music. As a matter of personal taste, that’s fine, but what often gets overlooked is the sheer physicality of his vocal performance style. On Principle, his vocals are much closer to death metal, both in tone and inflection, and while most of the songs don’t yet display the motormouthing pacing that likely peaked on Cruelty and the Beast, there is more than enough powerhouse breathwork and phrasing on display here to demonstrate that Filth’s talents went far beyond simply canny marketing. That is to say, whether or not you like the sounds he makes with his mouth, there is no denying that he is a virtuoso almost without match.
What does it mean when a band re-records earlier songs later in their career? It often indicates some level of dissatisfaction with their earlier work – a chance to “get it right.” Sometimes, it can serve as a notice that the early work had merit and shouldn’t be overlooked. But sometimes, it might just mean that the band wants to take something up again and look at it in a new light. Cradle of Filth has often returned to Principle – just two years later, they re-recorded “The Forest Whispers My Name” on V Empire, and then on the (sadly underrated) Bitter Suites to Succubi, re-recorded three additional songs from this foundational album.
The general patchwork of Cradle’s early recording career is illustrative here. After Principle, essentially the same personnel recorded an early version of Dusk and Her Embrace that was shelved (until its 2016 release as Dusk and Her Embrace – The Original Sin). Following that debacle, Cradle’s keyboard player and second guitarist left the band along with Paul Allender and formed The Blood Divine with Darren White (recently ex-of Anathema, and who provided guest vocals on “A Dream of Wolves in the Snow”). Allender would later return to the fold, although Nick Barker and Robin Graves would ride along with Dani Filth as the band entered its creative high point. Still, this erratic history might explain why Cradle of Filth has a more fluid, flexible notion of their own songs, with far less of a tendency to look at any particular recording or attempt as definitive. (This also explains, for example, why V Empire and Cruelty and the Beast and far more similar to each other than either is to the “official”/original release of Dusk and Her Embrace from 1996.)
On Principle, Cradle’s songs were designed in a much punchier, anthemic model than they would later adopt on Dusk and Cruelty, where the songs were much more like linear suites moving always forward from one point to the next, rather than as cyclical structures that tracked much closer to the design of the death metal that was contemporary at the time. (In what was certainly an unintentional illustration of the point I would attempt to make 25 years later, the tremolo riff of “Summer Dying Fast” is almost a vertical inversion of Dismember’s “Override of the Overture.”) Nick Barker is an absolute monster on the drums throughout Principle, and although his subsequent stature as one of extreme metal’s most powerful drummers is now taken as a given, it was only his second recorded performance on a full-length album. Additionally, happily giving the lie to the notion that black metal is an entirely bass-less affair, Robin Graves’s bass is a forceful, clearly audible presence throughout (even wailing on a couple brief solo spots). In terms of Cradle’s later career and much of the rather high-minded atmospherics of certain black metal contemporaries, Principle lacks almost entirely any hint of the ethereality that was added to their sound soon thereafter. It is a forceful, aggressive, sometimes death-thrashing and almost always brutal album.
1994 was a frankly ludicrous year for black metal, and essentially the truly defining moment for the genre’s second wave. Even ignoring the year as a whole, just February of 1994 saw not only The Principle of Evil Made Flesh, but also Samael’s Ceremony of Opposites, Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger, and Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. Although purists and charlatans and all other manner of shit-asses in between may scorn the placement of Cradle of Filth in that same pantheon of eminence, if one considers the shlock, the blasphemy, the gothic melodrama, the seriously underappreciated songwriting chops, and the wickedly focused performances… simply put, there was nothing that sounded quite like this at the time. Is it any small wonder that some of Cradle’s legions of detractors may have been daunted by the massive skill that under-girded the notoriety of this cannily media-savvy group?
The unfortunate thing is that there is almost no way to hear this remarkable album today as if for the first time, without context, without bias, without presumption. Time and exposure erase mystery and obviate the possibility of anything approaching a pure experience with a stored band. But in a way, the whole point here has been that Cradle of Filth never needed (nor particularly attempted to rely on) anything like mystery or the sort of hokey atmospherics that lesser bands sometimes use to obscure the fact that they write songs like a three-legged donkey trying to tapdance with an octopus. (Note to Cradle of Filth, ca. 2019: possible concept album idea? Let’s talk.) So instead, maybe what we ought to celebrate here is that you can still listen to this remarkably assured album today exactly as you could have 25 years ago, understanding exactly what the band intended to communicate:
“Fuck you – we know exactly what we’re doing.”
That’s the only kind of purity I need in black metal.