[Cover artwork: Eliran Kantor]
Spoiler alert: My Dying Bride has never put out a bad album, and My Dying Bride continues to never put out a bad album.
What constitutes a classic, great, or merely very good My Dying Bride album depends upon two factors. First, the album itself, obviously. Few would deny the immense stature of Turn Loose the Swans or The Angel and the Dark River in the history of doom, and fans are likely to be drawn to those and a few others as the true classics. But just as important is the listener. My Dying Bride makes very emotional music. Whether that emotion comes across as sincere or silly to you personally doesn’t really matter in this context, because the fans love it. What matters is that music so beautiful, heart-wrenching, and enchanting tends to line up with life events to create special memories and entrance points. Each individual fan likely has a Very Special Record due to some circumstances in their personal life.
That’s how My Dying Bride operates. Their music nurtures and encourages these connections. Such is the nature of a band built on pure feel and dedicated to excellence. The expectation with each new record is that it will be at least very good, that it will be almost unbearably heartfelt, and that it will show just the slightest shift in approach, even if it’s only apparent to the attentive ear of an obsessed fan.
In the lead-up to the release of The Ghost of Orion, the band offered hints of that slight shift, but those hints may have been a touch misleading. They described the record as showing a new, “more accessible” direction, which probably raised some eyebrows or caused fears that My Dying Bride would abandon their as yet unwavering integrity. But fear not, they aren’t releasing hit singles or trying to grab a part of the metal audience that has long eluded them. The Ghost of Orion is 100 percent the My Dying Bride you’ve always known, straight down to having just a couple tiny twists, again showing that they’re always in a slightly different mood when they go into the studio.
The mood this time was undoubtedly affected by the cancer diagnosis, treatment, and (thankfully) recovery of vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe’s daughter. During this time, guitarist Andrew Craighan wrote all of the album’s music on his own, while two new band members – drummer Jeff Singer and guitarist Neil Blanchett – joined the fold.
It is unclear how going through such horrific events affected Stainthorpe as a musician, but he did admit to having a hard time regaining his confidence once he rejoined the band in the studio. You’d never know it, as there’s a comfort and maturity to his eternal sadness here. His performance is almost devoid of his typical mope—compare any song here to a song like “My Hope, the Destroyer” to get the picture. His cleans are confident but never forceful, gorgeously phrased but never overwrought. It is, if you can believe it, somewhat of an understated performance from the man, but that doesn’t mean this is bright or uplifting, just a slightly different approach. The way he harmonizes with himself in the excellent “Tired of Tears” (the one song obviously about his daughter’s sickness) evokes a bit of a Jonas Renkse feel. Fitting, as there might not be any greater communicators of sadness in all of metal than those two men.
So even if the album is not necessarily accessible, there is something stripped-down and almost laid back about it. There is little of the progressive scope of Turn Loose the Swans or The Dreadful Hours, and it lacks much (but definitely not all) of the gothic vibes of albums like Songs of Darkness, Words of Light. In some ways (mostly Craighan’s ever-divine riffs), The Ghost of Orion is as close as My Dying Bride has ever come to releasing a regular doom album, and in others (Singer’s pulsating drumming), it feels like it wants to leave its haunting nature just behind it. Of course, the existence of Stainthorpe’s still-venomous harsh vocals make sure there’s still haunting o’ plenty.
Those harshes are a featured part of opener “Your Broken Shore,” which with its extremely catchy, almost hooky chorus is about as close as the album gets to fulfilling that accessibility. But considering that the song pushes eight minutes in length and has plenty of those scream-growls, let’s all just sit back and realize exactly how “relative” My Dying Bride was being when they dropped that descriptor. More importantly: this is a monster My Dying Bride opener in the tradition of [too many songs to list].
Nothing else on The Ghost of Orion carries this level of intensity, but never repeating themselves on any one album has always served the band well, as long as more highlights follow, and with tunes like “The Long Black Land” and “The Old Earth,” The Ghost of Orion packs plenty. The former is subtle doom for a few minutes, but gets special when it begins an utterly grandiose build—interwoven soft parts, an expertly-telegraphed return of heft, restrained but somewhat peaceful singing, and finally a return of harsh vocals. It’s the best example on the album of My Dying Bride’s ability to craft anticipation out of simple ingredients; you know it’s going to build in this fashion, but it’s stunning nonetheless. The latter, meanwhile, ought to evoke feelings of timelessness with its more harrowing guitar-violin interplay and aggressive finish. The riffs are downright monolithic, while Stainthorpe provides a combination of truly gorgeous singing and some of the most forceful, haggard growls he’s ever put to tape. It’s also another late-album My Dying Bride song (only an outro follows) that closes a bit of an arc. After all, they may mope and plod for about an hour, but never without a purpose.
Not to beat a dead horse with that “accessible” statement from the band, but one more thought… The stripped-down, naked nature of the record may actually serve to make The Ghost of Orion somewhat less accessible to long time fans, at least at first. It’s a notably less grandiose album than some of their heralded classics, which may initially turn off some listeners. Others will simply see it as a reason to keep playing it until each sublime melody crawls its way into the subconscious.
The Ghost of Orion also probably isn’t destined to become another late-career classic like its predecessor Feel the Misery, but that’s a-okay. There’s plenty of room in the world for more very good My Dying Bride records. After all, for young Bobby Neverdoomed, out there just dipping his toes into The Pool of Countless Tears, The Ghost of Orion might end up being that Very Special Record that can never quite be replaced in his heart. That this band can still pull that off after three decades is downright incredible.
Special thanks has to be given to Eliran Kantor. Yes, I know I already gave him credit for that gorgeous artwork up top, but it’s a small miracle for My Dying Bride to finally have cover art as beautiful as their music.