Released: 2015, Nuclear Blast Records
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
At this stage of the game, there aren’t really any tricks left in the bag for Cradle of Filth to pull out and dress up their trademark – and divisive - symphonic black metal stylings. They’ve been audacious (Midian), overblown (Damnation and a Day with its choir and orchestra), overtly grotesque (Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder), covered Heaven 17 and even utilized the voice of “Pinhead” - Doug Bradley - on several occasions.
So when long-time guitarist and compositional co-conspirator Paul Allender jumped ship after 2012's The Manticore and Other Horrors, frontman Dani Filth was left not only with the prospect of overhauling the band's line-up once again, but retooling their sound. It turned out to be the kick in the ass Cradle needed - especially after the lackluster Manticore and its predecessor, Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa.
With new guitarists Richard Shaw and Marek “Ashok” Šmerda, along with newish keyboardist/vocalist Lindsay Schoolcraft, in tow, the band closed ranks, took a step back and streamlined things a bit instead of looking to make some grand orchestral or conceptual statement. Smart move. Hammer of the Witches, Cradle's 11th studio full-length, is the most full-on “metal” album the band have done probably since Midian.
It's certainly their leanest, meanest and and most vicious effort in quite some time, with the usual gothic pomp and classical indulgences taking a backseat for a change, which is welcome. The keys, strings and intermittent operatic female vocals are still there – courtesy, for the most part, of Schoolcraft – but largely on the periphery, as enhancements instead of key ingredients, save for three short instrumentals.
This leaves plenty of sonic space for the dogfighting twin guitars of Shaw and Šmerda, who prove to be a potent tandem here. Where Allender was hamstrung by a revolving door of co-guitarists and often recorded all the parts himself, Shaw and Šmerda make a genuine team. Their hurtling riffs, darting hooks, prominent harmonies and solo tradeoffs – or all of the above, as in the case of “Enshrined In Crematoria,” “Deflowering The Maidenhead, Displeasuring The Goddess,” the title track and the magnificent “Right Wing Of The Garden Triptych” - hark all the way back to the teamwork of 1998's Cruelty And The Beast, which Allender, ironically, was not part of.
The pair follow the twists and turns of Martin "Marthus" Škaroupka's runaway tempos and Filth's breathless caterwaul with dogged precision, giving Hammer a tautness to match its abandon, unlike the somewhat disjointed Manticore. The comparatively unpolished, natural production – to go along with the less prominent symphonics - only add to the album's crunch and grit.
Given the band's recent output, and the loss of Allender amidst the usual lineup tumult, it would be understandable for even longtime fans to have low expectations for Hammer. But the group effort – and the confidence Danni Filth had in the new recruits – pays off here in an authoritative and rewarding album that for once is more bite than bark.