Once Upon An Atrocity: Cradle of Filth’s Cruelty & the Beast Turns 25
It has been 25 years since the release of Cradle of Filth’s Cruelty & The Beast, an album that drew inspiration from blood connoisseurs like Elizabether Bathory (Lady Bathory), as well as the rich and hedonistic folklore of vampires.
In fact, it’s so deep into bloodletting and vampiric mythology that in a student of the University of Spain penned an academic paper titled Once Upon the Sleeping Canon: Literary Luster in Cradle of Filth’s Wintry Romances, which explored Cruelty & The Beast in depth back in 2001.
The paper’s author, Associate Professor Julio Angel Olivares Merino, of the University of Jaen (Spain), is a writer, poet and musician whose areas of research include vampire myths, aesthetics, semiotics, and all things gothic. In the paper, published as part of the peer-reviewed academic journal The Journal of Dracula Studies, Merino details COF’s “metaphorical” take on vampires by way of the lyrics on Cruelty & the Beast:
“In the album Cruelty & the Beast, we find a metaphorical approach to the myth, with emphasis on the gloomy bliss and darkness of isolation, with binary masks of schizophrenia, social and mental dysfunction, drawing inspiration from real vampires such as Peter Kurten and Elizabeth Bathory. In “The Twisted Nails of Faith” and “Eyes that Witnessed Madness”, Cradle of Filth enters the psychopathic side of vampirism. Witchcraft, atavistic sexual configurations, unholy decadence and sordid narcissism are presented through oscillation of colours, dark pitches of insanity and a maddening tempo. “Thirteen Autumns and a Widow” reveals the awakening of a lost soul to a life of distorted virtue and twisted emotions.”
Clearly, Merino’s dissection of Cruelty & the Beast is on the money. Likewise, the album itself pretty much got an A+ from fans and critics as far as its content and intent — to be Cradle of Filth’s first concept album. In 1997 during an interview on MTV on Headbangers Ball, Dani Filth and guitarist Gian Pyres talked about how they were trying to create a “brash, emotional, fast, twisted and colorful gothic soundtrack” with Cruelty & the Beast. For Dani, all of these elements would hopefully create a “fuller sound” that would “pleasantly surprise” their fans. The songs on Cruelty took a year to compose, partly due to Filth’s commitment to keeping Bathory’s story “historically astute” and “fictionally correct.”
In addition to telling the story of Lady Bathory, one of history’s most prolific serial killers perhaps responsible for the abduction and murder of 600 women, Filth’s metaphysical experiences while living in an old house in Hadley, England also informed the album’s material and mood.
According to Filth, who has told this story many times over the decades, the Hadley home was once inhabited by Hadley’s Witchfinder General, who executed innocent women for being witches. At the time, Filth said he felt there were “spirits” haunting the house and surrounding area where “lots of weird shit” would happen. Sometimes he’d reportedly see shapes; sometimes he’d see other people. As far as the folklore attached to a release like Cruelty, this bit of paranormal activity clearly adds to the album’s enduring mystique.
Unfortunately, the mixing and production on Cruelty & the Beast was widely panned. Not just by fans and critics, but by the band themselves. In fact, when Jezebel Deva, a British Opera soprano that has appeared on fourteen COF albums, heard her vocals on Cruelty she said it sounded like she had her head in a “toilet.”
Over time, the reverberation of Deva’s vocals have added to the overall deviating quality of Cruelty. Still, there are some purists that don’t agree that Jan Peter Genkel’s production was lacking in the sweepingly gothic soundtrack to Lady Bathory’s life and ultimate demise. The incorporation of spoken word, atmospheric sound effects, evil twin guitars all help elevate the storytelling on Cruelty to a higher, more visceral level. It is a landmark example of true gothic black metal.
The vocal performance by Dani Filth (credited as such on Cruelty for the first time ever) is supernatural, full of nocturnal screams and bowel-shaking growls. In my opinion, his work on Cruelty is probably his best vocal performance ever. If you’re familiar with this album, it’s not hard to imagine the sounds he makes is causing some pain or worse, injury. Filth has said in the past he does not have a regular warm up routine and has never felt the need to maintain one. Still, when speaking about Cruelty after its release, Filth has said performing the material on the album was a “struggle” and “really hard” for him. He would find it just as challenging when the band toured in 2021 performing Cruelty in its entirety. Regardless, Filth says his favorite song from Cruelty to perform live is the ten minute track “Bathory Aria.”
Seriously, Google Cradle of Filth performing “Bathory Aria” live for The Infernal Vernal Equinox in March of 2022. Might as well be 1998–it’s that good.
While Filth says it was easier for him to hit the high notes in the winding jam back in 1998, “Bathory Aria” is the penultimate part of the album’s story arc, and in Filth’s estimation, a real fan favorite.
It goes without saying that COF’s image as a band is powerful. And the use of powerful imagery for Cruelty, especially the cover photo of model Luisa Morando as Lady Bathory nude in a bathtub full of fake blood, taken by Stu Williamson. And it almost didn’t see the light of day. Williamson, who had been shooting Morando as Bathory for hours, had forgotten to take the all important “bloodbath” shot. As Morando, was on a train bound for London, she had to turn around and get back into the bloodbath for Williamson and the rest is history.
While we’re on the topic of art (as it relates to Cruelty that is), there is a CD known as the “Celtic Cross” version of Cruelty with an alternate cover and a large series of photos of the band reimagined as murder victims. Shot by Doralba Picerno, the series is called “The Extra-Necro Files.” The images are accompanied by mini-biographies detailing the victims’ fate or bloody faux crimes. The photo of COF drummer Nicholas Barker is particularly gruesome. He’s photographed with a plastic bag over his head, with his shirt open to reveal the world’s “Die Pig” carved into his body. In the bio for the image it also says Barker’s testicles were “removed.” Not to be outdone, Dani’s photo has the vocalist all-too-realistically slitting his own throat. A mint copy of this special version of Cruelty & the Beast usually sells for close to $100 a pop.
Cruelty has been reissued many times over the years and finally got a proper remaster or was ”Re-Mistressed” (a phrase coined by the band) in 2019 — 21 years after its initial release by Music For Nations. It also contained new artwork by Stu Williamson and the band’s cover of Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” There are several color variants of the remaster including one that glows in the dark, and others on orange, lavender, clear and bone-colored vinyl. Copies can be had for around $70 depending on color and condition.
If gothic black metal is your thing, then this genre-defining record is for you. And, after listening to the original recording and its stellar remaster while writing this homage, we can assure you it has lost none of its lustre or lust for blood. And that’s a good thing.