LISTS Where to Begin With My Dying Bride’s Dark, Romantic Doom By Brad Sanders · May 04, 2021
Photos by John Steel

Don’t look to doom metal to find My Dying Bride’s closest peers. Though the ’90s metal press drafted the West Yorkshire band into the so-called “Peaceville Three,” alongside labelmates Paradise Lost and Anathema, their closer spiritual brethren are the Dark Romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. That might seem absurd on its face, but as the band’s sound has evolved over their three decades of existence, their songs have remained anchored in the kind of stately, candlelit bleakness that Byron, Shelley, and Poe first perfected.

Founded in 1990 with the intention of making what they naïvely called “slower-than-usual death metal,” My Dying Bride burst onto the UK scene by laying the groundwork for what would eventually become death-doom. Those “slower-than-usual” tempos were a key part of that formula, but even more striking were Martin Powell’s violins, which were presented just as centrally as Andrew Craighan and Calvin Robertshaw’s guitars. And then there was Aaron Stainthorpe, their towering singer and lyricist, who remains a singular presence in the history of metal.

On the earliest My Dying Bride releases, Stainthorpe utilizes his deep, guttural growl almost exclusively. His low range has always sounded terrific, but he didn’t come fully into his own as a singer until he started unleashing his clean vocals. Simply put, no other metal singer has ever sounded like Stainthorpe: his keening sounds fragile at first, but the emotional impact behind it feels like a head-on collision with a hearse. He frequently sounds like he’s about to burst into tears, before steeling himself at the last second to finish delivering another devastating lyric. As a writer, Stainthorpe is metal’s foremost chronicler of tragedy. His lyrical renderings of grief and misery, running from the Biblical to the intensely personal, have become his band’s calling card. It’s not uncommon to see the entire front row at a My Dying Bride show openly weeping.

With 14 full-lengths and dozens of EPs and singles to their credit, My Dying Bride’s discography can be intimidating to newcomers. The guide below serves as a brief introduction to the band’s best work. Pour a glass of wine, have a handkerchief ready, and dive in.

As the Flower Withers

As soon as the lush orchestration of intro track “Silent Dance” gives way to the bone-dry drums that open “Sear Me,” it’s clear that As the Flower Withers is up to something subversive. My Dying Bride’s debut album was released in 1992, when the porous boundaries of death and doom metal were still being tested, and their innovation was to synthesize them more fully than anyone had yet. As the Flower Withers remains the most purely heavy thing they’ve ever done, but you can hear their grander ambitions all over it, especially on the nearly 13-minute album closer “The Return of the Beautiful.” The blackened opera-in-miniature was a harbinger for the band My Dying Bride were destined to become, and they would revisit it almost a decade later, re-recording it for The Dreadful Hours in a nod to its prophetic significance.

Turn Loose the Swans

“Sear Me MCMXCIII,” the first song on Turn Loose the Swans, signaled just how rapidly My Dying Bride were evolving. Its seven-and-a-half minute runtime eschews guitars and drums entirely, translating melodies from As the Flower Withers’ crushing “Sear Me” into piano and violin. Stainthorpe’s lyrics for the song were delivered in a brooding croon instead of a deathly growl. The song served as an auspicious opening to a sophomore album many longtime My Dying Bride fans still consider their best. On classic tracks like “Your River” and “The Crown of Sympathy,” you can hear the band realizing their awesome power almost in real time, delivering alternating body blows of punishing heaviness and tear-jerking pathos.

The Angel and the Dark River

For their third album, My Dying Bride downshifted into an even more dour gear. Martin Powell’s violin is the lead instrument on much of The Angel and the Dark River, playing haunting melodies while the detuned guitars churn beneath, and Stainthorpe doesn’t drop into his death growl at all on the record. By de-emphasizing the inherent metal-ness of the band, the songs on The Angel and the Dark River are able to foreground their emotional content. “The Cry of Mankind” concludes its bleak elegy for humanity with five minutes of nearly formless drone, and the heartbreaking “Two Winters Only” only briefly permits a distorted riff into its requiem for a dead infant, so that Stainthorpe can shake a fist at God. The most conventionally heavy song is “Your Shameful Heaven,” a venomous track which echoes Clive Barker’s Hellraiser in its portrayal of BDSM as transcendental, erotic ritualism.

The Dreadful Hours

My Dying Bride ended the ’90s with a trio of uneven efforts—the soporific Like Gods of the Sun, the industrial-tinged experiment 34.788% … Complete, and the competent-but-rote The Light at the End of the World. The addition of guitarist Hamish Glencross in 2000 was the injection of fresh blood the band needed, and the ensuing product of that creative-shake up, The Dreadful Hours, ranks among the band’s best. The preternatural chemistry between Glencross and Andrew Craighan makes it arguably the best guitar album in the band’s catalog. It’s a confidently heavy piece of work, its guitar-driven songwriting bolstered by a bold, crunchy production job, but the depressing undertones remain. The title track sees Stainthorpe updating Goethe’s “Erlkönig” as a harrowing death-doom epic, while “My Hope, the Destroyer” is a perfectly executed sad bastard banger, a standard bearer for the predominant song type found on 21st century My Dying Bride records. It closes with that stunning re-recording of “The Return of the Beautiful,” rendered here as “The Return to the Beautiful.” This might be blasphemy, but if I had to pick one version to listen to for the rest of my life, it would easily be the one on The Dreadful Hours.

Songs of Darkness, Words of Light

Songs of Darkness, Words of Light is, for my money, the most depressing My Dying Bride album, which would also put it in the running for the most depressing album ever made. From Aaron Stainthorpe’s agonized, wordless retching at the beginning of “The Wreckage of My Flesh,” it’s dead turtles all the way down. Everything The Dreadful Hours did well, Songs of Darkness doubles down on—the crushingly heavy guitars, the rich, full production, the brilliant intra-song dynamics. At its best, the album succeeds in making personal despair feel global and all-devouring—a totality depression sufferers know all too well. Most explicitly, “Catherine Blake” paints a world-swallowing apocalypse reminiscent of Lord Byron’s “Darkness,” though it’s implied this devastation may only exist in the mind of its fever-addled title character. “My Wine in Silence” and “A Doomed Lover” are alternate-universe breakup songs, painfully intimate and streaked with the darkness of isolation. Proceed with caution.

For Lies I Sire

Martin Powell quit My Dying Bride after the release of Like Gods of the Sun, and it took another 13 years for a full-time violinist to return to the band’s lineup. Katie Stone’s performance on For Lies I Sire will make you wonder what took them so long. The first big melody on the album is hers, a snaking run of notes that dominates the first verse of “My Body, a Funeral.” She sounds great throughout the record, whether playing lead or adding splashes of shrieking dissonance to the proceedings. “Santuario di Sangue,” an oddly overlooked track that is nonetheless one of the band’s finest late-era songs, gives her a glittering showcase. The whole song feels like a Roger Corman production of a Poe story; when the band drops out to let the sounds of heavy footsteps and whinnying horses take over the mix, it’s Stone who ushers them back in for the thrilling conclusion. For Lies I Sire was sadly Stone’s only album with My Dying Bride, but their lineup has included a violinist ever since.

The Ghost of Orion and Macabre Cabaret

Following the release of 2015’s Feel the Misery, My Dying Bride became the final member of the Peaceville Three to part ways with Peaceville. The Ghost of Orion and its companion EP, Macabre Cabaret, came out in 2020 on Nuclear Blast, and while the label logo on the back cover had changed, the band behind the music had not. The Ghost of Orion is classic My Dying Bride, through and through. The major difference between this record and previous efforts is how viscerally present its darkness was for Stainthorpe. In 2017, his then-five-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and her brutal regimen of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgeries left her exhausted, and left her father, in his words, “on the brink of total implosion.” The death of a child had been a recurring motif in Stainthorpe’s lyrics, and suddenly, he was living through the hell he had put his characters through. Mercifully, in late 2018, his daughter’s doctors gave her a clean bill of health—she had beaten cancer, and Stainthorpe was preparing to make a new My Dying Bride album. “Tired of Tears” directly (and quite movingly) addresses the emotions of his daughter’s terrible ordeal, but the whole album feels heavy with the weight of it. Life imitated art, so art had to imitate life to restore balance.

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