For a band as steeped in dominant imagery and theater as Cradle of Filth, reinventing the wheel can be a daunting task. Therefore, on their 11th studio album, this unholy horde, forever wrapped in corpse paint, leather, and spikes, look back more than they do forward. And that proves a good thing. Hammer of the Witches finds departing guitarist/songwriter Paul Allender replaced by two players -- Rich Shaw and Marek Smerda -- in a nod back to the band's earlier twin axe attack. In recent years, CoF has relied more on symphonic orchestration to add dimension and texture; while Hammer of the Witches is not really an exception, that element is scaled back considerably. The sound is colored by multiple layers of strings and shifts in time signature, dynamic, and keyboards, and newcomer Lindsay Schoolcraft provides harp and operatic backing vocals. Two of the three advance tracks -- "Enshrined in Crematoria" and "Deflowering the Maidenhead, Displeasuring the Goddess" -- are among the strongest, with Dani Filth in full possession of both his growl and high-powered shriek as the guitars and drums duel around him. Martin Skaroupka's drumming is, as usual, the centerpiece of the high-powered drive in this band -- his more confident keyboard work has also become a CoF signature -- while Daniel Firth's basslines have been mixed up to add ballast to the kick drums and tom-toms. While the aforementioned tracks highlight the album's opening half, not all the news is good. "Walpurgis Eve," the set's atmospheric, creepy intro, has become so rote and expected on CoF albums that one half expects a Hammer Studio's monster to emerge from the center of the mix. Likewise, "Immortally Yours," despite its speed and thrust, has such dominant keyboard lines swirling into the guitars, it sounds like a muddy mess -- until the guitar and bass breakdown anyway. These are fairly minor complaints, however. The single "Right Wing of the Garden Triptych" opens with Schoolcraft providing clean vocals atop strings and keyboards, but the guitars enter on stun. Filth's black metal howl strides alongside tremolo-picked riffs. It shifts gears several times, with imaginative chugging and knotty turns; it is perhaps the best track on the set. "Vampyre at My Side" feels out of place here, as if it was left over from the Manticore & Other Horrors sessions, but the crunching churn on "Onward Christian Soldiers" redeems it -- check out the searing guitar break at around four minutes. It's one of the places where the interplay between Filth's growl and Schoolcraft's soaring chorus work best. Hammer of the Witches doesn't reach the heights of Dusk of Her Embrace, but it does offer proof that there is plenty of fire and creativity left in Cradle of Filth. (American fans don't have to worry about Arthur Berzinsh's censored front cover -- it is reproduced as he originally painted it, inside the booklet.) ~ Thom Jurek
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