"There is no beast without cruelty" reads the Nietzsche quote on the inner cover, which, coming from Cradle Of Filth, could be argued as preaching to the converted. An apt description for the music enclosed therein; despite the abrasive t-shirts and black goth imagery that have served to make the band spoken of more often than heard, Cradle Of Filth have offered absolutely zero concessions to popular radio. "Cruelty And The Beast is 100% pure black metal, with all the pros and cons that statement implies.
On the up side, the record is brutally uncompromising, revealing a purpose beyond mere shock value. In telling the story of legendary killer Countess Bathory, the lyrics all deal in epic dark fantasy, each one marvelously written in a style that would make Peter Steele green with envy. At times the band may be guilty of constructing fairly meaningless expressions by jumbling a lot of provocative words into the same sentence, but for the most part the descriptions evoke the intended imagery in fine fashion, especially when dealing in psychosexual undertones ("Ridden split-thighed/by the Father of Lies/An ovation of wolves/blushed the skies as they writhed"). Vocalist Dani Filth's penchant for long winded description necessitates the use of longer, more involved song structures than all but a few black metal bands are capable of. This space is put to good use in exploring a multitude of concepts in each song, but unfortunately the execution doesn't quite live up to either the band's talent as writers nor the overanxious hype generated by critics ready to cash in on the ultra-professional packaging.
And ultimately it's that complaint which robs "Cruelty And The Beast of it's potential masterpiece status. Compared to the intricate song structures and vivid lyrical concepts, the instrumentation is numbingly ordinary. The drums have that wet, stripped of bass thudding sound that characterizes most poorly produced black metal albums. Similarly, the guitars are often caught devolving into standardized tremolo picking patterns, a feature that once characterized the uniqueness of the black metal genre but has lately become a mere excuse for missing band practice. And the keyboards.... I swear, 99% of these bands must use the same set of keyboards for all their work. In the future COF need to address the still-amateur aspects of some of their playing in order for their sinister vision to be fully realized.
All of which is not to say that "Cruelty And The Beast is an artistic failure; if I haven't mentioned particular songs as highlights it's only because the album seems meant to be taken as a whole and doesn't differ in any remarkable way from track to track quality-wise. Besides, I think most people have heard enough about Cradle Of Filth already. If you haven't heard the band yet, it's probably because you've made up your mind you're not going to, in which case my opinions could hardly change your mind anyway.
To make a long story short, this is an album for old fans. Fans of black metal, not Manson-wannabes looking for their "own" band to champion. Not a huge progression but an enjoyable statement of purpose nevertheless.