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The easy criticism of any My Dying Bride album is that it sure sounds like My Dying Bride, alright. Since the stylistic departure of 1998’s 35.788%…Complete, people have said it about return to form The Light at the End of the World, about the shoegaze-inspired The Dreadful Hours, about the funereal Songs of Darkness, Words of Light, about the richly melodic A Line of Deathless Kings, and about the violin-heavy For Lies I Sire.
They’ll also doubtless say it about A Map Of All Our Failures, the English quintet’s latest opus of self-styled doom metal. However lazy those criticisms were for the past decade and a half, they’re especially useless here. Frontman Aaron Stainthorpe and his patently un-merry band are coming off a 2011 that saw an orchestral triple album with a vocal performance more akin to narration than singing (Evinta) and a 27-minute, single-track EP about a spectral dog (The Barghest o’ Whitby). Easy as it is to accuse the band of self-plagiarism, to suggest they’d emerge from such an anomalous year as the same old My Dying Bride takes some pretty willful ignorance.
It’s not that A Map Of All Our Failures isn’t steeped in the same Victorian dread as the rest of My Dying Bride’s catalogue. Atonal violin parts, dreary harmonized guitar leads, and Stainthorpe’s inimitable good-cop/sad-cop act are all still on full display here. What’s different is the incredible extent to which the mold-breaking excursions of Evinta and The Barghest o’ Whitby have allowed the band to evolve.
In the past, Stainthorpe’s literary tendencies have been tempered by the fact that he is, in fact, in a metal band. That’s not so much the case on Map. Hamish Glencross and Andrew Craighan’s trademark dual guitars are used mostly to provide a backbone for the lyrics, which are far more prosaic (and higher in the mix) than ever before. Stainthorpe slips into a spoken-word vocal on nearly every song, invoking Coleridge more than Candlemass with his poetic approach to writing. The transformation was subtle, but My Dying Bride used the experiments of 2011 to become a new kind of band.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, A Map Of All Our Failures is a bit uneven. The best moments recall classics like “Catherine Blake” and “The Return of the Beautiful” in their ability to meld neo-romantic storytelling with effectively bleak doom metal, only with an even bigger dose of Stainthorpe’s Byronic narration. “Kneel Till Doomsday” is destined to become a fan favorite; as are “Hail Odysseus” and the brilliantly titled “Abandoned As Christ.”
Other songs reveal growing pains. The instruments all drop out at the end of “A Tapestry Scorned” so Stainthorpe can deliver a horrendous couplet — “My home is cleared, history sold, empty was my place/Except a picture on the wall of lovers in embrace.” It comes off more Seussian than he likely hoped, and it demonstrates a key liability of My Dying Bride’s bold approach: If you’re going to let poetry be the focal point of your metal band’s album, that poetry had better be pretty fucking good.
More often than not, mercifully, it is. It helps, too, that the music behind it is as strong as ever. There’s a sort of effortless professionalism that pervades the dark melodies pouring out of these guitars and violins, one that suggests that even if these blokes don’t quite have another “Your Shameful Heaven” or “The Crown of Sympathy” up their sleeves, they’re not going to make something they can’t stand behind.
If we do concede to those lazy straw men invoked above that every My Dying Bride album is basically just a My Dying Bride album, then we should at least define what that means. It’s sad, sure, and it’s got certain sonic textures and lyrical themes that will likely never disappear. Above all, though, a My Dying Bride album is satisfying, often great, and always rife with moments of brilliance.
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HEAR A MAP OF ALL OUR FAILURES
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My Dying Bride – “Abandoned As Christ”
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BUY A MAP OF ALL OUR FAILURES
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