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My Dying Bride

Why British doomsters My Dying Bride are pushing themselves to the point of tears as they face death once more

Dressed in a black button-down shirt with open, almost Victorian-looking white cuffs, My Dying Bride's towering frontman Aaron Stainthorpe feels himself up amidst a haze of liquid smoke in front of a few thousand Norsemen at Bergen's annual Hole in the Sky festival, and it's already clear this concert is like every other the band plays: rare. In 2006, Stainthorpe estimates, the British sextet has played 10 total gigs, usually turning down more than they play.

Watching him periodically disappear into a monolith of smoke, it becomes evident why. Trapped within the depressive characters his lyrics have created, Stainhope rarely opens his eyes and often turns his back on the audience to sing the group's most heart-wrenching songs, like "The Cry of Mankind." In an unusual twist, they play some of their more death metal-leaning songs at the end of the set, closing with "The Forever People" off their 1992 debut LP, As the Flower Withers. It seems their allotted hour and a half can't hold more than seven of the group's sorrowful, doom-laden songs, and that's all the more crippling for an already insecure outfit.

"It's hard to stand in front of a couple of hundred, a couple of thousand people and open your heart to them," says Stainthorpe, both affable and optimistic, a couple of months after the show. "It's a really difficult thing to do. So I'm kind of rolling around. You know, I'm on the floor. I've often wept onstage. It's a real emotional adventure for me. And coming offstage, I feel like I've been through a war. But this great burden has been taken from me and I feel really relieved afterwards as well, like I've been through some sort of bizarre therapy. And onstage it's a nightmare, but off, it's quite ecstatic."

Stainthorpe's stage fright is one of the main reasons the band plays so few shows. In fact, insecurity seems to dominate My Dying Bride. Bassist Adrian Jackson takes fans' negative criticism particularly hard, especially when they don't offer up a concrete reason for disliking his band's music. Despite any negativity, though, the group has consistently recorded forward-thinking darker-shaded metal. Their new album, A Line of Deathless Kings [Peaceville], contains some of their most lugubrious epics yet and the title refers, quite unabashedly, to their past catalog and legacy as the UK's most reliable doom group. "It's rather conceited to call ourselves kings, but A Line of Deathless Band Members doesn't have quite the same ring," Jackson says.

Yet, as the album wasn't yet released at the time of their Hole in the Sky appearance, there was even more urgency in the air. Their performance seemed more adrenaline-fueled than usual, largely because they were opening for their original influences, Celtic Frost. MDB had supported the Swiss misters previously, playing at 11 p.m. in Spain before the dethroned emperors' set at three in the morning; in Bergen, however, their idols sought them out. The way Jackson remembers it, he'd been sleeping in the dressing room when guitarist Andrew Craighan woke him up with what seemed like a joke: "Thomas is outside and he wants to meet you." Shockingly, there he was—and on top of that, Frost's Tom Gabriel "Warrior" Fischer said he was a longtime fan of My Dying Bride.

Stainthorpe was such a big Frost fan that he'd been avoiding their new album, the dark, almost gothy Monotheist, until after his band had completed Kings, fearing its influence would seep into his songwriting. After Frost's show that night, they had some drinks backstage and the singer found his idols to be very friendly. When they were at the airport the following day, Stainthorpe approached Fischer with the idea of collaborating in the future and the pair exchanged email addresses. My Dying Bride had come full circle.

Although in recent years the band had explored influences more in the league of Dead Can Dance, Swans, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, they'd all grown up listening to Frost, Candlemass, and Morbid Angel. And though their new album might be their most goth rock-influenced to date, the last 30 seconds of Kings' final song, "The Blood, the Wine, the Roses," erupt into death metal bombast, as Stainthorpe growls, "Torment me, you fucking bastard/ I'll seek you once I rise." It's an unsettling postscript—at least, that's how it affected Stainthorpe when he first heard it.

"I was onto the lads the following day and I said the fucking end of that song is amazing—please tell me it's not a joke and you only threw it on for a laugh," says the singer. "The whole idea was we're kind of tempting fans into, taunting them into this is what's next from My Dying Bride. And it's kind of an unusual thing to do, but yeah, it is basically a little teaser of things to come."

The group composed the rest of the record in one morose fell swoop, except for Stainthorpe's lyrics. Even as far as three songs into recording, he hadn't written so much as a word and was starting to panic. Stainthorpe sequestered himself at home with the basic tracks, staying up late, and getting drunk to find his darkest personas. He lit candles, opened a bottle of red wine (a favorite subject), and compared himself to Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley in their ambience. Once he's tapped into himself, he can write.

"The following day, when I've kind of sobered up a bit and kind of come back to reality," says Stainthorpe, "I look at the words and I think, 'I'm not entirely sure what these words mean, but it must have meant something at the time.' And so I rarely change any of the lyrics… and then, of course, when it comes to singing those same words live, that feeling, that emotion, and that passion all come flooding back to me. And that's why I'm on my knees weeping onstage, because that was the moment of when I created those words."

Several of the songs on My Dying Bride's new album confront one of Stainthorpe's most familiar demons: religion. Growing up, he was subject to "religious education" classes, which eventually provided the framework for his most tortured stories, such as "And I Walk With Them," on Kings, a tale of a man whom even God can't forgive for some unspeakable act. Stainthorpe's agnosticism has festered steadily throughout the years as he's watched holy wars unfold in the Middle East on TV and heard stories of less-than-divine priests performing perversities on their congregation's youth.

"I just think that's incredibly childish when you consider there isn't a single fact proving that there has ever been a god," he grouses. "And why people can kill their neighbor over a story, I think, is a bit outrageous. I don't kill my neighbor because he thinks Star Wars is better than Lord of the Rings."

Religion seems to have become a greater influence on Stainthorpe's lyrics since he challenged himself to change his writing style. When My Dying Bride formed in early 1990, he'd read poetry endlessly, digesting the work of the greats, from Shakespeare to Keats. After a few years, he realized that he was writing so much like his inspirations that he put down his poetry books altogether and forced himself to find new influences. And although he still likens himself to the literary masters, his fast has pointed him in strange new directions, including his religion fetish and other tragic indulgences.

Over the years, Stainthorpe's full-throated moans have galvanized My Dying Bride's place in what he describes as the "tragically romantic dark side." The band's name has become so synonymous with the British doom metal they pioneered alongside compatriots Paradise Lost and Anathema, it's shocking whenever someone interprets their music as anything else. "I wanted something dark and gothic and deeply touching and tragic, and most people get it right," says Stainthorpe. "I think it's only been misread once by a German journalist who was under the impression that, because he'd actually heard some more death metal stuff… that we would go round to churches on wedding days and massacre everybody in the whole sort of Autopsy/Slayer-type bloody, gory way."

Though the group found their doom tag hard to shuck, their name always kept them bound to their shadowlands. MDB's greatest feat on Kings, however, is how they've adapted their sullen demeanor and more commercially structured songs. Their music has slowly become more palatable since experimenting with Pink Floyd-gone-metal indulgences on their almost universally misunderstood 1998 album, 34.788%... Complete. They took that record as a learning experience, returning to goth-influenced metal while growing more and more open musically. Kings bears "Deeper Down," the group's first single since 1994's "The Sexuality of Bereavement," and it's also spawning another in the painfully self-deprecating "I Cannot Be Loved" (incidentally, Stainthorpe's favorite song). Jackson feels the returning popularity of guitar-based music has heartened the musical base of the band, especially a "good band over there called Evanescence" that he says are doing something similar to My Dying Bride, albeit in a far more commercial way than they ever could.

Stainthorpe says they're in the midst of organizing a US tour, their first since an aborted 1997 trip. ALike their show in Bergen, their Jekyll and Hyde-like insecurities may or may not disrupt matters, but either way, Stainthorpe will likely remain his usual reclusive self onstage.

"I can feel it coming," says Stainthorpe of his pre-show jitters. "A couple of hours before the show, you know, you get those sort of butterflies in the stomach—nerves—but it transcends that so much more. And 10 minutes before we go onstage, I am not the same person I was a few hours earlier. I'm deeply moody. No one talks to me. And I can feel the burn of, you know, the pain of some of the characters I've invented in my songs. And I'm almost becoming them. And I don't want to. I would like to go out there and enjoy the show, and I'm sure we would probably play live more often if I did enjoy it, but I don't. It's agony."

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