It's a beautifully sunny day in the summer of 2000, and Cradle Of Filth are tripping balls in a field in East Sussex. The band have temporarily relocated from their native Suffolk to the town of Battle, and are currently standing in the exact spot where, 934 years prior, William The Conqueror and King Harold II waged The Battle Of Hastings. As they bake in the sweltering heat, they see long-dead soldiers trooping past them.
“We had taken some magic mushrooms,” Cradle Of Filth singer Dani Filth recalls today. “We saw ghosts and all manner of things.”
Dani reflects on these psilocybin induced apparitions with the air of someone talking about visiting their nan for tea. That’s because it wasn’t out of the ordinary; for Cradle Of Filth, that summer was routinely insane.
Holed up in Parkgate Studios in Battle, Cradle were animals. They were young and their stock in the metal scene was rocketing. They partied hard. They drank. In Dani’s carefully selected words, they “fraternised” with locals. At one point, their friend, horror director Alex Chandon, dropped in and promptly started terrorising pensioners in the nursing home down the road.
“I remember him going next door and pretending that he’d lost his grandma so he could do some filming,” says Dani.
Yet amid all the shenanigans, Cradle Of Filth managed to write one of the most pivotal and enduring songs of their career, Her Ghost In The Fog. The track, from 2000’s Midian, laid down the musical template they’ve followed ever since. A minor MTV hit at the time, two decades on it’s the most-played number in the band’s setlist, aired more than 500 times.
“I wish we’d never written the bloody thing,” says Dani drily. “You’re going through the setlist, going, ‘We should really play this! We haven’t played this for a while! Oh wait, we’ve got to play Her Ghost In The Fog. That puts paid to that, then!’”
The track didn’t quite turn Cradle into superstars, but it did mark the point where they well and truly left the underground behind. The band were already in the ascendency by that point. Having made their name as black metal malcontents infamous for their blasphemous ‘Vestal Masturbation’ t-shirt, they had taken their first steps towards something approaching respectability when they bagged a deal with influential independent metal label Music For Nations, formerly the home of Metallica and Anthrax.
Their first two albums on the label, 1996’s Dusk And Her Embrace and 1998’s Cruelty And The Beast had turned them from corpsepainted outsiders into music press darlings, while their the video that accompanied the title track of 1999’s From The Cradle To Enslave EP even got a few plays on MTV – something that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier.
Despite a series of line-up changes during and after the EP, band morale leading up to Midian was high. Founding guitarist Paul Allender was back following a four-year hiatus, and they’d also tapped drummer extraordinaire Adrian Erlandsson, famed for his work in melodeath speed freaks At The Gates.
“It was like a fresh beginning, but we were reuniting old friendships at the same time,” Dani remembers. “Everybody wanted the band to be successful. Everyone wanted to work hard and play hard.”
To write Her Ghost In The Fog and the rest of Midian, Adrian Erlandsson, Gian Pyres and keyboardist Martin Powell moved in together. The Cradle House, as the singer now calls it, was in the band’s stomping ground of Ipswich.
“It was at the bottom, funnily enough, of Cemetery Road,” he says. “It became quite synonymous with debauchery. You can use your imagination: three single lads in quite an established band partying a lot.”
In late June 2000, the whole band decamped to Parkgate to record Midian. For a young extreme metal outfit – Dani was only 25 at the time – the residential studio was the height of opulence. “It was down near Hastings, a beautiful part of the world, and everyone had their own chalet,” he says. “We had a cook there! It was gloriously hot, so we took trips down to the beach. It just felt like you were on holiday!”
Dani still found time to write lyrics for the album amid the ceaseless partying. The album itself was named after the cemetery in horror author Clive Barker’s 1988 novel Cabal and its later film adaptation, Nightbreed. Just as the Midian of Barker’s book was a hub for all manner of monsters, so the album was about “an amalgam of mythical beasts”, with Her Ghost In The Fog ticking the ‘Victorian ghost story’ box.
Specifically, Dani drew on the inspiration of Tim Burton’s 1998 movie Sleepy Hollow, itself based on Washington Irving’s 1820 short story The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. “It was a continuation of my love affair with the gothic romance,” Dani explains.
“One would assume it takes place in a mythical 18th-century village. Someone’s wife has tendencies towards witchcraft and she’s preyed upon by religious folk, although it’s more for the fact that she’s a beautiful woman. She’s attacked and murdered, and the narrator wreaks his revenge. It was a rape/revenge story.”
Musically, the track strayed further from black metal than Cradle ever had before. They’d never fully been at home in the genre to begin with, but Her Ghost In The Fog drastically dialled up the melody. Paul Allender and Gian Pyres laid down a web of high-flying guitar harmonies, while Dani and back-up singer Sarah Jezebel Deva traded shrill barks and operatic croons respectively during the chorus.
It’s in this space – somewhere between black metal, melodeath and classic British metal – that Cradle continue to live to this day. Cradle’s epic new sound was matched by its sonic sheen, courtesy of producer John Fryer, who had previously worked with Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. It was a direct response to their last album, Cruelty And The Beast, the final mix of which was so awful that, upon hearing it, Sarah Jezebel Deva apparently ran out of the room in tears.
“Cruelty… was basically one member really wanting his drum kit to have a particular sound,” says Dani, referencing former member Nick Barker. “And when you get a sound like that, you can’t have massive guitars on top; it’s like elephants walking over a rope bridge.”
Also helping to make the number a standout was its opening narration, which sat somewhere between the poetic and the ridiculous. “The moon, she hangs like a cruel portrait,” boomed actor Doug Bradley, aka Pinhead from the 1987 movie Hellraiser (itself directed by Clive Barker). “Soft winds whisper the bidding of trees / As this tragedy starts with a shattered glass heart.”
It marked the start of a fruitful relationship between Cradle and Doug – the actor would later return on the Godspeed On The Devil’s Thunder and Existence Is Futile albums. Yet Dani has no clue how the collaboration came about. “I think our manager at the time contacted him,” he guesses. “I think the conversation started with, ‘There isn’t much money in the budget, but…’ I remember he came down kind of early to the studio. They were still setting stuff up, so we just said: ‘Pub?’ Ha!”
As quintessential as Doug Bradley and the increasingly polished Cradle sound were, Dani believes the secret to Her Ghost In The Fog’s success was its video. The OAP-bothering Alex Chandon directed the clip, which cast the band against a snowy backdrop with jagged trees. It was reminiscent of classic silent-era German Expressionist horror movie The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari.
“It was at the end of that era where loads of big gothic horror movies were being made,” Dani states. “We’d just had Sleepy Hollow and, before that, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There were continental films like Dracula Rising; Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy had a huge gothic vibe to it. People were spending a lot of money on horror movies at that point and I think that sort of cinematic line filtered through.”
Cradle’s musical shift also coincided with the increasing eclecticism of some of black metal’s other leading lights. Cradle’s one-time touring partners Emperor had vastly expanded their sounding, Mayhem were making the Nietzsche-inspired Grand Declaration Of War, Enslaved were becoming more prog, and Ulver had embraced atmospheric experimentalim. As Dani puts it: “Black metal was being superseded by a more avant-garde form.”
Her Ghost In The Fog may have failed to chart, but it became a regular staple on MTV. It also marked the beginning of Cradle’s time as a genuine commercial force in metal, something that continued through the follow-up albums Damnation And A Day and Nymphetamine.
“As with most things, Her Ghost In The Fog was a case of the right place at the right time,” Dani says. “You have a massive success with one thing and then the record company are like, ‘That worked – replicate it!’, but you can’t. Her Ghost In The Fog was conjured up by the circumstances. You can’t predict it, you can’t replicate it.”