Justify Your Shitty Taste II: My Dying Bride’s “34.788%… Complete”

Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. Today’s submission: Greg Moffitt says trip-hop hooray for My Dying Bride’s polarizing 34.788%…Complete.
Released on October 1998 on compact disc and long-play record, 34.788%… Complete is the fifth full-length album by England’s own masters of doom, gloom and suicidal despair. 34—as I shall hereafter refer to it—is the band’s “controversial” album, a perceived faux pas in an otherwise faultless discography, and divisive to this day amongst fans and critics alike. In talking about why this record is ripe for revision, I’m not trying to suggest that there’s nothing unique or different about it. There are aspects of the album that broke new ground for the band, most of which were never explored further on later releases. 34 is, however, absolutely, utterly, unquestionably My Dying Bride through and through.

A notion persists, even amongst some of those who’ve actually heard the album, that 34 is a failed experiment with electronica. It’s not. Much more valuable than anything I can express here is for you to pull up a throne and just listen to the album. Even if you already have—or perhaps especially if you have—and still think it somehow weak or weird, listen again. Put aside any prejudices you may be harboring, especially if they’re not actually your own, and give this wonderful work a try on its own terms. You may be surprised.
34 cover
Much of the murk and doubt hanging over 34 stems from the upheavals that were happening within the band at the time it was recorded. These resulted in some unusual sequences of events, in and out of the studio, which, although contributing a great deal to the eventual end product, shouldn’t simply be taken as reasons in themselves why the album doesn’t work. Many great albums have emerged from troubled times and we shouldn’t talk ourselves into disliking something just because we dislike how it came about. MDB could have recruited a squadron of Scottish bagpipe players, co-written with Andrew Lloyd Webber and recorded in a disused coal mine, and all that would have mattered, really, would have been the end result.

Violinist Martin Powell and drummer Rick Miah had departed under a cloud in the wake of a curtailed and financially ruinous 1997 US tour supporting Dio. With the remainder of the band at something of a low ebb, it then fell to guitarist Calvin Robertshaw—himself undergoing inner turmoil—to write and record the bulk of 34 with Academy Studios owner Keith Appleton providing keyboards (as usual, the album was recorded at Academy with longtime producer Mags). For better or worse, 34 was largely Calvin’s baby and, as you’ve probably guessed, I think it was for better. This isn’t to say that, if things had turned out differently and the Like Gods… lineup had carried on, that 34—or whatever it might have been christened—wouldn’t have been another great MDB album; it just wouldn’t have been the same. The quirks and sometimes cruel twists of fate, the vicissitudes of circumstance are what made 34 the album it is, and this is to be celebrated, whatever misfortune and sadness surrounds it.

To further complicate matters, the band suffered yet more lineup disruption immediately after the album’s release. This resulted in the cancellation of the subsequent tour, and taken together, the whole torrid affair could have looked distinctly like a band unraveling due to internal schisms. Lack of gigging meant that 34’s songs never really got established and also led to the mistaken belief that the band viewed the album as a mistake which needed to be corrected as quickly as possible.

“A week after it hit the shops, Calvin just packed it in,” says vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe. “He wrote most of 34 and was in his element pretty much doing anything he wanted. But I think things were falling apart at home. He had to make a choice.”

Today, the album suffers from a popular perception of it being off-the-wall, atypical and, in places, blatantly commercial. It is, in fact, the least commercial MDB album of them all. If we want to talk “commercial,” which in itself seems ridiculous where MDB are concerned, The Angel and the Dark River and Like Gods of the Sun are the albums we should be scrutinizing. Although hardly easy-listening, both are considerably less challenging overall than 34. One of my favorite quotes about 34 comes from droll, deadpan guitarist Andy Craighan himself: “If we’d released it with a different cover and title, nobody would have batted an eyelid.”

There may well be something to this. Before you even get to the music, the album presents an aesthetic quite different from previous MDB releases, although even this situation is less straightforward than the detractors might have you believe. By this stage of their career, the band’s distinctive spiky death metal-style logo had already assumed undeserved importance.

“The logo wasn’t even used on the first album,” Aaron points out. “We didn’t see it as a trademark. I wasn’t precious about it. If that logo looked out of place on certain artwork—which it certainly would have on 34—it got dumped for a different style which worked with the visual presentation.”

Indeed, when one examines MDB’s current catalog of 10 studio albums, only six feature said logo and, when 34 itself first appeared, just one of the previous four sported it.

Artwork aside, the album’s dodgy rep in certain quarters can often as not be traced to just one song, the dirge-y “Heroin Chic” which sounds like a strung-out jam involving the Stooges and the Sisters of Mercy. Like many people in the U.K.—at a time when it was still pre-Internet for most—my first taste of the album was on a magazine cover-mount compilation CD and the song was, you guessed it, “Heroin Chic.” It wasn’t a particularly appetizing apéritif nor was it long before the words “trip-hop” and “My Dying Bride” being uttered in the same sentence was sufficient to convince many observers that the band had lost their collective marbles in a misguided lunge towards the mainstream. Although interesting enough, I simply found “Heroin Chic” a little bit boring, and I still don’t care for it much today. It’s not, however, in any way typical of the album as a whole. At its best, 34 is a transcendent revelation, a masterpiece in pieces. It’s worth noting that not only do the band still stand by the album completely (tracks have begun creeping into the live set), but 34 sits somewhere in the middle of MDB’s back catalog in terms of sales.

Although the reviews the album originally received were somewhat mixed, there were plenty of positive write-ups and certainly no sense that there was some sort of musical meltdown occurring in the MDB camp, despite the lineup changes. Underground bible Terrorizer awarded it a respectable 4 out of 5, then-editor Nick Terry declaring 34 “a new lease of life” and a “reinvention,” even going so far as to declare “Base Level Erotica” “without a doubt the best song the band have ever written.” High praise indeed. The more mainstream Metal Hammer weighed in with a cautious 6 out of 10, although their reservations—mostly concerning MDB’s supposed similarity to Paradise Lost—should perhaps be afforded less weight in the light of writer Dave Ling’s praise for Martin Powell’s “haunting, sensuous” violin work. A laughable oversight, I’m sure you’ll agree. I can’t recall Kerrang!’s assessment of 34 mainly because I’d stopped buying the magazine by that point and anyway, so obsessed were they with nu-metal, and yet so unfocused, they’d probably have condemned MDB as mere Type O Negative clones or something equally asinine.

It was at this stage of the discussion that I was finally going to turn to some semblance of analysis of the actual songs themselves. Having reached this point, however, it has become apparent just what a futile exercise it would be. I believe I’ve already made a convincing case for reevaluating 34 based on events and the unprecedented conjunction of circumstances thatmade the album possible, even inevitable. I’m also reminded of the much-quoted quip “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” which I’ve seen attributed to various individuals over the years. When, at the four-minute mark, the album’s opening track “The Whore, the Cook and the Mother” melts into the most achingly beautiful instrumental passage I have ever heard, I realize that everything I’ve just written—or could ever write—is redundant. Unless, of course, you now find yourself moved to listen again…

1. “The Whore, the Cook and the Mother”
2. “The Stance of Evander Sinque”
3. “Der Überlebende”
4. “Heroin Chic”
5. “Apocalypse Woman”
6. “Base Level Erotica”
7. “Under Your Wings and Into Your Arms”