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This is the album where Cathedral were starting to lose me as a fan over fifteen years but I'll try my best to be fair. The band opts for a more accessible style with much of the familiar doom metal element toned right down in favour of melody, a faster pace, a happier attitude and lyrics starting to run the gamut of retro-Seventies pop culture, apocalyptic scenarios, a bit of science fiction where it fits in with visions of all-out destruction of humankind by its own doing and horror fantasy. On the whole, this is fun stuff and not to be taken too seriously, and the band's very English eccentricity and quirkiness as part of its style and image really start coming to the fore.
"Vampire Sun" is a strong opener with a forceful driving oily riff that could drill paint off walls if Dorrian and Company let it, and even Dorrian's slightly comic vocal doesn't hurt the song at all. Next track, "Hopkins (Witchfinder General)", is more a homage to one of Cathedral's favourite bands, Witchfinder General, and the 1968 movie of the same name that starred Vincent Price; I've seen the movie myself (it can be downloaded on Youtube) and it's actually a very good film about the effect of witch-hunts, religious persecution and torture on individual people's psychology and society generally. The song samples some dialogue from that film in parts throughout but its lyrics fall into the familiar and rather stereotypical template of female temptation that taunts and damns men eternally: a bit disappointing when the movie and the real-life Matthew Hopkins could have provided better lyrical inspiration about the dangers of self-deluded leadership and the pride that precedes a fall.
"Utopian Blaster" is another very strong song with catchy melodies and riffs and is notable for featuring Tony Iommi on guest lead guitar. "Night of the Seagulls" is a creepy gothic horror mini-opera that introduces a horde of undead crusaders (they appear again on a later album, "Endtyme") amid cold spacey and ambient monster-noise effects, a crawling pace and Dorrian's mock horror singing. "Carnival Bizarre" is quite a good long song with a lot of clean-voiced singing but not particularly outstanding compared to what's gone before.
After this track, the next several songs start flagging in quality and variety: it's at this point that the more hokey aspects of Cathedral's new direction such as Dorrian's theatrical and sometimes deliberately wacky and cartoony singing, where he takes the piss out of himself and other minor details such as sound effects become obvious and a bit annoying. The doom metal element recedes in favour of Seventies-style melodic hard rock with sometimes over-long passages of gee-whiz guitar wizardry from Gary Jennings. "Fangalactic Supergoria" is a very funny chug-along with knuckle-dragging caveman vocals but the comedy aspects are laid on a bit too thickly. "Blue Light" is a welcome quiet piece that could have been all-acoustic so the full dream-like beauty and fragility of the song could be revealed and the lyrics could stand out more.
It's a mixed bag of very good songs, songs that could have been great but just missed out by degrees, average songs of straight-out melodic hard rock that the guys tossed out in their sleep and the obvious singles-oriented tracks like "Hopkins ..." that the guys know they could have and should have done better. Although with the passage of time, this album holds up very well indeed and doesn't sound dated at all; in fact, compared with recent albums I've heard from a new generation of doom metal bands like Lazarus Blackstar, The Wounded Kings and Serpentcult, "Carnival Bizarre" comes out ahead in songwriting, technical chops and taking risks while retaining an oddball English quality. I guess part of the problem at the time all those years ago was that I'd come to expect much more of Cathedral, having two earlier albums of theirs that were consistent throughout in musicianship and originality, plus I was surrounded by other quality recordings of their compadres like Carcass, Godflesh, Scorn and others.
After displaying a remarkable sense of adventure and willingness towards creativity on their amazing second album (The Ethereal Mirror) and an interim EP Statik Majik, major things were expected of Cathedral’s third effort. To say the band delivered on all possible expectations would be an odious understatement. Even a pretty serious membership shuffle (new rythym section entirely) could not derail the band’s creative forward chug. And while there’s nothing here totally outside of the band’s established sound scope, this is their most focused album ever, forging a batch of classic songs that are on par with nearly anything conjured by the band’s influences.
Blasting off with the hip shake of “Vampire Sun,” it’s apparent the band’s moving parts are well oiled and ready to lay serious groove on all present eardrums. “Utopian Blaster” rides upon sounds cut from the Sabbath stones, and guess who contributes guitar work here? Yup, it’s Tony Iommi himself. Could a band of this ilk ask for a better seal of approval? “Hopkins (The Witchfinder General),” if it hasn’t already, will earn a place among the finest metal songs ever penned. Both an homage to the Hammer horror film and the band’s prime NWOBHM influence, this cut storms through some of the greatest guitar riffs ever laid down, set down upon the band’s now signature groove. It would be hard to beat that cut, but the epic length title song makes a good try. Another sterling song, this one stretches into a trudging doom section complete with some fine keyboard insertions. “Place Of Fallen Majesty” and “Night Of The Seagulls” make the most obvious stabs at the pure doom metal roots the band were shaking loose from, and fine they are. And although “Electric Grave” sounds like it could possibly be constructed from discarded bits of other songs on board, it still retains it’s own heart and soul. Not the best thing here, but still pretty friggin’ good.
My only (and I do mean only) issue with this album is the bottom end of the production could have been boosted quite a bit. No problem though, just crank the low end up on yer stereo and immerse your soul in the glorious vibes herein. Really people, this is not only this band’s best work, but a true accomplishment for metal as a whole. Miss it not.
DOOOOM. Cathedral are the kings of British doom... this album is killer from start to finish, full of bludgeoning riffs and fuzzed out leads any Sabbath fan will rejoice in. If you are a Cathedral virgin start here. Not only is the music top notch but the cover art is possibly the greatest of all time... a sprawling acid soaked underworld tapestry that will remain interesting after hours of intense scrutiny. So if you dig doom/stoner in all it's monolithic glory, pack your bong and hop aboard the carnival.
As mentioned above, there are lots and lots of riffs here... the bridge riff to Fangalactic Supergoria is so fucking heavy. Heavier than a pile of tombstoens and iron crosses. HEAVY! The excellent fuzzed out production helps alot, and Lee Dorrian's vocals are gruff and awesome, far away from the doom metal, ozzy-knock off standard. There isn't much PURE doom here, asides from the crushing Night of the Seagulls (based on the knights of the templar movie series... coool).... I like that, since pure doom gets old fast. This is Sabbath/St Vitus influenced "doom-rock" so to speak.
Matthew Hopkins Witchfinder is a classic, riding it's throbbing riff and Vincent Price samples to an insane crescendo. My favorite tracks are "the Carnival Bizzare" a massive headbanger... and Blue Light, a freakin tripped out psychedelic journey that will have little appeal for metal purists.
Cathedral is about the weirdest metal band there is. Judging from the name you expect embryonic oldschool death or something. But nooooo. What awaits you in 'The carnival bizarre' is as much Sabbath-influence as you can squeeze into a 90's metal band. Very "70's" feeling in the riffing and melodies. Kind of catchy, but excellent.
They used to be doom metal though, which I learned when I bought their first album at the same time as this one (if this is good they COULD have done other good albums??), I'm sorry to say it sucked though. The only worse doom metal album known to me is Paradise Lost's debut.
But that's in the past, nowadays Cathedral have this 'happy' and original sound which every metaller could need from time to time. I mean isn't it a little much death/black metal dominance over 90's metal??