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Cathedral are a band that forged a career sounding like no one else. I understand that these guys have a big debt and fascination with Black Sabbath, but they don't remind me at all of the Birmingham quartet, except for the fact that they ploughed the same kind of idiosyncratic path and had heavy riffs and only one guitarist. From the second you see a Cathedral album in the record store, you've entered that world where everything is a little bit brighter and more fantastic (as in fantasy), as if you've stepped into someone else's mushroom trip. Those lurid, weird covers of creatures growing in disconcerting ways, those riffs that lumber and scramble across your ears like lizards across a Mouse Trap board, and Lee Dorrian's distinctive leathery vocals (I owe that description to someone else on Metal Archives, but I forget who) all combine to define a Cathedral album.
The strange thing is, I could never picture Cathedral making a perfect album. Those peculiarities that made them stand out were also the parts of their existence that were undeveloped, that were natural, that were raw. I would argue that 'The Carnival Bizarre' goes up there with 'The Ethereal Mirror' as an album chock full of uncanny, unsettling moments of horror and humour, though some of the ideas are a little more worn here and, in the bigger picture, do not always succeed. Then again, I'm not sure how to rate any of Cathedral's earlier albums on a normal scale, since what is normal for Cathedral is manifestly not the same for any other band. The band's debut 'Forest of Equilibrium' was amazingly powerful and revolutionary at the time, yet sounds clunky and almost unfinished in places, while the following three or four albums work practically as sequels to one another, except in the same way that the original films of 'Frankenstein' and 'Dracula' were related - more by art and technique than by direct association.
(If this all sounds totally off the point, there's a book that wonderfully parallels Cathedral's ability of sounding at the same time cliched and utterly original: it's 'The Castle of Otranto' by Horace Walpole, a 1764 novel that invented the gothic genre and began to parody it even before it was fully formed.)
'The Carnival Bizarre' is not as heavy as 'The Ethereal Mirror', but it's not far behind. Neither bear much comparison to the lead-through-cranium heaviness of 'Forest of Equilibrium', though this softer sound brought with it a much fuller palette of colours and still stands up against 90% of metal bands. The production is nicer than the early recordings (trust me, nicer is the right word), removing some of the filthy obscurity that smothered the funeral doom songs and giving a snapping weight and momentum to the more groovy riffs on offer here. There are stoner sections, notably the long outro to the title track with its bass-heavy rumble and relaxed soloing, but the majority of the action is firmly in the doom ballpark, moving at slow and medium pace with roughly a half and half split.
As usual, the whole band make significant contributions to the sound. Brian Dixon is slightly smothered by the wide guitar tone and sometimes struggles to sound attacking when he goes for a fill or a faster section, but the strong snare drum comes through the sludge clearly. I suppose his relative hush is made up for by Leo Smee, who makes every riff sound thick and syrupy, as well as taking up plenty of attention later in the album as the more reflective nature of some songs let his bass dominate. Gaz Jennings still plays the same style - surprisingly blues and scale-oriented - though he doesn't come up with quite enough great riffs to satisfy my ears. They all sound gloriously heavy, however Cathedral had already churned out that main riff from 'Utopian Blaster' on at least two other songs before 'The Carnival Bizarre', so originality is not up there. Lee Dorrian's voice is a good example of an unskilled instrument being trained to a high standard. He sings...not quite out of tune, but out of harmony a lot, which doesn't sound great, though that is his unique facet and his lyrics are generally fascinating, even if the themes are familiar - no exception here.
'Hopkins (Witchfinder General)' is the standout track on this album for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it arguably became Cathedral's distinctive song because it was a successful single and encapsulates the band's vision and talents in a nutshell; secondly, it's really fucking good. The whole band are tight and energetic, the vocals always sound strong and have great lines to follow, plus the bursts of solo in the second half are dazzling, as is the opening melody. I attended Cathedral's final show in London and 'Hopkins' was a powerful, moving encore. 'Fangalactic Supergoria' is another of my favourites: it's fun, which might be surprising, but there's no stinting on the qualities of a weird martian pagan romp and it has a great energy. There are numerous other decent songs too, like the intriguing 'Electric Grave' and 'Night of the Seagulls', which is creepy as all hell.
On the downside, there are parts of this album that I think I've heard before. The main riff to 'Utopian Blaster' ('Ride part 2' anyone?), the fast section in the middle of 'Palace of Fallen Majesty', and even the opening of 'Vampire Sun' bear strong similarities to one other or to other Cathedral songs from the previous two albums, which shows a blatant lack of originality. Seriously, did the band only know how to write two up-tempo sections after 5 years together? None of these are especially poor songs, though 'Inertia's Cave' is badly done. It sounds like an occult hard rock band coated in tar - no bad thing - but the riffs really do nothing, staying at a constant pace and playing dull repetitions, while Dorrian narrates some admittedly interesting lyrics. The song's only hook is when he hurries through a line in the chorus, and please don't ask me what the closing speech is all about - "This is David on the hotline." Err...OK.
Nevertheless, never write Cathedral off. Of the first few albums, this might be the easiest to get into and probably has the most popular songs (the first three were live staples), while the craetivity is also high, if too repetitive for Cathedral's standards. Listening to these guys is meant to be an interesting experience, not a perfect one, and interesting it certainly is.
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.