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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.