[19 April 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For a musical genre that prides itself on being extreme and over the top, be it sonically, visually, or both, it’s amazing that the double album format hasn’t been utilized more. After all, in rock music the double album is a time-honored celebration of self-indulgence and bloat, in other words a perfect fit for metal.
While there’s never been a shortage of double live albums over the past 40 years, when it comes to studio albums it’s another story entirely. Of course, over the last quarter century the CD era might have a lot to do with that, as many bands wasted no time in exploiting the increased size of the single-disc format (we’re looking at you, Metallica). Plus, slogging through 79 minutes of music on a single disc just doesn’t have the same appeal as making the effort of taking a four-side musical journey, burying your head in some lavish 24” x 12” gatefold artwork, coming up for a breather every 20 or 25 minutes to turn the record over. For a genre that still clings to the idea of the album as a singular piece of art as the iTunes age swiftly takes over, it’s ironic how that idea of the classic double album has somehow fallen by the wayside.
That’s not to say that we haven’t had our share of doubles in recent years, with Therion’s Gothic Kabbalah, the Ocean’s Precambrian, Esoteric’s The Maniacal Vale, and Judas Priest’s Nostradamus being some of the more well-known examples. Aside from some critical love, though, it’s not like any of those releases set the metal world ablaze, and in fact you’d be hard pressed to find a double studio album that did, especially in the last 20 years. However, UK veterans Cathedral are out to change all that with their ambitious ninth full-length The Guessing Game, returning after a long five-year absence to embrace their inner prog rock nerd more than ever before, yielding 84-minutes of new music split over two discs.
“The very fact that we haven’t done an album for five years and we had all this material, it seemed kind of crazy not to make it a double album, really,” says singer Lee Dorrian, calling from his home in London. “Who knows when we’re going to do another one? And especially for people that dig our music, for them we thought it would be something special to give them a double album. We had all this material, we recorded it all, and we liked it all. It’s quite rare, because normally when you do an album there’s at least a couple of songs that some people feel happy with and others don’t. This time I think we’re happy overall with the whole thing.”
With 13 songs neatly spread over CDs that clock in at 40- and 45-minutes, The Guessing Game actually feels far less laborious as a bloated 79-minute single disc (“I personally hate CDs that are single discs that are just crammed up to the last minute,” Dorrian agrees), but in addition to the smart sequencing, the songs themselves hold up tremendously well. Dorrian, guitarist Gary Jennings, bassist Leo Smee, and drummer Brian Dixon go for broke on the entire record, working with a musical palette far more varied than the band’s 1991 classic Forest of Equilibrium, an album universally regarded as a major work of traditional doom metal.
The monolithic tritone riffs and lumbering tempos still show up from time to time, but more than ever their predilection towards classic progressive rock rises to the surface, and before we know it we’re hit with passage after passage that smacks of such acts as the Moody Blues, Strawbs, Van der Graaf Generator, and Camel rather than the usual Sabbath/Pentagram homages. Coming on the heels of the nearly-as-eclectic The Garden of Unearthly Delights, though, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
“After we did the last album we kind of thought that it was a good one and after all this time we were really pleased to do an album like that,” the affable Dorrian explains in his soft Brummie accent. “We also felt a bit like, what do we do next? Because the last track on there is an epic, 28 minute song called ‘The Garden’. We stumped ourselves a little bit because we didn’t really know how we could follow that. To be honest, having been in the band for so long, and at that point it had been like 15, 16 years, we determined if we are going to carry on and do more records we have to make sure they’re for the right reasons. And we took a year off just to reflect on everything, really.
“We actually wrote a whole album’s worth of material that we didn’t even record,” he adds. “I wouldn’t say we scrapped it, but we just started all over again. The stuff we initially wrote was very much more in the vein of our early stuff, in the vein of Forest, very heavy, slow epic doom stuff. We kind of thought that that would be a very cool thing to do, but also we realized on a label like Nuclear Blast and with a nice kind of budget we had, we thought why don’t we leave that for the time being and just make the record we always wanted to make, and not hold back? Just go forward with all the things we maybe flirted with before, in terms of the kind of psych and prog elements and stuff like that. If we’ve got the studio and we’ve got our producer again, let’s just try and make the most grand, layered work that we’ve ever done. And once we realized that that’s the kind of vibe we were aiming for, we started writing again from scratch, and then we couldn’t stop.”
Even though Dorrian and his mates suddenly found themselves on a huge creative roll and had reunited with producer Warren Riker, who had collaborated with them on The Garden of Unearthly Delights, capturing all those ideas on tape was another story entirely. “It was the longest time we’ve ever spent in the studio,” Dorrian says exasperatedly. “We were in there for a month and we still didn’t get it finished. It was quite stressful recording, actually. I think because we had so many ideas and so many things going on, it was like every minute and every second counted.”
“By the end I was fucking exhausted, to be honest with you. But we still hadn’t finished it, I hadn’t even started doing vocals properly until the last three or four days when everyone else had gone. We were doing that at five, six in the morning and stuff, trying out different vocal ideas. It was all a bit surreal towards the end, but if anything that just added to the kind of edginess of it all.”
What we’re left with is an album rife with diverse sounds, but although this is easily Cathedral’s most varied work to date, it never completely strays from the template the band first established back in the early-‘90s. The brilliant “Painting in the Dark” is a refreshingly up-tempo track that explores the livelier side of classic doom. The peculiar arrangements of the eight and a half minute “Funeral of Dreams” are instantly memorable, most notably the slinky little portions that sound oddly reminiscent of Paul Giovanni’s music for the 1973 film The Wicker Man, but the song always returns to the band’s more robust style.
Similarly, “Cats, Incense, Candles & Wine” starts off sounding like a combination of Donovan’s late-‘60s work and the mellotron-infused stylings of the Moody Blues, yet the song’s subsequent rousing psychedelic jam keeps things in check. For Dorrian, whose knowledge of early progressive and psychedelic rock is positively encyclopedic, finding that perfect middle ground between prog, pych, and metal has always been key, but none more so than on The Guessing Game.
“Funeral of Dreams”
“Some of the more progressive elements have come through a bit more, but at the same time I hope people don’t think we’re trying to live in 1971 or whatever, because we’re very much aware that we live in this day and age,” he says. “It’s just our influences come from that period, it’s undeniable. We are making a record that we’re very much aware is recorded now. We’re not trying to replicate some ‘70s sound or vibe or anything. It’s more the freedom of expression and more of a free reign to express yourself as opposed to being so restricted.”
So what specific progressive rock influences is Cathedral drawing from the most on this album? “With the mellotron it’s groups like Gracious!, early Moody Blues, Kestrel, bands like that,” Dorrian replies. “As far as prog goes, I’m mainly a fan of UK psych and prog from ‘68 to ‘72. Though I do dig a lot of American psych from ‘67-‘69 and European prog from ‘73-ish. Mainly UK groups on the Vertigo label, like Cressida, Fantasy, heavier groups like Elias Hulk, CMU, the Parlour Band, Jade Warrior. We’ve been listening to these bands since the late-‘80s, more as fans than anything else.”
“This time on the record it seemed like we’ve come to the point where we feel confident enough to bring these influences to the fore. Because we also feel that we’ve got nothing to lose as well, after all this time. We’ve got nothing to prove as much as we’ve got nothing to lose. I just think we went for it, we didn’t really think too hard about what the consequences would be, but I don’t think we went stupidly too far into the realms of progressive rock myself, it’s just the right balance between that and everything else that the band’s about.”
Normally whenever we do come across a double album in metal, we tend to assume it’s a concept album of sorts, and although Dorrian insists The Guessing Game isn’t a concept album or rock opera per se, much of the album’s lyrical content does follow a similar theme throughout. In addition, the lavish artwork by Dave Patchett complements the music, much more than a cursory glimpse at the front of the CD booklet would indicate.
“That’s only a minor representation of what the whole painting actually represents, because it folds out into a massive question mark, and the baby at the start is just the beginning of it. Inside that question mark is the evolution of man going to where it is now, but also replicating the child’s journey through life, through indoctrination and religions being imposed on fertile minds. The basic concept of The Guessing Game ought to do with the game of life, the big question mark that hangs over life. Where do we come from, why are we here, where do we go, and the lengths that that uncertainty that will drive people to.”
Dorrian continues, “The fact that people seem to spend their entire life convinced that there’s a better place other than this one that’s a so-called heaven, who’s to say that this is heaven that we live in now? I think the world is pretty much a beautiful place, it’s people’s negative attitudes towards the planet and the people within it that make it a bad place. And it’s generally people who only see this existence as a stopgap to a better existence. I think it’s right here in front of us, personally. To me they’re just guessing that there’s something better than this. Everything’s a guess.”
That may be so, but there’s no guessing when it comes to assessing Dorrian’s impact on metal these last 25 years. In addition to fronting one of metal’s most enduring bands in Cathedral his role on seminal albums with grindcore legends Napalm Death will never be forgotten, and if that wasn’t enough, he spends the huge majority of his time running the excellent indie label Rise Above, which has consistently churned out top notch doom, psychedelic, and traditional heavy metal since the ‘90s.
One of the genre’s great renaissance men, Dorrian’s gaze is perpetually cast forward, constantly in search of the next great new band (he raves about fine San Diego psych/prog throwbacks Astra), setting up ambitious concert bills in London promoting both his label and the music he loves, but the central idea of The Guessing Game compelled him to ask a few personal questions of his own on the lighthearted “Journey Into Jade”. At one point he muses in an oddly self-referential, postmodern twist, “Today we are here playing the Guessing Game / Uncertainty with what tomorrow may bring / Will our vinyl be rare and collectable / Will we be the in thing?”
“It’s just a pondering isn’t it really?” he says. “Because the band’s been together for 20 years, I thought 20 years is a good place to stop and rethink and start again, really. It’s just reflecting on what we’ve done so far, and while it’s reflecting on the past then it also leads you to reflect on the future. To me that’s quite a natural thing in the song. Loads of people are asking me, ‘Is this the end?’” he laughs heartily.
“Again, that’s part of the guessing game, isn’t it?”
The Guessing Game – Album Teaser
Adrien Begrand has been writing for PopMatters since 2002, and has been writing his monthly metal column Blood & Thunder since 2005. His writing has also appeared in Metal Edge, Sick Sounds, Metallian, graphic novelist Joel Orff's Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll, Knoxville Voice, The Kerouac Quarterly, JackMagazine.com, StylusMagazine.com, and StaticMultimedia.com. A contributing writer for Decibel, Terrorizer, and Dominion magazines and senior writer for Hellbound, he resides, blogs, and does the Twitter thing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.