[30 January 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
I’m on the phone with Jason Decay of Toronto band Cauldron on a weekday afternoon, the both of us waxing nostalgic about such underrated Canadian metal acts as Thor, Reckless, and Lee Aaron, and from out of nowhere the friendly singer/bassist makes an admission that nearly knocks me off my chair.
“Do you remember Gowan?” he asks, somewhat sheepishly.
“We recorded it.”
To a non-Canadian, that would hardly garner a reaction at all, but anyone who remembers when current Styx keyboardist Lawrence Gowan was a massive solo star in Canada between 1985 and 1988, this is about as odd a choice for a cover a metal band can make. With an unconventional style that combined synth pop, progressive rock, and adult contemporary, Gowan’s late-‘80s was one of the more unique phenomenons in Canadian music history, and while the dark, magisterial “A Criminal Mind” could very well lend itself to a dark metal arrangement, the luminescent, shimmering pop of “Moonlight Desires” is next to impossible to fathom given a heavier treatment. Decay, though, insists that it works, and is anxious to get the funding to put the finishing touches on the track so people can hear for themselves. “If you take away the keyboards and make them all guitar parts, it’s a pretty well-written metal tune,” he says, adding with a laugh, “It’s awesome to talk to someone who actually knows who Gowan is! Outside of Canada, no one really knows.”
It’s not as if the ‘80s-obsessed Decay and Cauldron set out specifically to be a strictly ‘80s-style metal band, but in two short years the three-piece has quickly established themselves as one of the best traditional heavy metal bands working today because of how faithfully and accurately they evoke the melodic riffs and vocal hooks of 25 to 30 years ago. The debut Chained to the Nite (2009) was a strong start, combining the heavy crunch of early Armored Saint with the melodic sensibility of Dokken, but the new follow-up Burning Fortune is even better. The songwriting is more assured, tracks like the fiery, Exciter-inspired “All or Nothing” and the infectious “Tears Have Come” creating an identity of Cauldron’s own rather than blatantly ripping off older bands, and the polished yet punchy analog production by Jameson Elliott is a huge improvement. In fact the band sounds so confident on their second album that I wound up thinking to myself, you know what, if anyone could pull off a “Moonlight Desires” cover, it’s them.
According to Decay, making a record that sounded like it came from 1985 was the least of their concerns; they just wanted to make an album they’d like to listen to. “We weren’t trying to date it or put a certain year on it, we just wanted it to sound real, real good,” he says straightforwardly. “A good record to reference, I gave it to James as a reference point, was the Scorpions’ Blackout. It’s a good mix of real basic recording mixed with modern technology, a real good sounding, live, real record. I looked up to that when we were going to make this record. A lot of German records from that era sound really good. [Accept producer] Michael Wagener was actually someone we actually toyed with the idea of working with. The thing is, some of those guys haven’t done a good record in a long time, and do you really want to gamble with that? We just stuck with someone we knew.”
What tends to happen with a lot of “retro” metal bands is that they’ll want to combine classic ‘80s metal with more modern production, but such a tactic can work to the music’s disadvantage, resulting in records so obnoxiously mixed and mastered that it nearly strips the music of its charm. That’s definitely not the case with Burning Fortune, an album that’s good and loud but is also warm in tone and very easy on the ears. “When I hear a lot of records these days, I really can’t stand the production,” Decay admits. “It just sounds too processed and too compressed, and I don’t really hear a live band playing that shit. I’m not a fan of that myself, so we didn’t want to make a record that sounded like that, that would suck the life and the energy out of the band.
“Recording with [Elliott] was real simple,” he adds, “because I know how he likes to work. Being a fan of ‘70s rock, it’s a real basic process working with him, we basically just recorded live in the room as a band. We take all the bed tracks from there and overdub the vocals and lead guitars. That’s it. We didn’t really fuck with the sound too much either, it’s pretty much the natural sound of the amps, the drums, and the bass in the room…[Analog] appeals to all of us I guess, in a sense that it makes it a lot harder to fuck with the recording. It makes it harder to manipulate it, there’s less options at hand. You actually have to play a good take, you can’t move things around. It’s not as easy as digital.”
Make no mistake, Burning Fortune isn’t retro for the sake of sounding retro. Decay is very well versed in ‘80s metal history, which is reflected in everything the band does, from his vocal phrasing, to the songwriting, to the photographed album artwork (which is so rare in metal these days), to the band’s choices in cover material (obscure Canadian ‘90s pop aside). That knowledge immediately lends credence to Cauldron’s music and image, enough to win over the most jaded metal veteran who thinks young metal bands have lost touch with the genre’s roots. The aforementioned Teutonic metal influence is undeniable on this album, but the flashy American sound of Dokken continues to permeate Cauldron’s music, especially on “Queen of Fire”, which not only boasts a brilliant opening riff swiped straight from the George Lynch school, but tosses in a sly lyrical reference to Decay’s favorite Dokken album as well. “I think George Lynch is an insanely good guitar player and Dokken wrote some insanely good songs,” says Decay. “I think one of my top ten all-time albums is Under Lock and Key, so I think that influence will always be evident. I think Ian would agree. Not that he’s into Dokken as much as I am, [laughs] but he’s definitely a big influence.”
It’s a good thing that Cauldron’s original material is strong enough to stand on its own, because there’s no denying the band has a knack for pulling off some killer ‘80s covers. Chained to the Nite boasted an inspired rendition of the Black N Blue Metal Massacre gem “Chains Around Heaven”, while the new record goes for something even more obscure, a blistering version of “I Confess”, by Detroit faves Halloween. It’s a track that fits so perfectly with Cauldron’s own style that it’s easy to mistake it for one of Decay’s own compositions. “‘I Confess’ was never actually released, I think it was just a demo,” Decay explains. “It’s actually a later-era song, I think the demo’s from 1990 or 1991. A totally hidden, good song. We were like, wow. We sort of play the same style as they do, so we thought it would be a good fit. We know this guy in Detroit who knows Halloween, and he used to come to Cauldron shows, and he knew I was a Halloween fan so he’d bring me their rare CDs and stuff. That song happened to be at the end of one of their CDs, I think their third album has demo bonus tracks, and that song was on there.”
For all the ‘80s influences, though, one thing that’s going to get a lot of people into Burning Fortune more than anything else is something simpler, something that’s becoming a dying art in North American metal: good, strong, clean singing. Far too often young bands ignore the vocal aspect of their music, juxtaposing strong riffs with lazy, monotone growling rather than come up with an equally compelling vocal complement (Acid Witch being one glaring example). Cauldron, on the other hand, choose to work hard at creating good, catchy vocal melodies, and although Decay isn’t exactly the best singer in the world, the dude can carry a tune well enough and authoritatively enough to make it sound convincing. And as strong as he and Chains’ riffs are, it’s those melodies that grab us. There’s a reason why they call them hooks, after all. “I think we knew the last record sort of had weak vocals, and we really paid attention to that this time,” he says. “That was one of the main things going into this record that we told the producer. We’ve been shit on in the past for shitty vocals, let’s work on that this time, let’s get really good takes. We spent more time for sure, probably twice as much time doing these vocals as the ones we did on the last record.”
He continues, “For me as a fan, it’s tough to find the perfect chemistry when you listen to a band. The singer, the guitar sound, the riffs, the drum sound can be annoying as fuck or the way it’s produced or something. There are bands in Finland and Sweden that I really like, like Enforcer, In Solitude, Helvetets Port, Ghost. There are some bands that I like here in Canada, Vulture, Metalian from Montreal. Traditional metal has always been there, it’s just been harder to find it. At the start of the decade I couldn’t find any like-minded bands. In the last few years it seems a lot of similar styled metal bands have come out. Hopefully it continues. Either way, there’ll always be Cauldron. I don’t think we’re going to sound any different anytime soon.”
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.