Music

Cathedral: Keep 'em Guessing

Instead of carrying on with the same old doom metal, Cathedral mastermind Lee Dorrian decided to pull out all the stops. The result is a lavish double album that will befuddle some and enthrall many.


Cathedral

The Guessing Game

Label: Nuclear Blast
US Release Date: 2010-04-20
UK Release Date: 2010-03-15
Artist Website
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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?"

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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