I debated with myself whether to do reviews on this site. I think there are some very real potential pitfalls to being a musician while also casting oneself in the critic role. But oh well, if I think of something interesting to say about an album, I will. I figure that I download so much music for free (kind of a by-product of spending so much time on the Internet) that it’s the least I can do to spread the word about something if I like it. If you’re a band or label and think I might find something interesting to say about your album, you’re welcome to send it to me.
I suppose my having been exposed to Cathedral’s new album The Guessing Game follows from my having taken an interest in doom metal in recent years. Supposedly Cathedral are ranked among the heavyweights of the genre’s history. Knowing this, yet having not heard any of the band’s previous material, puts me in an interesting position with respect to this album, since what’s going on here is often quite different from conventional doom fare. Early in the album, “Funeral Of Dreams” makes this point quite clearly — after starting out with the sort of chugging heavy riff you’d expect, suddenly a passage breaks out in which vocalist Lee Dorian trades off spoken lines with an odd-metered melody played on some sort of organ or mellotron, perhaps doubled by marimba. The band has stated in interviews that they wanted to really let their love of prog-rock run free on this album. They manage to make strong melodic and textural reference to early ’70s prog while steering clear of most of the genre’s more self-indulgent and excessive tendencies — unless you count the album’s overall length, which necessitates a double CD.
Elsewhere in the album we get strings, more mellotron, synths, songs with mazes of changes, a classical-tinged instrumental (the title track), and the psychedelic twists of “Cats, Incense, Candles & Wine.” For all this decoration though, there’s no shortage of heavy riffage, but even where they stick closer to a metal sound, Cathedral follow their own madcap inspiration on The Guessing Game, somehow evoking the eccentric vibe common to ’60s British psychedelia without appropriating much of its sound. Guitarist Gary “Gaz” Jennings can obviously do gloomy when called for, particularly in the album’s doomier second half, and can also write a hooky riff that gets caught in your head, as on “Painting In The Dark.” Even the bassist keeps his part of things interesting, accenting changes with tasteful runs reminiscent of Faith No More’s Billy Gould.
Despite coming from a genre where lyrics usually tend toward the epic, apocalyptic, or mystical, Lee Dorian goes down-to-earth here, focusing on the issues of political and religious dogma, materialism, and the motives of the powerful, often in quite straightforward terms. Many of the lyrics wouldn’t sound out of place in more of an 80’s hardcore-punk setting, even to the point of including an animal-rights song, “Requiem For The Voiceless” (which happens to be, musically, the album’s most traditionally doomy moment). Given that Dorian got his start in Napalm Death, this political bent makes sense. Similarly straightforward is his vocal delivery, a clean melodic style favoring expression over flash, only getting growly when it suits the content as on “The Running Man.”
Honestly, Cathedral probably could have spared their label some trouble and expense by leaving off the closing track, “Journeys Into Jade.” Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it would have been enough to make the album fit on one CD, and it starts off as a rambling meditation on the band’s history and potential legacy that works each of their album titles into the lyrics — the sort of thing that suggests that a band might be considering hanging it up, which would be a shame in this case. Following this is the obligatory “ooh, bonus track” interval of silence followed by another “song,” a device I find to be kind of played-out and a bit silly in the post-CD era. The bonus “song,” in this case, consists of the artist responsible for most of Cathedral’s cover artwork over their career explaining the concept behind this album’s cover. Good cover art shouldn’t need such explanation, but I suppose it does serve as an enticement to downloaders like myself to purchase a legit physical copy, since from what I’ve heard, it folds out into something more elaborate than pictured above.
It’s difficult to catalog every type of sound Cathedral employ on the The Guessing Game. True to its title, it keeps you guessing. I’m not sure doom metal is usually intended to be this fun; whatever history this band has, however, they’ve made a conscious effort to transcend the genre here, and this rewards the open-minded listener with a pretty unique combination of heavy, catchy, and colorful.