Here’s a Cathedral Review that Would Also Have to Fit on Two Discs

A double album is always a curious read, and Cathedral’s ninth full-length, The Guessing Game, with which the legendary UK doom outfit celebrates their 20th anniversary, is no exception. All the more so considering The Guessing Game is so close to the 80-minute limit of what would fit on a regular compact disc that, if the band had nixed the two two-and-a-half-minute intros, the record would have fit easily. So it’s not like they’ve come up with such an abundance of material as a follow-up to 2005’s The Garden of Unearthly Delights, but the jeans are just a little too tight to hold what they’ve got. I think we’ve all been there at one time or another.

Please don’t take that as calling The Guessing Game bloated. As one of the bands who set the course for the genre of traditional doom with classic albums like 1993’s The Ethereal Mirror and 1995’s The Carnival Bizarre, they know what it takes to make a good record, and although I generally fall on the side of cut what you need to to make it work — to the point of agreeing with George Martin that The White Album should have been a single disc (would the world really miss “Rocky Raccoon” or “Revolution No. 9?”) — if after two decades of existence, Cathedral want to make a 2CD, I’m not about to fault them for doing so. After five years, I’m just happy to have a new record. Any issue of how to interpret whether to take it as one whole work or two separate albums is secondary to that. Maybe that’s The Guessing Game.

In any case, the remaining original and principal members of the band, vocalist Lee Dorrian (whose back story by now shouldn’t need retelling) and guitarist Garry “Gaz” Jennings, both give remarkable performances throughout The Guessing Game. From “Funeral of Dreams” and down the line of the first disc’s material, Dorrian’s voice is a constant high point. Even as “Funeral of Dreams” pays bizarre homage to ritualistic ‘70s prog — think bands like Black Widow and CovenDorrian stays in character and on point vocally. And it’s a hearty “holy shit” moment nearly every time Jennings kicks into a solo, perhaps most especially on “Painting in the Dark.”

Cathedral has always worked a good dose of “weird” into their sound, so although “Funeral of Dreams” is jarring because it’s the first track (following the intro, “Immaculate Misconception”), it would be hard for it to be out of place, even next to the more rocking “Painting in the Dark,” which itself is followed by another change in “Death of an Anarchist,” which grooves slower and introduces a mellotron to amp up the prog feel and tie in with the following instrumental title track, where it’s more heavily featured (at three minutes, this could have been the intro for a single-disc version of the album and it would have worked really well leading into the heavy beginning of “Funeral of Dreams”). “Edwige’s Eyes” has a classic Cathedral feel and puts The Guessing Game’s most Sabbathian riff yet to good use in the chorus. Were it my job to pick a single, I might go with this one, since it’s got a memorable hook and is solid doom for all of its seven-minute duration.

Disc one ends in more ‘70s prog quirkiness, coming in the form of “Cats, Incense, Candles and Wine.” Where “Funeral of Dreams” took one aspect of those seminal acid rocking days — namely the ritual — “Cats, Incense, Candle and Wine” is more of the whole package. Again, Dorrian’s voice adjusts well. The Garden of Unearthly Delights was an engrossing but not really ambitious record. With all its sonic twists and turns, The Guessing Game has a clear striving sense that’s refreshing to consider in the context of the band’s 20 years. Perhaps the reason Dorrian and Jennings have been able to work together for so long is they’ve always wanted to try new things. Without lapsing into some kind of marriage-counseling tone, that’s obviously important to make any creative relationship work as well as theirs has.

Although drummer Brian Dixon (who joined Cathedral in 1994) sounds positively massive in the opening of second-disc intro “One Dimensional People,” I’d probably still have sacrificed it to fit the album on one disc. As “Casket Chasers” comes on with a quicker pace and more straightforward structure, one perhaps wonders if the two-disc-means-two-album reading of The Guessing Game isn’t correct and perhaps the band has saved their less experimental material for last (which, in itself is unconventional, since most bands would put their explorations at the end of a record). Jennings, it’s worth noting, delivers yet another outstanding solo to complement his outstanding riff work here, and though he could stand to be higher in the mix, bassist Leo Smee accents said riffs with fills and runs that bring the song to highlight level.

“La Noche del Buque Maldito (AKA Ghost Ship of the Blind Dead)” is shorter than most of the song material on The Guessing Game at 5:47, and like “Casket Chasers,” keeps its tempo high. If The Guessing Game has a shuffle, this is it. With a pair of catchy, heavy songs, Cathedral have moved the album into a new phase — which, if you’ve been paying attention, means it’s time for a change.

That change comes in the form of “The Running Man,” which brings back the mellotron and launches into a verse of single hits and Dorrian half-whispers before going into a semi-stoner prog groove and, thanks to Smee’s overdrive, is led into a long break of increasingly spooky sub-psychedelia. Like “Funeral of Dreams,” there’s an odd, carnival (Carnival Bizarre, maybe?) feel to these parts, but the band reins it back in for another section of hits and mellotron creepiness. And then? A solo as the whole thing falls apart and leads into the slower, more doomed approach of “Requiem for the Voiceless.” This might be The Guessing Game’s pinnacle doom moment, and Dorrian uses it as a vehicle to explore an animal-rights lyrical theme, which isn’t often heard in the genre, but like a lot of what Cathedral does at any given moment, somehow works. Even if you want to eat a steak while you’re listening to it, the trapped-by-society framework and balls-heavy groove will make the song a favorite.

The adventure of The Guessing Game ends on a light note, with “Journey into Jade,” on which Dorrian lyrically recounts the band’s history in celebration of their 20 years. It’s basically an exercise in charm, and though there isn’t much reflection to be had — no grand statement about dedicating a good part of their lives to this music or the mission of the band — it’s fun to hear the vocalist work the names of their albums into puns and there’s an honest moment when he says, “Today we’re playing the guessing game/Uncertainty with what tomorrow may bring/Will our vinyl be rare and collectible?” culminating with the question in a modified chorus of, “20 years it’s been/How will the present seem?” That single line, inadvertently summing up the anxiety any band feels about releasing their material to the public, is the song’s most thoughtful moment. When listening, just make sure you’ve recovered from Jennings’ final solo in time to appreciate it.

There’s a short bonus track (another time eater), but then The Guessing Game is over, and the feeling one has is that a journey has ended. Cathedral have managed to harness the epic without having to make a 25-minute song. The album itself, which, again, somehow works, has a flow from one track to the next that simultaneously allows for the changes in approach and makes them cohesive. I think we knew coming into this record that Cathedral were going to go for something big, but with The Guessing Game, they surpass anything that could have reasonably been expected of them and deliver to all sides of their fanbase with a single record. Those looking for something far out will revel in “Funeral of Dreams,” “Cats, Incense, Candles and Wine” and “The Running Man,” while those with an ear for the straightforward dig on “Edwige’s Eyes,” “Casket Chasers” and “La Noche del Buque Maldito (AKA Ghost Ship of the Blind Dead),” leaving “Requiem for the Voiceless” to the doom heads begging for everything to be played at half-speed. And how do they cap it off? With a thanks to everyone who’s made the trip along with them.

I don’t know what will happen as Cathedral begin their third decade together, and I don’t know how The Guessing Game will fare in the fickle public market (that two-disc thing is a killer, but hopefully it does well enough to bring the band over for some US shows), but it is an impressive, encompassing work, and one that more than justifies the wait. It reaffirms the respect Cathedral are given by those fortunate enough to know to give it, and breaks new stylistic ground for the band at a time when if they were to fall back on formula and put out a record every three years of the same thing over and over, probably no one would hold it against them. Let there be no question why Cathedral are one of the most important bands in doom. The Guessing Game has all the answers.

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6 Responses to “Here’s a Cathedral Review that Would Also Have to Fit on Two Discs”

  1. […] reading: The Obelisk » Blog Archive » Here’s a Cathedral Review that Would Also Have to Fit on Two Discs. – Resolutie: 1024 * 576 (16:9) – Bestandsformaat: BMP 24 Bit Share and […]

  2. Andy Samford says:

    Thanks for the wonderful and detailed review. I am so excited to hear this album, I cannot wait! So happy that Cathedral are still around and making music all these years later, and hope they continue to do so for many more.

  3. […] Here’s another fresh release, no explanation needed.Review at The Obelisk. […]

  4. peter chrisp says:

    Having just bought the record the other day, and after a couple of listens, i find the album a lot more accessible. There are a number
    of weird twists and turns, as they are leaning a little more into
    psychedelia, 60’s pop music and progressive rock with a number of time changes, but they still retain that ultra heaviness, it may take the listener a few spins, but it’s worth it.

  5. […] won’t delay, both because I’ve already reviewed the album and because the interview’s long and comprehensive enough, but I would like to say thank you […]

  6. […] reading: The Obelisk » Blog Archive » Here’s a Cathedral Review that Would Also Have to Fit on Two Discs. (Special thanks to JJ Koczan for the kind permission) – Resolutie: 1024 * 576 (16:9) – […]

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