[Click play above to stream the premiere of ‘Watch it Grow’ from Church of the Cosmic Skull’s Is Satan Real?, out Sept. 16 on Bilocation Records.]
I don’t know how many people it takes to constitute a “church” by UK standards, but Nottingham’s Church of the Cosmic Skull most likely hit that standard. The newcomer band brings together seven players from different groups — guitarist/lead vocalist Bill Fisher was in Mammothwing, others come from Pilgrim Fathers, Hellset Orchestra, Iron Swan, Polymath, Club AC30, and so on — and together they take the band beyond clear aesthetic vision into a near-conceptual level of execution. That is, their mission is so firmly in their grasp, their control held so definitively throughout the seven songs/38 minutes of their Bilocation Records debut, Is Satan Real?, that it becomes easy to imagine the band took shape as an idea before anyone actually came on board.
Fisher is joined by vocalists Caroline Cawley and Jo Joyce, electric cellist/vocalist Amy Nicholson, bassist/vocalist Sam Lloyd, Hammond organist/vocalist Michael Wetherburn and drummer Loz Stone, and as one might expect, the album makes its primary impression in lush sounds. Deeply indebted to classic prog rock, it is immediately distinguished by its multi-part vocal harmonies and overall melodic flourish, working with an unabashed poppiness that some will no doubt attribute to Ghost, especially with the underlying Satanic theme of the title, but Church of the Cosmic Skull‘s heavy psychedelic clarity almost can’t help but be distinct, from the opening bounce of “Mountain Heart” through nine-minute progstravaganza closer “Evil in Your Eye.”
And if you’re thinking this might just be another British band with a cumbersome or otherwise silly name, I’d say each work in Church of the Cosmic Skull‘s moniker earns its place. “Cosmic” for the swirling psychedelic aspects of a cut like “Movements in the Sky,” “skull” for the darker aspects in “Black Slug,” minimalist centerpiece “Answers in Your Soul” and the almost Opethian prog (or, more likely, Magma) of the title-track, and “church” for the sense of reverence that emerges from the lush arrangements of vocals, keys and/or cello throughout “Mountain Heart,” album highlight “Watch it Grow” and the aforementioned closer, for how crisp the songs sound and how each manages to establish its own personality while also adding to the overall breadth of the whole work. Is Satan Real?, as a title, also evokes late-’60s cult interest, like Anton Lavey on the cover of Look magazine.
This all feeds into a comprehensive aesthetic ideal to which the band ascribes, “Mountain Heart” and “Black Slug” setting up a play back and forth between lighter and darker sounds while maintaining a steady thread through them of complexity and textured prog rock, the rolling riff of “Black Slug” coming about as close as they ever do to a doomed vibe. That threat does a lot of work in the subsequent tracks, as “Movements in the Sky” picks up with quiet guitar and organ and brings an underlying chug to a brief but effective three-and-a-half-minute linear build, the vibe has clearly switched back toward brighter fare, but the context has shifted, expanded, and that’s something Church of the Cosmic Skull continue to toy with as the album proceeds forward. After the lustrous finish of “Movements in the Sky,” “Answers in Your Soul” picks up with subdued acoustic guitar and Fisher‘s voice alone — a stark contrast to the rest of the record before and after, but obviously intended to be just that. The relative minimalism and still-on-point melody only further highlight just how broad the spectrum at play in Church of the Cosmic Skull‘s sound can be and can continue to become.
I suppose their potential going forward is a major appeal of this first outing, and for a first outing, that’s fair — it’s easy to be excited about a band starting what seems like it could be a fruitful creative progression — however, in the case of Is Satan Real?, that excitement shouldn’t be taken as a knock on the current accomplishment. As “Is Satan Real” serpentines through a winding prog structure, largely instrumental for the first three-plus of its total four minutes save for some whispers, then dives at 3:31 into organ-laced gospel verse, the sense of realization the band brings to their work already is palpable, and in its engagement and confidence, their material soars when it wants to soar, broods when it wants to brood, and in “Watch it Grow,” kind of engages all sides with a max-efficiency hook, gorgeous arrangement, heavy thud and fluid build. With a foundation of bass and drums, the band construct a landmark chorus and continue to add depth to it as they move forward, dedicating the second half of the song to pure revelry that provides an absolute standout moment leading into “Evil in Your Eye,” which answers back with the most complex structure on hand, keys emphasizing urgency early but the vocal chorus taking hold with next to no backing before the push resumes.
Near the halfway point, they shift into a more subdued psychedelic jam and loosen some of the structural reins for what feels like genuine exploration. Naturally, they bring it back to the chorus for a final build before they’re done, but it’s a welcome moment of play and speaks to the possibility of structural changes being as fluid as mood and vibe are all across the record. A quiet hidden track finds Fisher accompanied by piano — perhaps in answer to “Answers in Your Soul” — and once more underscores just how wide open Church of the Cosmic Skull have thrown the doors with this debut full-length. The fact that their range comes with a corresponding cohesion of sound and purpose makes Is Satan Real? even more impressive. Its shining moments blind and its darker moments pull downward, but it’s in being able to pull off both and craft such seamlessness between the two sides that the band truly begin to make their mark.