Cathedral, The Last Spire: Circle of Time Has Stopped

Whatever else you might want to say about Cathedral‘s catalog as it’s developed over the course of their massively influential more than 20-year run, the band has always made the album they wanted to make. Even during the British doom legends’ mid- and late-’90s period of wandering through the stoner rock wilderness — see 1996’s Supernatural Birth Machine and 1998’s Caravan Beyond Redemption — they didn’t wind up there by happenstance. Still, their legacy will always be for morose, stomping, thoroughly British doom, and it’s that side of their approach that their fans have most clamored for over the years. Their last studio outing, 2010’s The Guessing Game (review here), offered two discs of classic prog-influenced songs that asked much of their audience but offered much in return. Where the prior full-length, 2005’s The Garden of Unearthly Delights, had sought to marry some of the rock and doom sides together, The Guessing Game marked the band’s 20th anniversary with a bold and uncompromising progression of their sound. The results were never going to be as heralded as the band’s earliest works on landmark albums like 1991’s Forest of Equilibrium debut (presented in its entirety on the Anniversary live album; review here) or the subsequent offerings The Ethereal Mirror (1993) and The Carnival Bizarre (1995), but again, it was the album Cathedral felt compelled to write, and that was what mattered at the time.

Now Cathedral have called it quits, played their last live show, made their last video and the somewhat cleverly titled The Last Spire (released through Rise Above/Metal Blade) is reportedly to be their final album. One never knows for sure — surely over their time together the band must have amassed suitable fodder for rarities collections, live albums, greatest hits, cover records and so forth — but if it actually is the end of their run, The Last Spire is also the point at which the album Cathedral wants to make meets with the album that fans want to hear. It is an 56-minute victory lap that — far from actually sounding like one — presents eight songs of the dark, dreary doom that has come to be thought of as traditional in no small part because of Cathedral‘s crafting of it. The band’s lineup of vocalist Lee Dorrian, guitarist Gary “Gaz” Jennings, bassist Scott Carlson and drummer Brian Dixon present some progressive moments reminiscent of or at very least nodding toward The Guessing Game — the synth interlude that interrupts the sluggish lumber of “An Observation” comes to mind; David Moore‘s contributions of Hammond, Moog, synth and mellotron aren’t to be understated in establishing The Last Spire‘s murky atmosphere — but in their structure and in their intent, cuts like the early “Pallbearer,” “Cathedral of the Damned” and “Tower of Silence” underline the doomed feel for which Cathedral have become so known both in their home country and abroad. They are Cathedral at their most Cathedral. And rightly so. One couldn’t possibly hope for more of them than that.

The aforementioned trio occur sequentially following the intro “Entrance to Hell,” which finds Dorrian repeating the phrase “Bring out your dead” — which in my mind always goes right back to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but he sells it well — over suitably plague-addled atmospheres, with “Pallbearer” as the longest track on The Last Spire at 11:39 and marked aside from its strong hook by the backing vocals of Rosalie Cunningham behind Dorrian‘s signature semi-spoken delivery and the chorus of “War, famine, drought, disease” repeated to memorable effect. There’s a mournful acoustic break in the middle, but by and large, Jennings, Carlson and Dixon sound big, thick and threatening, and when the acoustics (backed by organ) give way to the resurgent groove and faster push of the song’s peak movement, the effect is fluid and entirely metal. They end slow and offer a more mid-paced distortion on “Cathedral of the Damned,” which is marked out by the spoken guest vocal by Chris Reifert of Autopsy and the line “Living in the shadow of a damned cathedral,” which may or may not be Dorrian dealing with his own legacy and the prospect of moving on after ending the band. Either way, it’s the riff and the buzzsaw guitar tone that stands out most as the band meet their longest track with the shortest full song (that is, non-interlude or intro), slamming head-on into the chorus as they do with no diminished returns on the subsequent “Tower of Silence,” the pair affirming Cathedral‘s potency on all levels as they round out The Last Spire‘s first half, whether it’s the vocals, Jennings‘ righteous solo, the heavy nod of the bass and drums, or the overarching catchiness of the chorus itself: “A tower of silence/Is waiting for me/Looming before/An astral sea.”

Really, one could read a lot of The Last Spire as being emblematic of Cathedral‘s self-awareness as regards their own ending, but when it comes to “Infestation of the Grey Death” starting off the second half of the album, the vibe is more of a return to “Entrance to Hell”‘s plague thematic than the band saying goodbye. Jennings smoothly layers acoustic and electric guitars in the chorus and post-chorus, Dorrian‘s vocals are caked in effects, and Dixon‘s thudding drums provide more than ample punctuation in the tempo’s slower push in comparison to “Tower of Silence,” verses and the chorus following the riff in doomly fashion and a more raucous second third giving way to a return to the heavy-trodding miseries for a sendoff. “An Observation” is the point at which The Last Spire is the least fluid, keeping the ambience consistent early on with the tracks preceding before rumble and synth strings (mellotron maybe?) give way to a synth solo at 5:42 that follows comparatively awkwardly behind a couple seconds of silence, as though the band, in realizing that nothing would offer a smooth transition between one part of the track and the next, opted not make a transition at all. They bring it into context with accompanying guitar and vocals, but just that initial change is enough to pull the listener out of the song’s flow, if only momentarily. Parts flow into each other well in the final minutes of “An Observation” as Jennings builds to a climax before moving into a more Carlson-led section of chugging push, and when “An Observation” is over, it’s time of “The Last Laugh,” which, at 38 seconds, is just that, the last time Lee Dorrian laughs on a Cathedral record. He’s done it plenty, so I guess the band felt it was appropriate to mark the occasion.

More importantly, brief though it is, the interlude does well in giving a couple seconds’ respite before “This Body, Thy Tomb” arrives as the closer. Pacing-wise, it’s an agony, but there’s still movement at its core thanks to Dixon and Carlson, and here as well the organ features heavily in filling out the sound. Mirroring the opener, there’s an acoustic interlude met by mellotron that comes on in much the same manner but still with better continuity than on the song before and a break of footsteps or churning water that leads back into the central figure of the song. It’s the last march — Cathedral‘s last march, to hear them tell it — and with the organ, guitar, bass and drums all firing together toward a single idea, it’s hard to argue against their having gone out in a manner befitting their legacy. The truth is, Cathedral probably could easily have been putting out records like this all along. Nothing on The Last Spire feels especially challenging for the band or the listener. But that they didn’t makes their decision to write this as their epitaph all the more special. It’s an album that, even if one isn’t familiar with the context surrounding or with the legacy that Cathedral will leave behind them, would make a surprisingly good place to start for a first-timer, since it’s accessible and it summarizes so much of what’s always been most appealing about the band. Since that unmistakably was their intent in creating it, The Last Spire is as true to Cathedral‘s idea of who they are as any of their work has ever been.

Cathedral, “Tower of Silence” official video

Cathedral on Thee Facebooks

Rise Above Records

Metal Blade Records

Tags: , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Cathedral, The Last Spire: Circle of Time Has Stopped”

  1. goAt says:

    From what I’ve read elsewhere, these dudes wrote/recorded a bunch of stuff, but pared it down to this to fit more of a “doom” mold. I only saw them once-opening for STRAPPING YOUNG LAD. They went down as well as WARHORSE did with CRYPTOPSY. O_o

Leave a Reply