Review Summary: This sonic freight-train of a debut is an essential modern rock album.
"Sometimes...I fade away," lead singer Rob Dickinson concedes over a hook that seems to last forever. Indeed, sometimes the listener fades away into this beautifully dreamy yet powerfully alive debut from 1992.
Catherine Wheel's debut album Ferment marks an important and spectacular moment in rock music. Rock and roll has typically had two core inspirations: love and war. Most of rock concerns itself with human emotions. The rest of rock and roll worth your while is political in nature. Catherine Wheel's debut concerns itself with neither. Instead, the band delves head and tail into mood - finds it, swims around in it, and rocks the heck out of it. This album doesn't have any discernible inspiration because it instead strives to be the inspiration in the sounds it creates. What a novel idea. It's the first rock-sound album I've loved. Why else would the vocals be pushed so far back into the mix? Catherine Wheel derives meaning from sound, rather than sound from meaning, and doing it with a heavy rock edge is brilliant.
This is 90s grunge, but with the atmosphere of 80s music. Vocals and lyrics take a back seat to mammoth walls of distorted guitar. Forget Phil Spector's so-called "wall of sound" trademark. Whatever it meant to music before, the term has a new and more fitting meaning with Catherine Wheel's epic tidals of noise. Fortunately, they permit some huge, warm, and memorable melodies to emerge through the mist. Ferment doesn't just have incredibly crazy style. It has wells of character and substance.
"Black Metallic" is probably the best known song here; it still gets airplay on alt-oriented stations today (shout out to 95.5 WBRU where I first heard it) but amazingly, it's not my favorite track. That honor goes to the incredible "Indigo is Blue" which opens with a static guitar screech before eventually exploding into a guitar hook that will stay with me for a lifetime.
Listening to Ferment is like an out-of-body experience at times. You float into the haze and let the noises surround you. A guitar hook here and there might wrap around you warmly and tightly. Rob Dickinson's deep, soft, and cool voice is alternately a guide and a friend through this wonderful path. You don't know where it will take you, but you definitely have trust in it. This is an album all about the experiences of the moment. It's music that gets as much as it can from the electric guitar as possible. That's why Ferment is a modern rock classic. I can't imagine anyone advancing the possibilities of the guitar further than what happens on this album
Other highlights are "Bill and Ben", "Texture", and the desert-highway smolder of "I Want to Touch You". But all of the tracks are really impressive and offer something unique. Within their static mood and atmosphere, Catherine Wheel is dynamic enough to meet emotions as diverse as lust, euphoria, and glum. There are worlds within worlds to discover here, until they get buried back unto the recesses of your mind again.
Ferment works so well because the band applies an anthemic spirit to angst and grit. It's both escapist yet bitterly real. The surfaces are individually very heavy and grating. But, almost like an orchestra, when everything comes together, it sounds amazingly good. This mystifying production is courtesy of Tim Friese-Greene, who had previously worked with Talk Talk. Catherine Wheel sounded awful live (at least on the bootleg I heard), but it's understandably hard to replicate the best produced alternative hard rock album outside of the studio. And the most unique. They even revive the guitar solo - a really lost art, if you know where and how to do it.
Ferment is a bold and haunting trip. It's an almost exhausting album because you can't decide whether to do the air-guitar or lay on the ground and veg out for a while. But whatever choice you make about how to listen to this album, you'll always end up feeling good. It's totally unique and timeless, and that makes it a must-listen classic for the ages, along with London Calling, Ten, Nevermind, and Loveless. It's one of rock's great experiences.