Review Summary: Second only to Sabbath’s early work, this is probably the most coherent collection of riffs in the history of Heavy Metal.Line up:
Lee Dorrian - Vocals & Percussion
Brian Dixon - Drums & Percussion
Leo Smee - Bass & Mellotron
Garry Jennings – Guitars, Mellotron, Keyboards & Percussion
Tony Iommi - Guitar solo on Utopian Blaster
Kenny Ball - Trumpet
Mitch Dickinson - Gong
A series of unfortunate events marked Cathedral's early years: The band survived a turbulent period as they went through an identity crisis, endless line-up changes, and psychological frustration, resulting from their mutual rescission with a major record company. Uncertainty and doubt plunged the band in a cloud of disbelief and Cathedral faced dissolution. It was a period of crisis for the band. Adam Lehan and Mark Wharton resigned from their duties, each one for their own different reasons. Adam had decided to leave because he couldn’t deal with too much workload, plus the conditions at the time were not ideal. Mark Wharton was on the verge of being fired because, according to Dorrian, “he didn’t behave very well”. He quitted and made everyone’s life easier, thus, leaving the band with only two members, Dorrian and Jennings. With the Black Sabbath tour just around the corner, Cathedral acted quickly and hired some replacements just for the live shows. It was during that time when the band met their idol, Tony Iommi. Thanks to his advice, the band endured and flourished. Dorrian recalls:
The first show with Gaz on guitar was actually in Budapest or Prague if I remember well and that same evening, right after we’re done with our set, Tony Iommi came straight to our dressing room telling us that we sounded fantastic that way and that we should stick to that formula. And when you hear one of your favorite guitar players of all time saying that, there’s no turning back afterwards!
The Iommi factor
One can understand that Tony as a role model possesses the power of persuasion. Because he’s been held in such high regard by his peers and fellow musicians alike, his opinion matters to a lot of people. And it matters a lot. For some folks like Jennings and Dorrian, his words can be definite. It is actually a little bit weird if you think about it; by the time Tony had made his proposal, the future of the band was sealed. The search of a second guitarist was over. Cathedral would proceed with Jennings as its sole guitar player. The remaining band members cared little for what the rest of the world would say. Tony Iommi had spoken his mind and that’s all that mattered.
When the tour with Black Sabbath was over, Jennings and Dorrian made an audition to find replacements. Brian Dixon and Leo Smee were chosen among 50 other participators and all together, they entered the studio to begin a partnership that would last 16 lucrative years. The first product of this line-up is inarguably Cathedral’s most mature and coherent album to date. What accidentally began on Soul Sacrifice
as “groove laden-Doom Metal”, here, is finally perfected. The Carnival Bizarre
is the album where Cathedral nails down their formula of neo-Black Sabbath groovy riffs, fast-paced instrumentation and drug-influenced psychedelia. The band presents us a meticulous interpretation of post-apocalyptic fairytales, monstrous grooves of colossal-sized riffs and a macabre worldview based on dread, madness and medieval, gothic horrors. And while doing so with such ease, they manage to compose some of the catchiest, most addictive tunes I personally have ever heard in the genre. If you find the majority of Doom Metal music to be a boring and repetitive affair, then Cathedral is the band you need to start discovering and The Carnival Bizarre
is the first album you need to expose your ears into. Rarely has an album labeled as Doom or Stoner to sound as fresh and vivid as this one.
At the beginning of their careers, many bands share something common: Their first recordings define the sound they will choose to follow. The identity of the band is shaped in those albums. If you pay close attention, you can spot a sense of continuity between these records. Cathedral, however, is one of the exceptions. If you listen to their first three albums, you’ll find out that there is no continuity between them. There is no steadiness. No common lines. However, what make Cathedral so different from their competitors are the outstandingly positive results. All you have is just a bunch of guys who struggle to unlock the limits of their musicianship. And, by allowing the process of refinement and reinvention to last three or four years, they don’t stumble, but instead, they deliver some of the most infectious ideas and riffs of their entire career. The endless line-up changes definitely played their role and so did the ambitious spirit that this group retained over the years, despite having to endure so many changes in the band personnel.
So make no mistake, this album isn’t anything like its predecessor, just as The Ethereal Mirror
was a totally different case with Forest
. It is an album with its own identity, and there’s a different story waiting to be told. Although traits of old school Metal are still present, Carnival
is less adventurous than Mirror
but far more accessible, because the music sounds more simplistic and straight to the point. The gap between the first two albums is also narrowed; even if Carnival
isn't as exploratory as Mirror
, it’s more progressive than Forest
. Also, the Stoner Rock vibe is obviously given in larger quantities. For the first time in their career, Cathedral is clearly emphasizing on a retro production with a desire to highlight the traits that are associated with what we call today Stoner Rock; mid to fast tempos, a heavily distorted bass, emphasis on groove and so on. If the first two albums were landmarks of Doom Metal, then The Carnival Bizarre
is Cathedral’s gift to those with a taste for Fu Manchu, Monster Magnet, Kyuss, and Sleep.
Not all songs are tales about mushrooms and weed though. Night of the Seagulls
, which shares a similar zombie-like mood with Enter the Worms
, is straight Doom Metal and Palace of Fallen Majesty
sounds like a forgotten track from previous recording sessions. It really sounds as if it was written at the same time with The Ethereal Mirror
Aside from its obvious Stoner Rock traits, The Carnival Bizarre
is an album written by an entirely different band. Cathedral has grown a lot since the recording of their first album, but most importantly, they seem to know what direction to take in the studio and how to convey their emotions and ideas. It’s not a surprise that this album is where they manage to polish their unique sound and “explain” to the audience specifically what their style is all about and how it “works”. The title track is the perfect example of how Cathedral fuses all the elements of their influences into one song to make it the perfect astral journey.
Further on, another notable difference with previous albums is the way the guitar sounds. From his early days as a professional musician in Acid Reign, Jennings was an avid fan of guitars equipped with Floyd Rose tremolos. He used such guitars to record the first two Cathedral albums, but his relationship with the tremolos didn't last long. Following the recording sessions of the Statik Majik
EP, he started using the Gibson SG guitar. It’s possible that he decided to switch right after his encounter with Tony Iommi. The SG gave Jennings an unbelievably crunchy but clean tone with less sludge and higher gain. The production inevitably takes some credit for how The Carnival Bizarre
sounds, but Jennings’s choice to use a different guitar was just spot on. Nonetheless, choosing the ideal instrument is only the foreplay. Jennings’s main strength is his riffs, which are I must say amazing. He was always a prolific songwriter, but by the time of Carnival
he just excelled himself. There are moments on this record however that further proves what an amazing guitar player he has become. It’s not his riff-making abilities alone, it’s the whole package. Garry has evolved into a versatile guitarist, fully capable of using multiple guitar sections of phrases, tones and all kinds of effects to affect the progression of a song. There’s a moment in the title track where Gary moves from an ambient section of a psychedelic-phasing guitar tone to a thoughtful guitar solo with an overdubbed riff that guides the song to its conclusion. Almost every one of the remaining nine songs is composed around small alterations like this one with Dorrian singing lyrics about fantasy themes full of grotesque and Jennings’s guitar serving as the musical equivalent of the ethereal lyrical topics.
Finally, many might wonder what Cathedral lost with Lehan’s departure and what they gain with Garry stepping up as the sole composer. In my opinion, Adam is more of a Blues/Hard Rock fan and his style is influenced by a large number of guitar players. Garry is an obvious Tony Iommi devotee. His style, his riffs, his solos, everything in his playing is hard evidence that this guy sleeps with a physical copy of Black Sabbath’s debut under his pillow. So, Adam’s departure meant that Cathedral kind of lost the blues element in their music but gained heaviness in return.
If you are searching desperately to find any flaws in this record, all I can do is wish you, “good luck with that”. It is most likely you will waste your time with this pointless investigation. Don’t get me wrong. This album is not flawless. But it’s only for consistency levels alone that it doesn't go toe-to-toe with The Ethereal Mirror
kicks off with five equally astonishing tracks, but from there on, the band fails to maintain the same levels of quality. That doesn’t mean that the rest of the songs are not as good or well written, just…well, less exciting.
The Carnival Bizarre
is the final chapter in Cathedral’s great trilogy of extremely well-written albums and rounds up the most productive period of their 20-plus career. From here on, their inspiration will sort of dry out as the band will try to expand their ideas and add more styles to their music with the final results, however, being less inspiring.
Hopkins (The Witchfinder General)
Night of the Seagulls