Cathedral is one of the most influential yet underrated bands in doom metal. They were one of the first to proudly express admiration for groups like Pentagram and Witchfinder General, but also among the few to realize that capturing the Sabbath sound meant more than just recycling Master of Reality ad nauseum. Lee Dorrian’s voice seems to be the eternal deal breaker, but they may have also been a little too quirky for some audiences. Maybe they just didn’t get enough memes made about them.
While the guys in Cathedral have happily moved on to a multitude of projects following their 2013 disbandment, I’d like to look at the group’s ten full-length albums to see how they hold up. I should note that this ranking will not include the numerous EPs that the band released in between, though I do strongly recommend checking them out if you’re a fan. Soul Sacrifice and Hopkins the Witchfinder General are particularly entertaining.
10) The VIIth Coming
Thematic title aside, Cathedral’s seventh album may honestly be their most forgettable. It’s very middle of the road by the band’s standards, boasting a dark tone and upbeat songwriting, but lacking the charm of a Carnival Bizarre. There are enough ideas on songs like “Aphrodite’s Winter” and “Iconoclast” to keep accusations of phoning it in at bay, but none of them have the fire or focus to be true staples. It’s inherently enjoyable enough for diehards to dig it, but it’s the one Cathedral album that just doesn’t do anything unique.
Final Grade: C+
9) Caravan Beyond Redemption
It’s fair to say that Caravan Beyond Redemption was where Cathedral went off the deep end. The guitar has enough muscle to keep things heavy, but psychedelic flourishes run rampant as every other song has extra instrumentation, film samples, a soft interlude, or any combination of the above. It has the off-the-wall spirit prevalent on their early EPs, but there aren’t too many songs that stand out beyond their gimmicks. If you ever wondered what would happen if Rob Zombie made a doom album, then I guess this is the album for you.
Final Grade: B-
8) The Guessing Game
In addition to being Cathedral’s most experimental album, The Guessing Game is easily their most uncertain. Crafting over eighty minutes of music somewhat justifies the five-year gap since its predecessor, and the band was never shy about its eclecticism, but this kitchen sink approach doesn’t seem to have much direction behind it. Seeing lighthearted prog intermingle with doom and upbeat psych rock gives it a retrospective feel, but it’s more concerning than celebratory when the band literally sings about how their music will seem in twenty years’ time. Fortunately, there are still great songs on here, with the horror bounce on “La Noche del Buque Maldito” and the ultra doomy “Requiem for the Voiceless” standing out as particular highlights. There’s something for every fan here, but I’m not sure how many will enjoy the whole thing.
Final Grade: B-
7) The Last Spire
True to its title, The Last Spire is Cathedral’s epitaph. While a return to Forest of Equilibrium-style doom dirges would normally suggest back-to-the-roots nostalgia, the band is more interested in viewing the style through an experienced lens than an outright replication. The production is nowhere near as grimy, the vocals still have some sense of melody behind the shouted laments, and faint shades of prog still shake things up from time to time. On the flip side, it is one of the band’s more monotonous efforts due to the rather soundalike songwriting. I’ve heard better farewell albums than this one, but I don’t think there are any that sound this genuine. It’s still sad that Cathedral is gone, but after such an effective swansong, I don’t want them to ever come back.
Final Grade: B
After venturing deeper and deeper into psychedelic territory, Endtyme saw Cathedral take their first step back to more familiar ground. It was their darkest album since The Ethereal Mirror and may be the slowest since Forest of Equilibrium. Fortunately, it doesn’t feel like a total retread as songs like “Requiem for the Sun” and “Whores to Oblivion” pack a heavy punch, while others like “Ultra Earth” and “Astral Queen” have a much softer atmosphere. I don’t quite have the attachment that some fans do for it, but I can see why some deem it one of their best.
Final Grade: B+
5) Supernatural Birth Machine
Some people say this is where Cathedral started to decline, and I can certainly see why. The tone is a lot brighter than most of their other albums and the vocals do admittedly go overboard in spots. These factors can make Supernatural Birth Machine too goofy for some listeners, but I think they just make it more fun. The band’s classic influences are more prominent than usual as tracks like “Stained Glass Horizon” has a fun Sabbath tinge, while the loose catchiness of “Dragon Ryder 13” makes it feel like a lost Pentagram outtake. It’s a strong album that really deserves reevaluation.
Final Grade: A-
4) The Garden of Unearthly Delights
The Garden of Unearthly Delights should’ve been Cathedral’s second wind. A deal with Nuclear Blast and association with Dave Grohl’s Probot couldn’t guarantee a commercial juggernaut, but it did lay the foundation for one of the band’s most focused entries. The energized musicianship results in heavy as hell songs like “Oro the Manslayer,” while “Corpsecycle” is one of the band’s catchiest numbers thanks to a steady balance of accessibility and experimentation. Even the twenty-seven-minute long “The Garden” stays coherent with its own share of memorable melodies. It’s a shame that the band couldn’t keep the momentum going, but at least we got one late-era effort that’s just as strong as the classics.
Final Grade: A-
3) Forest of Equilibrium
Legions of doom fans swear by Forest of Equilibrium and shun Cathedral’s other albums, but it’s damn near impossible to find anybody with the opposite opinion. I may champion all the band’s eras, but I must concede this album’s legendary status. Its sound is as unique now as it was in 1991, thoroughly influenced by the 80s classics but made distinct by a creeping slowness that wouldn’t be replicated until Thergothon’s ilk. The riffs are agonizingly drawn out but with enough distinction to make memorable highlights like “Ebony Tears” and “Serpent Eve,” while Dorrian’s vocals are delivered in a twisted growl that avoids aping the Peaceville trio’s death metal influences. It’s funny how one of the band’s most inaccessible efforts has such a classic status, but I sure won’t deny its haunting power.
Final Grade: A-
2) The Ethereal Mirror
Those who hadn’t checked out the Soul Sacrifice EP had to be shocked when Cathedral’s second album came out. The Ethereal Mirror features remnants of the debut’s grimy production and gravelly vocals, but the slow songs like “Enter the Worms” are more active than what had come before. That’s not even going into the upbeat tempos on “Ride” and “Midnight Mountain,” which some derided as ‘disco doom’ back in the day. The band knew what it wanted, even if it was still determining the best way to get it. If Forest of Equilibrium was slow but straightforward sex on the first date, then The Ethereal Mirror was the second date where somebody breaks out handcuffs and a strap-on. Hope you agreed on the safe word!
Final Grade: A-
1) The Carnival Bizarre
Cathedral’s third album hit a real sweet spot in their development. The production is cleaner while retaining a gleefully macabre tone that makes for ideal Halloween listening, and the musicianship is much more confident. This was the first album with Gaz Jennings as the sole guitarist, resulting in a more coherent performance, and Dorrian feels comfortable with a more melodic delivery. “Hopkins (The Witchfinder General)” is the second greatest song to feature Vincent Price samples, “Utopian Blaster” features none other than grandmaster Tony Iommi on guest guitars, and “Night of the Seagulls” is the perfect horror groove anthem. It can be tough to decide which Cathedral album is truly their best, but no other album is a better start for first time listeners than this.
Final Grade: A-