Metal’s sloths: Cathedral and Sleep

Although now considered to be the trendy face of metal, there was a time when stoner doom was a little bit uncool. In the age of grunge, throwbacks to the 1970s were considered out of step with the post-Cold War zeitgeist. This same era was the heyday of extreme metal, which saw the thrash metal giants of the 1980s relinquish the ‘heavier than thou’ crown to younger death metal outfits gaining international stardom. Playing slower, droller, more melancholy music was seen as a step backwards. Today however, such artists are held up as pioneers. Or more accurately they were caretakers of a much older style of metal at a time when most had lost interest. They ensured that it would survive and flourish into the new century.

Lee Dorian formed Cathedral back in 1989 with guitarist Mark Griffiths. After a brief tour of duty with Napalm Death that saw them rise to the household name in grindcore we know and love today, he decided that speed had run its course. We had lost touch with the virtues of the slow. Cathedral was the result. Although the likes of Pentagram, Candlemass, and Saint Vitus had been at it for some time by this point, Cathedral united the 70s throwback ethic of these artists with a bleaker, more downbeat approach to riffcraft, and Lee Dorian’s distinctive guttural grown only added to the gloom.

Their debut ‘The Forest of Equilibrium’ (1991) is essentially an upbeat funeral doom album. Any hint at the slow loose blues that runs through much stoner doom is largely suppressed. The lyrics also revel in depression, melancholia, the general burdens of our flesh and bone existence. This is a strange release in many ways. Sure it came at a time when doom was not in vogue, but it somehow seems to touch on many different versions of the form. There are scattered flutes throughout which only add to the depressed hippie vibe. But the album exhibits a much harsher sound running through its backbone.

The guitar tone is a distorted drone similar to early Earth, although it is put to less minimalist uses here. The drums do enough to ground the music and drive it forward. The cavernous reverb that has been applied to them forces drummer Mike Smail not to rise above a certain tempo. But he utilises the creative space this affords him with imaginatively slow rhythms and fills that perfectly accentuate the music’s gradual builds and declines. This was a bizarre summation of many colours of doom metal that was largely unique for its time. Later Cathedral albums would drop the more depressive facets of their music to focus on heavy, bluesy grooves with playfully distorted vocals a-la Celtic Frost. Plenty of ‘Heys’ and ‘Alrights’ and ‘WELL C’MON’. Not grim enough for real doom fanatics, and too silly for the cool Black Sabbath worshippers.

And so this debut stands unique in both Cathedral’s history and the history of doom metal. It really does sound like a fever dream, with off kilter riffs placed alongside twisted versions of the familiar, and Lee Dorian’s pained, droning vocals only adding to the mania. And of course, one of the best set of lyrics ever written in rock music; which I will now quote in full:

Our pleasures be joyless doleful experiences. We seek not life’s beauty but cherish it’s funeral aspects. We crave the (mis)fortunes rich in their non entity, rejoice in celebrating less severe tragedies. In the toil to exist we excrete individuality, whilst captivating internment in cloned identity. Real is the oration of stone possessed emotion. I yearn isolation from this realisation. Reject the elation of blissful tranquility, obsessions they lay with the bleak and sinister. A wealth of treasures be ours to take possession, yet we break bones and gruel to savour simulations. Disciples of the drabness devotees of worthlessness, consent to endure the anguish and form only ashes. Real is the oration of stone possessed emotion. Oh yeah let me go. Let me wander through buildings immense in their desolation. At peace from your catastrophe here with gargoyles as my friends

California’s Sleep were to prove to be just as out of their time but for very different reasons. With the explosion of stoner doom over the past ten years or so, Sleep are often held up as the grandaddys of this renaissance. The direct descendants of an older form of metal that predated NWOBHM all the way back to Black Sabbath. Well, this is true of at least one of their original LPs I guess, 1992’s ‘Sleep’s Holy Mountain’. Follow up ‘Jerusalem’ in 1998 was more of an experiment in stoner noise, as was the reworked version ‘Dopesmoker’ in 2003. But with ‘Holy Mountain’ we get something approaching an album of music. Music of consistently familiar groovy riffs, that to modern ears simply oozes cool well ahead of its time.

The truth – when taken on its own merits – is that ‘Sleep’s Holy Mountain’ is a collection of great riffs, bluesy licks, both punky and understated vocals, and doom metal, all chucked in a blender and spewed back at the listener almost at random. The opening number ‘Dragonaut’ is a perfect indicator of the album to come. It begins with a quintessential blues rock riff that would be very much at home on a Blue Cheer record. As the rhythm section gets going we are treated to a classic heavy rock jam. And just as this appears poised to transition into the next phase the bass and drums cut out, to give way to a highly simple marching guitar riff. Again, this riff is pretty neat taken on its own. But one can see why the editors of ‘Gummo’ cut the intro when using this song in their film. The transition is jarring; as if they did not know where to take the music next, and simply used the next riff they had lying around with no relation to the last.

And that sort of sums up the entire album. There’s some great blues jams in here. There’s some great doom metal. Some of it calls to mind Kyuss, but without the iconic muddy trippiness. Some of it harkens to their punk roots, but aside from the raw garage band production it does little to set itself apart from Corrosion of Conformity for instance. And therein lies the real problem with this album. For whatever good ideas are to be found here, there was another band doing the same thing more coherently and engagingly than Sleep. When one compares the standing these guys have in history to their actual output of quality it leads one to wonder. Their drone/noise experiments on ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Dopesmoker’ are definitely worth a listen for their shear gall. But naturally they are less universally loved than this most patchy of albums.

So with that I don’t think I’m out on much of a limb to say that ‘Forest of Equilibrium’ is the more deserving classic of doom metal this week. Cathedral would never release another album like it. Preferring to pursue a much more accessible direction on subsequent releases. And even though many feel they found their form again on the deliciously heavy ‘Endtyme’ (2001), they never quite recaptured the sheer depressive drollness that is FOE. Of course they never really intended to, which makes this twisted summation of the form all the more unique and valuable. Although ‘Sleep’s ‘Holy Mountain’ is far from an utter failure, there are simply better albums by better artists with better ideas played in a better order released both before and after this album. But it is held up by fans of metal-for-non-metalheads as a classic. And for some, my previous comments would provoke accusations of ‘elitism’ faster than you can shout ‘overrated’ in retort.

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