It’s hard to say where doom metal would be if Cathedral had never existed. We wouldn’t have defining records of the genre like Forest of Equilibrium or The Carnival Bizarre; we wouldn’t have one of the single greatest record labels to ever grace the face of the planet in the Dorrian-helmed Rise Above, and we wouldn’t have legions of equally-respected acolytes like Orange Goblin, Electric Wizard, or Church of Misery destroying our eardrums and dissolving our brains. Cathedral thus occupies not just a legendary place in the doom canon, but a necessary one. Not only did they pen some of the greatest riffs ever pressed to wax, but they also moved the genre far beyond its original slow-as-hell incarnation with the aid of complex arrangements and bizarre instrumentation. It takes a lot of talent to not just crystallize a genre, but to keep it moving forward as well.
This brings us to Cathedral’s latest, and unfortunately last, magnum opus: The Last Spire. Lee Dorrian‘s gone on record as saying that this is what he would have wanted the second Cathedral album to sound like; and while I don’t want to knock The Ethereal Mirror, I’m inclined to agree with him after a good few listens. It’d be all too easy to dismiss the band as a relic at this point, an ancient gaggle of greybeards dedicated to capturing that last spark of glory by capitalizing on their prestigious legacy. If anyone were to do that, they would have had to never even heard what The Last Spire has to offer. Because this album offers you a lot.
It starts with the opening “Entrance to Hell,” a morose and atmospheric intro track that sets the tone of the album with a repeated cry of “Bring out your dead!” But unlike that legendary scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, everyone who’s being brought out this time is stone fucking dead. This plague leaves no survivors, and you too will be thrust into the danse macabre once you hear the opening thunderclap of “Pallbearer.” This new incarnation of Cathedral is slower and heavier than ever, with lurching and monstrous riffs that make you feel like you’re dragging a lead anchor through a swamp of molasses. Uphill.
Even with such excellent riffs as these, a continuous slow pace would inevitably drag the album down into tedium, but a band with as many years and albums behind them as Cathedral knows just how to keep a doom metal song interesting, and they do it with a melange of musical influences and left-field digressions into some really strange territory. Most of it works, but there’s a good bit of it that’s sure to get some more than quizzical looks. “Pallbearer” is supported with a perfectly-timed fanfare of low-end horns, “Cathedral of the Damned” cuts into a vibraphone break midway through that sounds almost straight-up Twilight Zone, and I still can’t fully wrap my head around the turn into synth-jazz territory that “An Observation” takes in its middle section. But when these elements work, like the atmospheric break in the middle of “Thy Body, Thy Tomb,” they work so well. The main riff cuts out for just a moment to let a morose acoustic guitar bubble to the surface as a field recording of a creek gurgles and flows, and just when you think it’s all about to fade out, the riff kicks back in with a monstrous sky-opening riff as a Hammond organ soars over the top of the arrangement. These are the musical moments that tear the heavens asunder, and The Last Spire is full to the brim with them.
As far as swan song records by metal greats go, this ranks right up there with Candlemass’ Psalms for the Dead and Celtic Frost’s Monotheist. Not only is it an absolute hell of a high note to go out on, but it reminds each and every metal acolyte why these groups demand and deserve respect. It’s a breath of fresh air for the veterans who’ve been with them since the beginning, and it’s a phenomenal entry point to a group the young ones may have neglected up until now. As a mere doom metal album, The Last Spire excels; but as the closing chapter of a peerless band’s career, it shines as a gleaming capstone atop their untouchable discography. It’s a necessary final piece of the Cathedral canon, and it’ll keep that head nodding until the very end.