The Last Spire
Review by Rosh on November 14, 2023.
This is one of the albums I've been wanting to review for the longest, but since it's a deliberate finale from a band who are pretty eclectic within doom metal to begin with, it seemed like a tall task. I think I covered Supernatural Birth Machine instead of The Last Spire, the last time I aspired to tackle Cathedral's final album, and this kind of proves how they're an unpredictable doom powerhouse. This album doesn't consist of groovy, stoner rock-tinged doom, nor is it all that similar sounding to the band's 1991 debut album it's usually considered a stylistic return to. Forest of Equilibrium indeed defines both UK doom and the entire second wave of the genre, but it's a one of a kind debut that's never been recaptured, and I think Cathedral knew this, so they didn't try to do that. That point is apparent despite them stating things like "we wanted to make our second album last." Because really, the songs on Last Spire fit perfectly with all the second, third, fourth (?!) wave traditional doom bands their early 90's works inspired, it's modern traditional doom done right at a time when the style was perfectly defined. Not as esoteric or abstract as the debut, more straightforward and arguably more crushing and depressing because of it. Seamlessly, this album can flow from having an extremely hostile and bitter overtone to a more detached expression of misery, something that can only be achieved by the genre's veterans.
If we're talking modern doom, this album comes to mind before even being played because of its song lengths, but they aren't overdone. A few excellent slugs in the 9 or 10 minite range and some 5 or 6 minute crushers works really well to convey the apocalyptic feel of this album properly. It helps that Gaz Jennings, a highly underrated doom metal guitarist, uses his fuzziest yet coldest tone yet, while still laying down riffs that bring him to mind as the British Victor Griffin (although by this point, significantly slower and more morose sounding, not unlike Kimi/"Peter Vicar" 's work with Reverend Bizarre). "Pallbearer" is exactly the menacing epitaph it sets out to be, all the pieces are there after the very foreboding intro track. The opening riff is darkly melodious to where it does sound like a "doomsday celebration" (despite Cathedral being long done with Earache, heh heh), and the choirs are really chilling, as is Lee's final annunciation of the "drought, war, famine, and disease" refrain. It's a shining example of how the doom genre has always presented itself with a little bit of a "shtick" to make its gloomy message more "palatable" I guess, but in reality just more badass.
I think "Cathedral of the Damned" is more than just a typical pissed off pummeller of a song, even if it does barrel forth with exactly that kind of crudeness. It's sort of in line with something Celtic Frost would've done later albeit still a bit catchier, which makes sense since Lee's vocals have always been similarly gruff to Tom Warrior's, yet he does genuinely sing more. Indeed, the two legendary metal frontmen have creative similarities and embrace a focus on originality. Another extreme metal pioneer, Chris Reifert of Autopsy, performs a spoken-word bridge on this song, which rivals his unforgettably morbid delivery on the track "Dead" from Mental Funeral decades prior - the man is not just the gurgling, screaming, kit-bashing, egg-headed maniac he's usually thought of as! In both cases, his lines are kept low in the mix and add a very sullen ambience to the experience. After such ambience are two tracks that I think display why The Last Spire is a culmination of the second/third wave traditional doom bands' efforts, dreadful songs that serve as a fantastic intersection between the epic Candlemass school and the grittier Saint Vitus side of the spectrum. I don't even think I'm as into Cathedral as I was a few years ago, but "Infestation of Grey Death" will always be one of my favorite slugs of a doom metal song. That descending pattern with the pull-offs is very common for this style but it doesn't usually sound that heavy, and the "bombs falling from grey skies..." verse, shit man, that just hits like a ton of bricks every time.
Elsewhere, "An Observation" is a different sort of song, maybe a lingering psychedelic influence from The Guessing Game to be heard there, but definitely much darker this time around, and towards the end it reaches a really powerful conclusion with more melodic doom riffs. It serves to close out a penultimate song on an apocalyptic album like this near perfectly. I'd like to give some credit to Scott Carlson of Repulsion and Death fame for the more fatalistic feel of this album, he simply plays bass here, but his tone is no joke and it's really perfect for Gaz's stone-cold approach. That guy was mainly involved in doom metal through this band and Church of Misery, and in both cases he's a valuable asset. Brian Dixon is also just as diverse as any of the other musicians here, adjusting comfortably to the slower, heavier music here compared to what Cathedral was putting out at the time he initially joined - he doesn't copy Mike Smail from the Forest of Equilibrium era, but his drumming is just as much of a tortured trudge. Thus, by time this final album was in the works, Cathedral were a genuinely well-rounded, masterclass doom metal band with all the ideal elements that make for such a killer ensemble, one of the greatest on the planet in fact.
Really, Last Spire could be just the album for you if you're into extreme doom subgenres but are just starting to retroactively work your way into traditional doom. You'll appreciate it more than, like, Witchfinder General in that case, I'll definitely say that. It's debatably more accessible than the 1991 debut but also more nihilistic at times, perhaps because the band had aged considerably since then, and as such it is an excellent modern doom classic. Lee Dorrian would form With the Dead with some former Electric Wizard guys after this, and while that band definitely offers an extreme take on doom that pushes the envelope quite a bit, you'd still be doing yourself a disservice by not checking out his previous body of work. Cathedral wanted to say "so long suckers", and they did just that.
Rating: 9.6 out of 1032