One of my favorite perks of collecting physical media is being able to explore bargain bins. Sure, streaming services and artist radios essentially offer the same experience for free, but it just doesn’t have the same feel. There’s nothing quite like digging through shelves of heavily discounted vinyl and CDs and finding the perfect intersection of price and personal intrigue. Of course, the ratio of diamonds in the rough is always lopsided, and the binge that inspired this post was full of plenty of CDs that definitely deserved to be in the $3.99 & Under bin at my local Newbury Comics. I finally found some gold in the “C” section with Cattle Decapitation‘s Karma.Bloody.Karma and, of course, Cathedral‘s The Ethereal Mirror. Not only is Ethereal Mirror one of the best blind purchases I’ve ever picked out, it’s also quickly become one of my favorite, go-to albums when I need a doom fix. It’s clearly a classic in its genre and sounds just as relevant 25 years after its release.
Since we’re rewinding anyway, let’s jump back a couple more years and set the stage. Cathedral broke out of Coventry, England in 1991 with their landmark debut Forest of Equilibrium, which has since earned classic status within the genre. It’s been hailed as one of the best doom metal albums of all time by a myriad of sites and publications, landing in the top five or ten on lists from Decibel, Louder Sound/Metal Hammer, Revolver, Treblezine, WhatCulture and basically every other list that came up when I typed in “top doom metal albums.” Similar to my experience with The Ethereal Mirror, it’s immediately apparent why Forest of Equilibrium has earned such a stellar reputation. It’s an excellent example of doom’s formative years and initial appeal with plenty of personality and just plain killer songwriting along the way.
Yet, for my money, I’m with Loudwire when it comes to which of these two albums deserves to be on top. It’s admittedly a bit of an unfair comparison considering just how much Cathedral changed their sound on The Ethereal Mirror. Just two years after their debut, the quartet pumped up the tempo and incorporated a slew of influences stretching beyond their solid, but somewhat limited, doom metal sound on Forest of Equilibrium. Shades of sludge à la Black Flag and The Melvins are most apparent, but the band reaches further beyond the low-and-slow realm to pull in influences from hard rock, heavy metal and progressive rock. Most importantly, the band’s vibrant personality comes out of its shell entirely and reveals its true colors, thanks in large part to an unhinged, dynamic vocal performance from Lee Dorrian. It’s an exceptional combination that slightly edges out the band’s initial groundbreaking efforts. Whereas several bands contributed to the sound developed in part by Cathedral on Forest of Equilibrium, there’s never really been an album that sounds quite like The Ethereal Mirror, and it remains a multifaceted album with reverberations felt in music from the likes of Baroness, Pallbearer and a decent chunk of modern stoner metal.
One of The Ethereal Mirror‘s greatest strengths is its phenomenal riffs. I know this is probably the most obvious opening argument I could’ve possibly used for a doom metal album, but it’s just so undeniably true. The moment “Ride” opens with its crunchy, Southern-kissed lick atop a galloping rhythm, there’s simply no choice but to stretch out your neck and prepare for endless headbanging. Even proper intro “Violet Vortex” feels like a necessary two-minute on-ramp, what with a beefy riff intertwining with dueling guitar wails straight from the NWOBHM. This flexible approach to songwriting remains the band’s greatest strength throughout the album as track after track seems to overflow with new ideas. “Enter the Worms,” “Grim Luxuria” and “Phantasmagoria” have some of the grimiest doom riffs I’ve ever heard, with a thumping, sludgy riff that’s nearly as heavy as the death-doomiest tracks on Morbid Angel‘s Domination.
Then there’s the fact that The Ethereal Mirror is so downright catchy. Complete with handclaps and a tastefully simplistic, bouncy riff, “Midnight Mountain” absolutely deserved to be played on mainstream rock radio (I wasn’t born when this album came out, so it very well might have received some airtime). Seriously, the way the fuzzed out guitar solo rides that skuzzy stoner riff and ride-snare combo is some of the catchiest doom you’ll ever lay ears on. The band doesn’t slouch when it comes to actual melody, either. “Jaded Entity” sports a pair of melancholic guitar lines that intersect beautifully with the surrounding fire and brimstone, and the twinkling 12-string guitars that close out the album on “Imprisoned In Flesh” offers a shocking moment of respite that leaves the listener at peace after a journey through the band’s twisted lair.
I know I mentioned this earlier, but the impact of Dorian’s vocals really can’t be understated. That’s not to diminish his bandmates; Garry Jennings and Adam Lehan consistently write excellent riffs, and Mark Ramsey Wharton’s drumming is always full of life. But there’s just something about Dorian’s approach to vocals that ties everything together and elevates the album from “excellent stoner doom” to “immediately distinguishable.” Like a leaner Buzz Osborne with the creative dexterity of Mike Patton, all of Dorian’s performances on The Ethereal Mirror are attention-grabbing with a worthwhile show to back them up. He stalks about each track with an emotive snarl that stomps alongside the band’s nasty riffs. But then he’ll come through with some genuinely good singing chops, buried under effects on “Fountain of Innocence” and out in the open on “Imprisoned In Flesh.” Dorian can essentially do it all on an album that requires just that, and he fills the role of matching the band’s experiments beautifully.
As with any classic album debate, I’m expecting this Heavy Rewind to be somewhat controversial. The Ethereal Mirror has earned plenty of love over the years and sometimes edges out Forest of Equilibrium as the band’s crowning achievement. It’s always difficult to pick the shiniest gem from a chalice full of diamonds, but I’m casting my vote for The Ethereal Mirror without a moment’s hesitation. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a near-peerless album that’s bursting with refreshing ideas that have aged gracefully even after 25 years. It’s a shame I discovered Cathedral after they’ve disbanded, but clearly, the band accomplished a lot of great things over the course of their career which I’m excited to uncover for myself now that The Ethereal Mirror has shown me what I’ve been missing.