If "The Last Spire" is the funeral of Cathedral, "Anniversary" is its final celebration of life. The title of the first and last live album from Cathedral marks twenty years in the business of delivering doom to your doorstep, captured by a two-set performance: first digging through the catacombs of the seminal "Forest of Equilibrium" epic and performing the magnum opus from start to finish in its massive glory with the album's original lineup, then charging into a monstrous collection of other Cathedral artifacts. The whole affair is one of few live albums that truly earns its place among the collection of longtime fans, showing a performance that's not only special but a legendary statement by a legendary band. The show was performed in London on December 3, 2010, under the moon of a freakish winter night. Is there a better way to celebrate Cathedral than to be snowed in with Cathedral? I think not, lucky British bastards!
Surviving twenty years as a band is no small feat, especially when its original goal was to record a demo tape; Cathedral managed to morph and mesmerize throughout their bleak, mournful days into a wild and wacky juggernaut. First and foremost, however, Cathedral cuts the overgrown vegetation and kicks in the rusty gate that leads back to the Forest. Often (and rightfully) considered Cathedral's best album and one of the most important doom records ever, the performance of "Forest of Equilibrium" is surreal, as the whole piecefrom soft flute chimes of "Pictures of Beauty and Innocence" to the harrowing crawls of "Reaching Happiness, Touching Pain"is played in full, and flawlessly. Lee Dorian, Cathedral's one and only throat, returns to the gritty, shaky vocal approach that brought life to the album here; he sounds excellent throughout, like funeral slime on a rainy day. Apparently there are people that don't like Lee's vocals; they definitely won't like this then, but I can't possibly believe such tomfoolery exists at all. Musically, this section of the "Anniversary" set, other than being a bone-crushing party, is very unique for three reasons: Mike Smail, Mark Griffiths, Adam Lehan.
These three gentlemen were, in fact, members of the Cathedral cult during the group's first few years, but departed some time later. Cathedral never filled the second guitar slot left by Lehan; Gaz Jennings took over all guitar roles after Lehan left in 1994. Griffiths and Smail were replaced by Leo Smee and (eventually) Brian Dixon, the longtime bass player (although Smee left in 2011) and final percussionist of Cathedral, respectively. Enough history: why is this relevant? Other than the novelty and importance of the performance, there's an idiosyncratic sound here Cathedral fans haven't heard live in years, perhaps ever. The addition of Lehan's extra guitar alongside Jennings' bruising riffs gives Cathedral an extra crunch of gloomy goodness, shrinking the presence of Griffiths' bass playing in the process, but also allowing a thicker, honest atmosphere that puts the "Forest of Equilibrium" material in its most natural state, pretty much sliced from the actual album.
What else is there to say? It's "Forest of Equilibrium," head to tail, front to back; performed the way it was meant to sound, with rich, pounding riffs soaring between the hammering orchestra of doom, led by the Pope of the British doom conclave. The bar they set on the slithering introduction of "Commiserating the Celebration" never falls, scorching through similar curses of hopelessness like the masterful "Ebony Tears" and "A Funeral Request" with cunning patience and precision. "Soul Sacrifice" sounds awesome as usual, its rapid riffs a fine alteration from the slow-cooked instrumentation, and that dual-guitar attack adds a shell of weight to the grinding sonnet; it's probably the set's finest trophy. And they even use a live flute on "Reaching Happiness, Touching Pain." In reaching the vibe of this classic, no stone, however painful or otherwise, was left unturned.
After locking the gates to the Forest for good, Lehan, Griffiths, and Smail leave for the final time; for them, the ceremony is over. Leo Smee and Brian Dixon return to their posts, thus completing the square Cathedral has known since 1994. The return to this form makes way for another titanic set of material spanning their whole career following the showcased "Forest of Equilibrium" performance, featuring anthems found on "The Ethereal Mirror," "The Garden of Unearthly Delights," "The Guessing Game," "Statik Majik" and "The Carnival Bizarre." Loyal fans will notice this part of "Anniversary" lacks material between 1996's "Supernatural Birth Machine" and the 2002 child entitled "The VIIth Coming," just two of the four full-length albums (not including a handful of EP material) not represented here. No mythological gold or large surprises; it's more of a best-of set beyond 1991, if you will.
Not that that's a bad thing, because the songs they do portray are stellar, even better than some of the studio cuts. "Night of the Seagulls" is a perfect example of this phenomena: Jennings and Lee use creepy guitar and vocal effects that defer slightly from the original recording, and I'd definitely take the "Anniversary" version whenever I'm riding to Midnight Mountain. Jennings' singular guitar attack for the second and final set of this service conjures a familiar texture of Cathedral's live sound, allowing a greater bass fuzz on mega-heavy beatings like "Upon Azrael's Wings" and "Enter the Worms." The stranger numbers ("Funeral of Dreams," "Cosmic Funeral," the keyboard-based instrumental "The Last Spire") take on the addition of keyboards between riff-based pieces like "Ride" or "Vampire Sun," pacing the show excellently until its glorious encore of "Hopkins (Witchfinder General)" ends the two-decade bash in style.
But it's not like the crowd was going anywhere: it was a freak winter. Maybe you, too, will find yourself snowed in with "Anniversary." If so, it's not like Cathedral will be flexing this monstrous set right in your face anytime soon, but it's the closest thing to the real thing Cathedral fans that have had the misfortune of never witnessing the doom crew live (like yours truly) can experience. The black orchid may be on the grave, but still we have this encore of an ending celebration that commiserated in bleak, hopeless fashion and ended in that gray, dark territory of "The Last Spire." "Anniversary," however, reflects not only the theme Cathedral is most known for, but the years and times between; a monumental salute before the final curtain call, twenty years in the making. Now that's worth celebrating.