Album Review: Cathedral Bells — ‘Ether’

Posted: by The Editor

When most people imagine music from a town inhabited by only mediums, they likely think of gossamer ambient, mystical metal, or maybe even just some good old fashioned spooky theremin playing. However, they likely do not imagine a propulsive alternative trio. Cassadega, Florida’s Cathedral Bells defy expectation and churn out glistening rock music that marries dream pop and coldwave from their homebase in the “Psychic Capital of the World.” The band’s second full length, Ether, finds the project honing in on a sound pioneered on its early releases, while employing a more refined, crystalline sonic palette. It’s the type of indie rock that you could imagine blaring from an Urban Outfitters in 2013 Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Cathedral Bells was founded in 2018 by Matt Messore. Initially a solo project, Cathedral Bells’ early work pulled from the sonics of ‘80s and ‘90s cassettes, playing like an eerie-but-upbeat score to outrunning a murderous villain in a tacky, endearing horror movie. The project’s 2020 full length, Velvet Spirit, was an exercise in homegrown, synth-heavy murk. It was strong enough to hook a small audience of excited fans, but often fell flat as thin mixes obscured the record’s indecipherable vocals. While it certainly tapped into a distinct sound, the album couldn’t help but feel like the work of an opening act for a band like Launder or CASTLEBEAT.

On Ether, Messore and his collaborators, drummer Aaron Gollubier and bassist Kyle Hoffer, come together to create music that sounds more like the work of a full band than a dude with a laptop and a Focusrite. If Velvet Spirit evoked the essence of well worn denim, Ether plays like the mysterious folds of a black satin curtain.

Opener “Invisible” pairs frigid synthesizers with a motorik beat. As it cascades and swells, the track reveals itself to be the most melodically ambitious Cathedral Bells work to date. Title track “Ether” uses a repurposed reggaeton groove to lay the framework for C86-style humid pop that reminds me why I fell in love with hazy guitar rock to begin with. “Rewind’s” pearly keys and metallic, churning rhythm guitars could be ripped straight from a great new wave song. However, as a jagged, Silversun Pickups-esque lead comes in on the chorus, the track begins to showcase a unique amalgamation of alternative rock subgenres. The song recalls the cinematic autumn days that lead up to Halloween in a rundown suburb, and it’s the brawniest track on the record by a mile. Cathedral Bells bring to mind early Captured Tracks acts in the same way that those artists directly recalled bands like The Cure and Neu!.

While Ether is significantly more developed than the releases that came before it, the album isn’t without its pitfalls. Comprised largely of driving, eighth note-heavy drum grooves, the record frequently blurs together. This is especially true of Ether’s first half, which plays like a collection of variations on the same rhythm. Messore’s newfound knack for soaring hooks and discombobulating refrains ultimately comes to the rescue, but after a few listens, I was still left wishing that Cathedral Bells had spent more time experimenting with unfamiliar feels and tempos.

Moreover, Messore’s vocals are often shrouded in a cloud of effects that leave all-but-the-occasional-word indiscernible. At times, it can pleasantly recall DIIV or Wild Nothing, but for the most part I wished that I had walked away with some impression about the lyrical content I just spent 26 minutes listening to. This is as much a flaw of coldwave as it is a fault of Cathedral Bills, as the band makes music in a genre that is frequently same-y and formulaic. It’s an oversaturated niche that requires artists to put in a lot of work to stand out alongside their abundance of peers, and, for the most part, Cathedral Bells prove themselves worthy of the challenge.

Ether is an album that brings to mind the first brisk sunny day after a miserable winter, or shimmering water in the Gulf Of Mexico framed beneath a sherbert colored sunset. On “Dark Aura,” Messore’s vocals ride atop a murky, kraut-indebted instrumental like pale white clouds hovering over a row of brutalist houses in some dismal city. Cathedral Bells sound like an augmented version of our strange reality. The music on Ether is alluring, but pleasantly familiar like dejavu or waking from a melatonin-induced dream about your everyday life.

Disappointing / Average/ Good / Great / Phenomenal

Ted Davis | @tddvsss

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