CATHERINE WHEEL: CHROME (1993)
1) Kill Rhythm; 2) I Confess; 3) Crank; 4) Broken Head; 5) Pain; 6) Strange Fruit; 7) Chrome; 8) The Nude; 9) Ursa Major Space Station; 10) Fripp; 11) Half Life; 12) Show Me Mary.
In most of the ratings I've seen, either Ferment or Chrome emerge as the listener's choice for Catherine Wheel's artistic peak. My own choice is quite clear: Chrome is a letdown to my ears, because what they hear is the beginning of a drift away towards the restrictions of heavy, distorted, tormented alt-rock from the relative freedom of psychedelia. I'm not saying this sounds like proto-Nickelback — Dickinson and Futter are not that dismissive of musical creativity — but simply that, for instance, when the loud section of the very first track (ʽKill Rhythmʼ) kicks in, it just sounds like any slow, heavy, loud, draggy section on any record produced by an artistically driven band with amplified guitars. And, if anything, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead would do this kind of thing with more dedication at the beginning of the next decade.
Try as I might, I can neither distinguish too well between these songs nor memorize them; everywhere you turn, it is the same wall-of-sound blur that is neither riff-a-licious enough to qualify as perfect hard rock nor atmospheric enough to qualify as effective heavy psychedelia. It hangs somewhere in between these two extremes, satisfying neither of the two fans in me, but still commanding a good dose of respect for the effort. Without a doubt, though, Catherine Wheel are at their best here only when Dickinson clams up, and the two guitarists (including some of their overdubbed clones) begin directing all of their strength to the generation of sweet melodic noise. Any song here hits its peak then and only then when the guitars begin to rip: for instance, ʽI Confessʼ sucks me in around 2:31, when a grim metallic riff erupts out of nowhere, and after a few bars a shrill banshee solo is laid across its back... too bad it's only for about thirty seconds.
The formula is betrayed only once, on the aptly called ʽFrippʼ: the song is not so much a tribute to King Crimson as it is a conscious carry-over from Ferment — more quiet, subtle, and atmospheric. The guitar melodies are more Gilmour than Fripp, to be honest, but the combination of distortion, echo, and jazzy angularity (especially when the wall of sound production is not there to distract our attention) is admirable anyway, and fully convinces me that these guys could have been masters of complex melodicity, had they not been so held back by this strange adherence to the «shoegrunge» sound — which, frankly speaking, begins to get on my nerves 5-6 minutes into the album... and this one is almost an hour long.
The heavy, noisy sound deprives them of personality even before they'd managed to properly establish it. It does not help, either, that the first single off the album was a self-demeaning melancholic brooding called ʽCrankʼ — and don't try to tell me that the similarities with Radiohead's ʽCreepʼ are just a coincidence. The song, relatively short by the standards of this album and focusing more on a singalong chorus ("call me crank, my idea...") than on the guitar interplay that justifies Catherine Wheel's existence, is clearly market-oriented, but these guys have serious problems working the market — likewise, the second single, ʽShow Me Maryʼ, actually speeds up the tempo and makes you want to dance, with no memorable guitar parts to speak of but with yet another repetitive chorus, this time building on what looks like a creepy sexual innuendo (it is never explained what exactly Mary is supposed to show, but if I ever learn that Mary is actually supposed to be the Virgin Mary... well, I'd not buy that anyway). Both of these tunes can be pleasing, but if Catherine Wheel built their entire reputation on this kind of material, I'd have to think of them as C-grade, rather than B-grade artists.
Anyway, if it were up to me, I'd have cut out most of the vocals (they are nominally pretty, but take too long to get to the juicy parts), omitted the short singles (they don't do this band any real justice), concentrated on guitar jamming (most of the tempestuous passages with multiple guitar overdubs are capable of psychedelic magic, particularly in headphones), and slightly toned down the metallic sheen — then Chrome would really come out all black and polished. As it is, I'm not sure that the lasting value of this record will easily allow it to stand out of the mid-Nineties alt-rock muck in decades to come.