Ranking near the top of my list of unsung ‘90s bands, Catherine Wheel emerged with an awesome, fully formed sound that owed much to both the dreampop (My Bloody Valentine, Lush) and grunge (Nirvana, Mudhoney) camps. Unlike the other dreampop (or “shoegazer”) bands, however, Rob Dickinson’s (cousin of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson) hypnotic, often whispered vocals are up front and center, leading a rich sonic tapestry that mingles swirling guitar textures with airy vocal harmonies. The band’s big sound is dreamy yet explosive at the same time, which is a uniquely impressive combination; the album begins (appropriately enough) with massive guitars before cymbal-heavy drums crash in on a song that’s all about “Texture.” “I Want To Touch You” and “She’s My Friend” both present singable choruses, while the mighty “Black Metallic” is a moody, melodic mid-tempo epic (it’s the album’s longest song at 7:18) that became a college radio hit. Also great is “Indigo Is Blue,” which settles into a gorgeously flowing melody; the pause before the guitar solo takes the song to another level demonstrates the band’s acute sense of drama. Elsewhere, “Flower To Hide” delivers another languid but lovely melody, plus a more varied vocal that’s most welcome, while “Salt” effectively puts away the effects pedals yet still retains a dreamy ambiance. Even the band’s poppiest choruses must do battle with walls of feedback, and the album also serves up several spectacular guitar solos by the underrated guitar tandem of Dickinson and Brian Futter. Ferment may be a tad too long and one-dimensional over the course of its 57 minute duration, but its often-thrilling overall beauty and power are undeniable.
Chrome (Mercury ‘93) Rating: A
The band continues to sport a thrillingly huge wall of sound, but they’ve also added a lean metallic edge to their lavish guitar textures. Dickinson’s vocals are more varied and emotional, and the intensity quotient has been upped a bit, too; this is immediately apparent on the explosive album opener, “Kill Rhythm.” Next, the lurching riffs of “I Confess” settles into a pleasant chorus before “Crank” begins the album’s dazzling mid-section with a dark and dreamy classic. The thrill-ride continues with “Broken Head” and the anguished “Pain,” both of which achieve an epic aura and contain exciting guitar solos. “Strange Fruit” picks up the pace on a leaner excursion that’s fittingly melodic, while the title track mixes noisy verses with an atmospheric chorus. “The Nude” might very well be the band’s most beautiful melody yet (its understated guitar interjections are flawless), while “Ursa Major Space Station” is a space trip that’s well worth taking, with evocative lines like “follow you through time, till it’s not worth living” and yet another wild and wooly guitar solo. The atmospheric “Fripp” is the only real break in the action, as Catherine Wheel continues to toss aside all of the generic labels that were once thrust upon them by forging their own singular sound. Crank it up.
Happy Days (Mercury ‘95) Rating: A-
Even though they don’t have the hype of many other U.K. bands (Oasis, Blur), Catherine Wheel can certainly hold their own in the talent department. Happy Days was the band’s hardest hitting and most varied effort yet. Once again, Brian Futter teams with Rob Dickinson to wield a dual-guitar delivery that creates rich textures of feedback on songs such as the unforgettable “Waydown” and the spastic “Empty Head,” which features explosive power drill riffs. But even though feedback still plays a major role in shaping the band’s robust sound, beautiful melodies also slowly emerge, and the group still knows how to deliver riffs that stick. They also know just when to add a burst of power chords or a spectacular guitar solo, the latter feature being especially rare in this day and age when displays of actual talent are often frowned upon as being “pretentious.” In addition, Dickinson’s vocals grow more varied and emotional with each release - just witness the caterwauling climax to “Waydown”. On the downside, this 62-minute album suffers from cd-era length, and it lacks the seamless flow of their first two albums. Fortunately, the fact that Happy Days contains some of the band’s best songs largely compensates for these flaws. For example, “God Inside My Head” hurtles forward on its big chorus, while the riveting “Little Muscle” is highlighted by jackhammer rhythms. Though the band inches closer to heavy metal here, they also deftly showcase their softer side on the soaring power ballad “Heal” (my favorite CW song) and the tongue-in-cheek, beautifully acoustic “Eat My Dust, You Insensitive F**k,” an (admittedly overly long) song that’s strangely gentle and melodic despite its obscene title. Elsewhere, a delightful pop sensibility is apparent on “Shocking,” “Love Tips Up,” “Kill My Soul,” and “Judy Staring At The Sun,” the latter of which features Tonya Donnelly's backing vocals on an airy chorus that was simply one of the most delectable of the decade.
Adam and Eve (Mercury ’97) Rating: A-
The band’s formula starts to show a little wear and tear here, but the formula is still a thrilling one overall, making Adam and Eve only slightly less sensational than its three predecessors. True, the album begins and ends unremarkably, and some of these long songs take a little too long to get to the good stuff. But the good stuff almost always arrives, and at their best the band’s bruising but atmospheric sound is still one of the most perfect in all of rock. The driving alterna-pop of “Delicious,” the gorgeously moody “Broken Nose,” the singable choruses of “Masolituda” and “Goodbye,” and the moving, multi-layered “Satellite” all show that the band’s dreamy take on grunge (now featuring newly prominent keyboards) can still yield scintillating results. “Phantom of the American Mother” and “Here Comes The Fat Controller” are other highlights that few people noticed, as, sadly enough, Adam and Eve received almost zero promotional support in the United States. In fact, it's hard to get a hold of these days, and few blamed bassist Dave Hawes when he subsequently quit this "unsuccessful" (note extreme sarcasm) band.
Wishville (Columbia ’00) Rating: B-
Now pared down to a three-piece and strangely billed as The Catherine Wheel, Wishville again came and went with scarcely any notice by the public at large. But this time I can see why, because even though the band has finally released an album that’s of a more manageable length (40 minutes), they’ve filled it up with less memorable material. Sure, “Sparks Are Gonna Fly” delivers a finely sleek and straightforward rocker, but the band’s less fuzzy delivery here is less compelling and distinctive than usual. The next song, “Gasoline” offers a silly chorus and reinforces Rob Dickinson’s similarity to the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler (not a bad thing by any means), but only “What We Want To Believe In” comes through with a classic Catherine Wheel chorus. Granted, the intense “Lifeline” is intermittenty explosive, the cocky ballad “All Of That” and the string saturated “Idle Life” are both moodily seductive, and “Mad Dog” slowly builds into a lushly inviting melody. However, the end result here fails to meet my (admittedly high) expectations, and my final impression of Wishville is that it’s a studiously crafted but unexceptional hard rock album by a once great band whose best days may well be behind them. Note: Sadly, the band broke up after this album.
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