Catherine Wheel – Ferment

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

Catherine Wheel were a perplexing, wonderful band. They brought together a mix of elements – shoegaze, hard rock, art rock, ambient, pop – in a unique way, almost always with a strong melodic backing. Sometimes, they strayed too far:  Happy Days was excessively metal (though it still contains great songs, like “Judy Staring At the Sun” (with Belly’s Tanya Donnelly on vocals) and the incomparable “Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck”). And final album Wishville is apparently terrible; I’ve never read a favorable review, and all the ones I have read have scared me off. Ferment is generally regarded as the shoegaze album; Chrome is the rock album (though I personally think of it as the pop album); Happy Days is the metal album; and Adam and Eve is the prog album. I prefer a different framework:  Ferment is the most important album; Chrome is the best album; Happy Days is . . . well, yeah, the metal album; and Adam and Eve is the art album (and Wishville is just the bad or at least, the ignored album).

What I Think of This Album

The first track on Ferment is “Texture,” and that might as well have been the album title. Critics and the band themselves have credited producer Tim Friese-Greene with ennobling the band’s sound courtesy of his experience as a member of Talk Talk. While I can’t speak to Talk Talk, the sonics of Ferment are impressive (I can instead hear the Talk Talk influence much more on Adam and Eve).

Not to take anything away from Catherine Wheel, who were no mere pedal-stompers. Singer/guitarist Rob Dickinson (cousin of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson) and lead guitarist Brian Futter were just as capable of playing bludgeoning riffs as they were of whiskering wisps of color, as if painting with mascara brushes. And the band also wrote songs – melodic, structured pieces. They didn’t engage in sonic explorations like My Bloody Valentine or explore fragility like Slowdive; their closest contemporaries were Swervedriver, but Swervedriver lacked the pop sense.

While “Texture” does play with dynamics and negative space, the truth is that this song is mostly pummeling rhythms and heavy riffing, with some awesome soloing underneath. Dickinson’s vocals are out front more on the melodic “I Want to Touch You,” which marries its lyrical vulnerability to seagull guitars and a ten-ton rhythm; oh yeah, the solo here kicks ass, too.

Epic “Black Metallic” is jaw-dropping. Opening with a great flanged riff, backed with a supple bass line from Dave Hawes and a relatively understated drum part, Dickinson croons to his car – yes, this quasi-love song is about a car (“your skin is black metallic”) – while Futter adds color and nuance in the background; the jackhammer bridge leads to a fantastic, lengthy solo before everything falls back to hushed vocals, drums, and delicate guitar sounds for another long stretch, and then we get back to the chorus. This song is far too short at almost eight minutes long. If they never wrote another song, Catherine Wheel would still be crowned kings for this.

“Indigo Is Blue” tricks everyone, with an abrasive riff that goes on forever (accompanied by increasing amounts of feedback), and then folds into a fairly gentle little song, with some sweeping guitars for atmosphere and a meandering bass part, before Futter and Dickinson throw in more guitar heroics, because at over five minutes long, there’s time for it. “She’s My Friend” is anything but innocent, with an electric eel lead part right off the bat and more coiled soloing against a canvas of swirls and swoops, as well as some wah-wah exercising.

The shortest song on here, “Shallow” is a deep cut with more impressive racket-making and a lush vocal treatment. You can take a breather on the echoey title track . . . until Futter and Dickinson burst your eardrums. Are the shifts on this track subtly executed? No. In fact, it’s surprisingly amateurish for a band that seven songs into a great album has otherwise demonstrated such mastery. The band remembers its sense of balance and melody on the very pretty “Flower to Hide.” Dickinson delicately reaches into the top of his range and the phased guitar part is entrancing.

“Tumbledown” is perfectly enjoyable without being anything special, and much the same can be said for “Bill and Ben.” These are not the shoegaze classics you are looking for. The capper is “Salt,” an appropriately forceful closer – this is almost a Ride song, with compelling drums courtesy of unsung skin-beater Neil Sims, a rocking but not overwhelming guitar part, a critical but understated bass line, and echoey, soft vocals. This song is on the playlist at any opium den worth visiting; you could get lost in it forever, especially the lengthy, disorienting outro.

Tacked on as a bonus track is “Balloon.” And the problem with that is that “Salt” is the perfect end to Ferment – anything that comes after is a mistake. Just fucking leave it alone. That said, “Balloon” is decent enough; with an almost dancey beat and a rubbery bass line, it’s the same sort of filler as “Tumbledown.”

Catherine Wheel made better albums than this, but they couldn’t have made any of them if they hadn’t first made Ferment. This is where their ideas first came together, and it’s relative success undoubtedly gave them the confidence and momentum to forge ahead.

The Best Thing About This Album

Hahahahahaha. Like I’m not going to pick “Black Metallic.”

Release Date

June, 1992

The Cover Art

I’m not sure what this cover is. It looks very “early 90’s computer graphics.” It also reminds me just a tiny bit of Slowdive’s Just For A Day album cover, which isn’t great but is better than this. I dig the orange, I suppose.

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