When English doom legends Cathedral called it quits last year, it was the end of an era: After 23 years, nine albums, and a slew of EPs and singles, vocalist Lee Dorrian, guitarist Gaz Jennings and drummer Brian Dixon reunited with Repulsion mastermind Scott Carlson—who’d played bass in Cathedral for a brief stint in the mid-90s, when the band was signed to Columbia—for one final album, The Last Spire. They took a quick spin around the globe, and then Cathedral went tits up. Dorrian turned his full attention to his record label, Rise Above—the one that brought us Ghost, Electric Wizard and Uncle Acid—Carlson returned to Repulsion, and Jennings took a long, hard look at the riffs he’d been stockpiling since 1997 or so. Fast-forward to right about now, and some of that music has surfaced on Death Penalty’s self-titled debut. Coming this September via Rise Above (where else?), the album sees Jennings teaming up with three Belgians: Serpentcult drummer Frederik “Cozy” Cosemans, bassist Raf Meukens and the band’s not-so-secret weapon, ex-Serpentcult vocalist Michelle Nocon.
Easily one of our favorites of 2014, Death Penalty rides an infectious white-hot line between doom and traditional heavy metal. Now Jennings just needs to get used to being in charge. “I wasn’t the one who made decisions in Cathedral,” the guitarist explains. “Death Penalty is a whole new experience for me because it’s all on my shoulders now. Being in charge of other people and making decisions that affect other people—it’s very strange, but it’s a good responsibility to have. And I’m enjoying it.”
Check out the new Death Penalty track and read on for an interview with Jennings regarding the new project.
How long has Death Penalty been in the works?
Gaz Jennings: Probably as far back as 2010, I would say. That’s when I pieced a lot of the stuff together. I’ve obviously been the main music writer for Cathedral, but there’ve always been riffs over the years that we didn’t use because they weren’t right for the band. Sometimes, I’d present songs that I knew would probably never get past the others. So I’ve always had things on the back burner, but it was 2010 when I started writing more bits and bobs that I knew Cathedral wouldn’t use. But I didn’t know what would happen with it because I didn’t have a band and I didn’t have a record deal.
Did the fact that you were already working on something new make the end of Cathedral easier for you?
Once Cathedral made the decision to call it quits, I really didn’t have any intention of piecing a band together. I wanted to do a record, of course, and Lee said he’d give me a deal with Rise Above—but I didn’t think of actually getting a band together until Lee suggested it. I thought about it and decided he was right, so I started looking around for people.
Had you and Lee been plotting the end of Cathedral for a while before you dissolved the band last year?
Even as far back as 2005 when we did The Garden [of Unearthly Delights] album, we’d talked about maybe calling it quits. The style of music we played, the whole doom metal thing, was highly unfashionable at that time. It’s more fashionable now than it was then. When we started in the early 90s, there was only a handful of bands doing it. Nobody really cared about [Saint] Vitus and Trouble and Dream Death, but we loved those bands. I think we helped make it popular and open people’s eyes to it. We also had a bit of extremity about us that a lot of the more traditional bands didn’t have, and I think the younger generation, especially, sort of liked that. And now you’ve got all kinds of genres—drone doom, funeral doom, and all these things. When we started, there was nothing like that. We were totally unfashionable and swimming against the tide, so we first talked about giving it up around 2005.
What changed your mind?
Well, it was funny. We had a little surge in popularity. I don’t know what happened. Before that, our popularity had been slightly waning and we were starting to get a little disillusioned with what was going on. We had done the VIIth Coming album [in 2002] and we didn’t really know what style we wanted to do. We were kind of grasping at direction. We’d go on tour and some of the venues would be half full, so you’d think, “Are we on the way out?” But after Garden, we did a tour with Electric Wizard and Grand Magus, which was a great bill, and all the venues were sold out. We were getting really good write-ups in magazines and all this great press coverage, so we thought we’d ride it out and see how far we could go. But after that tour, we sort of went back into our shell again and didn’t do anything for a couple of years. We didn’t even speak to each other for a while. We didn’t fall out; we just went on different paths.
Five years passed between The Garden and The Guessing Game. What inspired you to give it another go?
Lee called me up and asked if I wanted to start writing again. So I went down to his place and we watched a load of old films, listened to a lot of Trouble and the first Candlemass album, and he said, “Try and write stuff like you used to write in the old days.” So I came up with a load of riffs that I would’ve thrown away a few years before that because I would’ve thought I was repeating myself. But Lee would say, “No, that’s a good riff. Let’s keep it.” So that’s what we did. A lot of that stuff ended up on The Guessing Game and The Last Spire, because the original intention was to do a double album, with one proggy record and one doom record. The Guessing Game ended up as a double album anyway, with proggy stuff and metal stuff, and we kept some of the doomy stuff for The Last Spire. By the time we got to that one, we were really focused and we knew it was gonna be the last record.
What was ultimate reason for ending the band?
It felt like we didn’t have anywhere for the band to go. 20-odd years in a band is a long time, and for a band like ourselves…I don’t know… like I said, we were unfashionable for a long time. We were constantly battling against what was popular, which was quite a strain, and with each record we were trying to reinvent ourselves, which is quite hard to do. We could’ve kept doing [1991’s] Forest Of Equilibrium over and over again, but we didn’t want to do that. So it gets to the point where you think, “Well, we’ve done what we’ve needed to do and said what we’ve wanted to say.” I mean, you do get a lot of bands—I’m not gonna mention any names—that keep going and going and going and there’s nothing new. Even some of your favorite bands, you think maybe they should just knock it on the head after a while because they’re treading water. We didn’t want Cathedral to be like that.
That’s smart, though. Like you said: So many bands don’t realize when the jig is up.
Maybe some people thought we were like that. I don’t know. We did some good records, but we also did some very average records, at least in my eyes. Supernatural Birth Machine was too rushed and had too many songs. Endtyme was good, I thought, but The VIIth Coming was a bit confused. So it’s hard to say. It was a tough decision to end it, but I think it was the right decision.
Were any of the Death Penalty songs written during the sessions for The Last Spire?
Yeah. I actually wrote two of them as far back as ’97, when we were writing Caravan Beyond Redemption. They didn’t have titles back then, but they ended up being “Eyes of the Heretic” and “Immortal By Your Hand” on the Death Penalty album. I mean, “Eyes Of The Heretic” is kinda like a Maiden song, so I knew it wouldn’t work in Cathedral. I played it for them anyway and they went, “Nah, we’re not gonna do that.” [Laughs] But I thought they were too good to throw away. “Children Of The Night” was a song that I wrote for The Last Spire—I’m not actually sure why that one didn’t get used. But that’s the first song that Michelle ever did vocals on for Death Penalty.
Everyone else in Death Penalty is from Belgium. How did that happen?
Yeah, it’s a bit strange, really. When I first started rehearsing for what became Death Penalty, it was me and my son, who’s a drummer—he’s 24 and lives in the next town over from where I live. He rang me up one day and asked me if I wanted to have a jam. He’s more into deathcore or whatever it is—obviously I’m too old for that kind of stuff—but he’s an amazing drummer. He wanted to jam Cathedral material, but I told him I was working on new material, the stuff that ended up being on the Death Penalty album, and we ended up doing that instead. So that was 2012, and we did it for a while, but then that kind of fizzled out because he started working a lot. By then I’d been in touch with Michelle.
You knew her from Serpentcult. Lee put out their first album on Rise Above.
Yeah, I heard the record many years ago, like 2008, when Lee sent me a rough mix of it. I was blown away by that record—the riffs, the sheer heaviness—I wish I’d written some of that stuff. But they had this girl singer, and she was fantastic. Fast forward a bit, and I was thinking about getting a female vocalist for Death Penalty. I mean, Rock Goddess, Acid, Znöwhite, I love all those types of bands. So I got to thinking of Serpentcult. I don’t do any of this social media stuff, but I asked Gomez, who produced The Last Spire, about Michelle. He thought she’d be up for doing it, so he got in touch with her for me on Facebook. She was in a doom band, so I naively thought that’s what she was into. But she’s a lot younger than me, and it turns out she grew up on Pantera and all this stuff that I kinda bypassed. But I sent her the songs, and she was up for it. And she ended up getting the drummer, who also played in Serpentcult, and the bass player as well. So that’s how I ended up with three Belgians in the band.
Michelle has a fantastic rock voice.
Yeah, she’s great. She’s a character, man—a one-off. I wouldn’t wanna get on the wrong side of her, I’ll tell you that. [Laughs] Great singer, though. She’s got an incredible voice. She has this rawness in her voice that appealed to me straight away when I heard Serpentcult, and she’s quite buried in the mix on that record. But it’s funny, when she sent me back “Children Of The Night,” I was expecting that high-pitched, wailing-banshee thing she does in Serpentcult, but I never got it. I got this completely different vocal style and melody. At first I thought it was weird. But two or three listens in, I thought, “Jesus, this is really good.” So I let her have free reign on vocal melodies and lyrics. The only instruction I ever gave her was to do a kind of Witchfinder General thing on “Sign Of Times,” to sing along with the riff. Everything else was her own idea.
Speaking of Witchfinder General, I know you named Death Penalty after their first album. What kind of impact have they had on you over the years?
Even to this day I still listen to them. Silly things like passwords on my phone and computer are all to do with Witchfinder General songs or band members. But they had a great effect on me. I got into metal in 1979, when I was nine years old. I guess it was called hard rock or heavy rock back then. That’s when I first heard [Sabbath’s] Never Say Die!, [Kiss’] Hotter Than Hell—those were the first records that had an impact. Sabbath and Kiss were a huge part of my musical education, but obviously Sabbath was the biggest influence. So the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was happening right as I was getting into rock music. I went out and got the first Maiden record, the first Def Leppard, the first Jaguar, the first Raven. I missed Witchfinder General’s “Burning A Sinner” 7-inch, but I got Death Penalty when it came out. To me, being into the slower aspect of heavy music—it all reverts back to Sabbath. And Witchfinder General have always been the nearest thing to Sabbath—for sound, for lyrical ideas, vocal melodies, everything. They’ve had a huge, huge influence on me—everything about them except the album covers. Those were comical, and downright sexist. But I think their hearts were in the right place.
J. Bennett says the first two Witchfinder General albums are mandatory listening.