The spacy sound of shoegazing pop. The power of metal. Passion. Delicacy. Genius. These are the ingredients Catherine Wheel poured into an intoxicating brew before letting it Ferment.
Frontman Rob Dickinson, lead guitarist Brian Futter, bassist Dave Hawes and drummer Neil Sims may not have been from Manchester, but there was plenty of that late 80s/early 90s British music capital in their sound — the swirly guitars, the fuzz and drone, the moody ambiance that provided plenty of drama behind Dickinson’s nearly perfectly-wrought vocals.
The guitars packed enough punch to prompt comparisons to early Pink Floyd, and there’s also the influence of Rob’s older cousin, Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson. Yes, Ferment sometimes sounds like a classic, big-guitar metal record, but Catherine Wheel’s sense of melody and adventurous sonic explorations nudge it more toward the British alt-pop end of the spectrum.
Released in 1992, the heyday of rave culture, this CD should’ve been required equipment in the chillout room, both for its gentle anti-drug messages and the sense of warmth beneath its sometimes cold, hard surfaces.
Catherine Wheel — Ferment: Track-by-track review
If the first 45 seconds don’t get you…
Just as Beethoven knew how to open a symphony, Catherine Wheel knows how to open an album. Power chords deepen one after the other, like one of those Russian wooden dolls, and the drums spiral into the mix before you get to what will be the chorus -— you can practically hear the banging on the fretboard. There’s even a pretty, strumming bridge late in the song before those powerful guitars take it home; Rob pleads for more texture, and gets it.
2. “I Want To Touch You”
Why has this song not shown up yet in the soundtrack of a major movie or TV show? Rob attempts to hit the tricky note of unrequited love he’s struggling to keep from crossing the red line into obsession — and nails it. Futter’s guitar riff leads into the line “But you’re always out of reach/and I can’t control my speech”, which betrays as much desperation as any vocal possibly could. The power and intensity of this performance is scary.
3. “Black Metallic”
Rob insists this power ballad is about a car (he worked in the car restoration biz for several years before releasing a solo CD in 2005).
Ferociously played and sung, it builds into a midsong 20-second thunderstorm of guitar that spirals off into a squally Futter solo, drops into the eye of the hurricane for an extended drum, bass and bluesy vocal jam, and shreds again at the end. The song that first got the Wheel noticed in America is a 7:19 tour de force.
4. “Indigo Is Blue”
The first three songs on Ferment leave one exhausted enough that this tune might be considered recovery time. “Indigo Is Blue” stands on its own quite well, thank you.
It begins with 40 seconds of metallic drone, as if you’re heading uphill on a roller coaster. Instead of taking a big immediate drop, though, Rob guides the listener down some gently curving track before the incendiary guitars and power riffage seize control again. A lively jam ensues before the song fades away.
5. “She’s My Friend”
Guitars squeal behind another slightly twisted love song. As he does on much of the album, Rob emotes, but doesn’t scream or lose his cool — he finds a place for his voice amidst the cacophony and makes himself at home.
The shortest, and on the surface, slightest (most shallow?) tune on the CD. But Rob has a sly way of bringing the sexual metaphors, and the more melodic playing behind him allows it. He has a way of making that shallow water run deep if his lover accommodates him.
The title track goes deep, deep, deep, into the Manchester house, with the high-pitched guitar keening buried low in the mix, and the gentle lapping of drums and bass lurking beneath Rob’s gentle pleading, bringing a friend down from a drug high. Eventually, a guitar flameout alternates with, and finally conquers, the quiet majesty of the first half of the song. This song is “fermenting, fermenting,” and resonates with a full-bodied taste that goes down sweetly.
8. “Flower To Hide”
Catherine Wheel can bring the jangle, too, along with the metal. Is Rob singing about drugs? Aging? A dying lover? Does it matter?
A gorgeous pop song, from the swooping chorus to the modulated feedback in the guitar solo.
“Tumbledown” is about majesty, from Rob’s attempts to reunite with a lover, to the hypnotically melodic playing on the chorus, to the breakdown and riffing on the bridge, to the sloshing, swirling conclusion. This is a song meant to be played with the lights low.
10. “Bill And Ben”
While the aural storm rages outside, Rob is gently trying to help you pull your head together, convincing you “You are young and full of heart.” The brief Futter riff emerging from the end of the second chorus reaches out and grabs you, and shortly thereafter he enters full wigout mode —- another great moment on a CD full of epic-quality guitar rock.
Underpinning the chorus and the song’s extended fade is a repetitious droning guitar figure whose melody ensures you won’t grow tired of it. The vocals fade in and out, along with some guitar and drum bashing. It gets trippy enough that you can skip the E.
Ferment is a heavy record, but not a gloomy one, making “Balloon” a perfect closer. With a soaring soundscape behind Rob, you can practically hear him smile as he hits “Ba-ba-ba-ba-balloon” in the chorus. Only when he urges “Come down, come down, come down” before the final chorus do you catch the drug counselor in him re-emerging. The Wheelmen may keep themselves grounded, but they know how to let the music soar.
Ferment by Catherine Wheel
“I Want To Touch You”
“Indigo Is Blue”
“She’s My Friend”
“Flower To Hide”
“Bill And Ben”