Album Review: Guided By Voices – Crystal Nuns Cathedral


For this, their mind boggling 35th official album, not to mention all the collections of unreleased demos etc, and a myriad of Robert Pollard side projects, they have definitely eschewed the less obvious GBV traits of post punk pop rock and leaned more into the slightly experimental and proggier side that was always present in earlier works like “Optical Hopscotch” from 1999’s Do The Collapse and “Portable Men’s Society” from 1997’s Mag Earwhig! for example. There was always a hint of Peter Gabriel lurking in the gleefully drunken lo-fi pop songs. A hint of the epic in amongst the scratchy little indie gems. It’s what makes them so very special.

There are still tunes of course, and such tunes. Take the magisterial opener “Eye City”, which builds like a skyscraper from ground to glorious heights, featuring cello, scraping and moaning among the monumental slabs of heavy guitar. Similarly huge choruses abound in the marvellous “Re-Develop” with Robert Pollard hinting of ‘the next phase to come’…and if this is a taster of what he’s got in store we’re all in for a treat.

Sawing ominous cello scrapes enter at the start of “Climbing A Ramp” (with a similar vibe to Radiohead’s “Burn The Witch”) and continue throughout, lending a cinematic vibe while Robert intones that ‘it must go forward ‘cos it can’t go back’, before giving way to a wonderful guitar break, fading out way too soon (especially for prog). The production of long-time GBV collaborator Travis Harrison has really upped the game here, presenting a more cohesive sound, and yet pushing the boundaries of what a GBV album can be.

For those who have written them off at various points in their career, GBV are more like an American Fall… just when you thought they had done everything they could possibly do they pop up with another classic which nestles comfortably at the top of their career defining works. And also like The Fall did, they present quality albums at an alarming rate. We’re only just reeling from the energy burst of 2021’s It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them (not to mention “Earth Man Blues”) and they blast into the early part of 2022 with this. This is where they differ from old school prog bands in that it was very common for fans to wait at least 4 years between albums, not to mention the cost of spending 6 months in the studio incrementally adjusting knobs to get the snare sounding like a biscuit tin being hit by a bulls pizzle! I wouldn’t be surprised if we had at least another 2 albums from them by the year’s end, and they’ll probably be as essential as this one.

The bass on “Never Mind The List” plods and soars over wafts of warm guitar like a French resort, while Robert, in a reflective, hopeful melancholy sings ‘nothing moves me like this’. I love the way he spits and lisps over the words, like resigned disgust…or just loose fitting dentures! “Birds In The Pipe” reminds me of those quirky psychedelic pop songs like “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera” and “Grocer Jack” – about a strange man who travels round with an organ full of animals who plays for the people, whether they like it or not! Well that’s my take on it.

The last part reminds me of the ‘forgiven’ section from The Who’s A Quick One. “Come North Together” is nothing short of classic GBV. It’s up there with “My Valuable Hunting Knife” and “Motor Away” as it drives along full of joy and offbeat chords, with big crashes and perfect little examples of tension and release. I can see audiences everywhere just heaving and sweating with big smiles all over their faces as they groove along to its infectious, enveloping joy.  A total change of pace follows with “Forced To Sea”, which slowly reveals itself, patiently and with a dreamlike quicksand, evoking distance and depth as he sings of ‘chasing the seahorse around’ and ‘sleepwalking on the legs of my bed’. Without any gap “Huddled” starts with classic Who style chords over a pedal note. The whole band are on such great form here, especially at the end, with drum and bass fills and crashing guitars.

“Excited Ones” is total GBV pop and performed with such ease, like a band on cruise control, while “Eyes Of Your Doctor” and “Mad River Man” are all strangeness at first before they leap into take-off at the drop of a hat and blast us with anthemic choruses as wide as the sky. The album closes in the only way it should. With an under 2 minute blast of GBV pop – psychedelic and riff heavy, with Robert imploring you to ‘look beyond his cage and see him out’.

It’s amazing to me that at 64 and with a career spanning over 4 prolific decades whilst touring, holding down a day job and drinking heavily, that he can still shine so brightly, yet he manages to do just that, and, with his band of stalwarts, continuing to tour and release records of such quality. If you are a fan, or if you have never heard of them before (which begs the question where’ve you been?) then get this. You won’t be disappointed.

Read a track by track guide to the album by Guided By Voices’ Doug Gillard and Mark Shue here

Crystal Nuns Cathedral is out now – order/stream from all of the usual places here

Find out more on GBV’s official website

Review by Andrew Wood

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