Cobalt Chapel by Cobalt ChapelRelease date: January 20, 2017
There’s something decadently compelling about this eponymous debut album from Cobalt Chapel. From the off it has the debauched whiff of a 1960s psychedelic ‘Happening’, or a hedonistic pagan ceremony – but more than that, it feels just as much like a youthful guilty pleasure: it is – for all of us that grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, like watching a Hammer House of Horror film on a portable telly when your parents have gone to bed. Cobalt Chapel reeks with the possibility of forbidden pleasures or occult horrors – the possibilities of sex and violence – that blazed down a cathode ray tube late at night. It’s rich in a seam of occult imagery and sexuality which has previously been well mined by Gatiss, Pemberton, et al, in The League of Gentlemen, or even the cult Scarfolk web page (and elsewhere since).
But perhaps even above even these things Cobalt Chapel is a triumph of womanhood, of fantasy and of the imagination. Wearing as it does, the clothing of a particularly British form of psychedelic rock, there is a parallel to be drawn from the open-minded, free-spirited, period of 50-years ago when things seemed possible, consciousnesses were expanded, and everyone got on the bus for an acid trip. Imagine if the BBC Radiophonic Workshop wrote pop tunes for ABBA – and you’ll be halfway there.
Cobalt Chapel come with a high pedigree, Essentially the band are a collaboration between singer/actress Cecilia Fage (comic actor Matt Berry’s chanteuse of choice) and Regal Worm/I Monster head-honcho Jarrod Gosling and his collection of vintage synths, effects machines, and instruments. Recent live performances have also featured the inestimable talents of the Innerstrings’ hallucinogenic light-show – And it would be terribly easy to regard this whole project as an exercise in hipster-retro nostalgia – a second hand nostalgia at that, passed down to us from our parent’s generation – and which entertained us after midnight when, like good boys and girls, we should have been tucked up asleep.
But this is not the case. The freshness and audaciousness of Cobalt Chapel and their incredibly well wrought psych-pop fits exactly with the modern revival in Progressive Rock which is less about aping it’s Jurassic, monolithic forebears, but more about creating new forms of what was once a much maligned genre. Gosling’s Regal Worm being a case in point, but there are many others – Knifeworld, Anathema, Iamthemorning, The Anchoress and so on, who are unafraid to actually put the progress into progressive. Cobalt Chapel eschews some of the more proggy trappings of Regal Worm – no songs about aunts becoming ants for example – but delivers us some solid musical blows that I haven’t heard since Trish Keenan period Broadcast – high praise indeed – and like Broadcast, there was many a track on this album that made me leak happy tears of joy on first listen (perhaps we can convince the Cobalts to cover ‘Paper Cuts’, then I’d be like a total wreck).
You can find other influences here too – if you look for them – Broadcast, obviously, but also early Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre, the dark majesty of Portishead, the playfulness of Henry Mancini, the occasional jarring and uplifting joy of any Gerry Anderson supermarionation theme tune; and of course, thematically, a good deal of Folk Music – or certainly the dark tropes of Folk, the unsettling nature of which works incredibly well in this context.
There’s also a great juxtaposition of end-of-days glamour and pagan ceremony. Look, for instance, as Fage – gloriously pregnant and resplendent in evening dress – stares out at you from the middle of a lightless forest on the album cover. Indeed, glamour (both as a lifestyle and, in its archaic form, a type of magic), fertility, and imagination form some of the very strong flavours of this record.
But as an umbrella theme, a rich vein of unfettered femininity encompasses the recording. Pretty much all of the songs on Cobalt Chapel are from the point of view of women protagonists. We have women as cult members, as victims, as mothers, as lovers, as actresses, slaves, Greek goddesses, or as a young girl. We have the original woman of Eve, we have the Mother-of-God in Mary. Each aspect of womanhood is explored – not in any overt political way – but a strong, resilient, assertive femininity emerges throughout the album. Such voices and points-of-view are great to hear, and in a world where the latest US president – arguably the most powerful man in the world is clearly a sexist, chauvinist, misogynist bigot, a fully paid up member of the self-perpetuating patriarchy – it’s vital that these voices shine through.
So, taking dark energy from the number thirteen – and flipping the bird to our masters – this triskaideka collection of tracks smartly kicks off with ‘We Come Willingly’, a cautionary study in sacrificial worship from the perspective of a brainwashed cult victim. You pays your money to a domineering strong man, you puts up with your choices it would seem. But, this is a really great opening track and puts a marker in the sand as to how powerful a songwriting partnership Fage and Gosling are for the rest of the record. Both the songcraft and musicianship are something of a masterclass, synths and organs wildly swirl sweeping you up in a tsunami of sonic devastation, throughout which Fage’s handsome vocals tempt and beguile. The production is uniformly excellent – these are big songs and require a big wall of sound to do them justice – but it seems no part of the aural spectrum is missed in this epic, widescreen sound. My advice: Play it loud. Play it all loud.
There are a lot of highlights; generally shorter but intriguing instrumentals break up some of the heroic kitchen-sink drama of the songs, but highlights include ‘Fruit Falls From The Apple Tree’ which provides a fresh perspective on the biblical creation myth, though the perspective of Eve; ‘Who Are The Strange’; ‘Horratia’ (written with Paul Putner, a story of an aging b-movie actress); ‘Positive Negative’ (a nightmarish fantasy about the fear of being pursued by an unstoppable malevolent force) and – perhaps the most extraordinary track on the album – John Taverner’s ‘The Lamb’ is extremely well known and beloved of church choirs and choral groups for it’s wondrous, resonant and discordant harmonies. It’s a piece of music often associated with Christmas speaking – as it does – about the birth of Christ, in particular, his manifestation as the Lamb of God. Of all the tracks on this record, this is the most stripped down, the most naked, but somehow the most affecting. Fage’s vocals are multi-layered as she takes on all the SATB harmonies of the piece while Gosling’s ghostly organs and tape echoes loop around the vocal as effects (as an aside I nearly met the late John Taverner once, but mistook him for a vagrant. True story. Some other time maybe).
This is a lush and degenerate record, full of surprises, never failing to be interesting. For want of a better description, it’s like someone took the vainglorious wreckage of RIchard Burton and Liz Taylor’s marriages and made them the stuff of high opera. It’s every 1960s/70s theme tune you ever loved, and it takes you back to places you remember fondly as a kid, growing up in a world where you where, perhaps, a bit odd, but knew well the off-kilter, weird things you loved.
Long may this partnership run. Magnificent. Fingers crossed for more live dates in 2017.