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Listening Report: Guided By Voices’ Crystal Nuns Cathedral

Mark Smotroff rejoices with another gem from a Dayton’s finest…

For those of you reading this who are not deep Guided By Voices (GBV) fans — or are audiophiles worried about whether this is “yet another lo fi album” from the band*— fear not. Guided By Voices’ new album Crystal Nuns Cathedral is an immediately likable, fine sounding modern rock studio recording by Dayton Ohio’s finest, the latest in a series of excellent studio recordings. Torchbearers of the pure power of rock and roll, the group’s shear output and relentless drive is inspiring, heartwarming and reassuring in these mad times we live in. 

GBV leader/founder Robert Pollard is in great voice here and the band is clearly flying high with all cylinders set to Rock. Crystal Nuns Cathedral is blissfully rich in fat, layered, overdriven amplified electric guitar with a sophisticated nuance that is more progressive leaning than punk rock (more on that in a moment..)

I’ve said this before in prior reviews but it is worth repeating that this current incarnation of GBV may be the best version of the band ever. They are a tightly knit, serious recording and performing unit with the instrumental chops and rock ’n roll fortitude to tackle the quirkiest, punkiest, proggiest and poppiest tunes lead singer/songwriter/founder Robert Pollard’s throws at them.  

These new generation GBV albums are interesting because they — at least from my vantage point — seem to better represent all of the musics that Pollard wants to write. So, the kinds of songs that might have previously ended up on his solo albums — longer, diversified, textured — now seem to sit neatly side by side tracks that are quintessentially GBV-flavored.  Its kind of like the difference between the 1967-68 version of The Who and where they were in 1973-74 around the time of Quadrophenia

For example, Side Two opener “Forced To Sea” reminds me of no less than a track from Pollard’s brilliant Moses On A Snail album and is followed by a vintage Who-flavored “Huddled.” 

Crystal Nuns Cathedral opens with a power rock diRge (with a capital “R” for rawk) called “Eye City” that feels like what might have happened had Black Sabbath taken a trip on The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (cellos! buzzing distorted guitars! searing double harmony lead guitars!). That leads into the 6/8-time rock waltz “Re-Develop” which flows neatly into the lovely “Climbing A Ramp,” which finds lead guitarist (and periodic GBV songwriter) Doug Gillard flexing his musical muscles composing full string arrangements (more cellos!). 

Armed with this material in hand, there is no reason that GBV couldn’t be the opening act for ELO’s next tour.  Just sayin’… 

One of my favorite songs on the album, “Mad River Man,” is a big, moody and epic structure feeling like what might happen if Tommy-era Pete Townshend  wrote a rock opera for Interpol (which could be interesting, actually). 

Check out those background harmonies on the chorus to the title track which closes the album — I only wish that song went on a little longer. It is so good…

Well, I guess I’ll have to just play Crystal Nuns Cathedral again, eh? 

Hey, here’s another thought worth pondering:  GBV have put out so many fine albums in the past two years during the pandemic alone — six as GBV and another as Cub Scout Bowling Pins plus many singles and b-sides — that they could easily do an entire show or three performing nothing but new material.  That is saying a lot for a band organization which has released well over 100 albums in its nearly 40 years in existence. That said, I can’t wait to see GBV live again sometime soon. They are touring now. 

Back to fidelity — and addressing that annoying asterisk * in the opening paragraph — for a group that is thriving indie rock cottage industry,  GBV is doing a fantastic job at ensuring fine sound quality in its releases.  The albums are pressed on high quality standard black vinyl that is quiet and well centered, each album coming in an audiophile-grade plastic lined inner-sleeve. So for those of you who still think that GBV only makes “LoFi” albums like their groundbreaking and brilliant sound collage that is Bee Thousand, you may be in for a surprise.  

Crystal Nuns Cathedral is a clean sounding modern studio release created in several locations across America: Drums were recorded at Magic Door Recording in New Jersey… Mastering was done at West West Side Mastering… and vinyl mastering was driven by Jeff Powell at Take Out Vinyl at the Sam Philips Recording Service down in Memphis, Tennessee. 

You can find Crystal Nuns Cathedral streaming in CD quality on Qobuz (click here), Tidal (click here) and Apple Music (click here) which is fine for mobile use. All sound quite good but the warmer flavor of the vinyl encouraged me to turn up the volume loud.  Plus, Robert Pollard’s beautiful album artwork — some great collages here — make this another album you’ll want to pick up on long playing records. And you know you will sleep better at night knowing that the band benefits more from your purchase than from even the best of the streaming services. 

Crystal Nuns Cathedral is a great GBV album and the best they’ve released thus far this year.  But… it is only March so there may well be more joy to come. 

You should listen!

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