When I consider the legacy of Guided By Voices and their profusion of contributors, I think of a charcuterie board. Seriously, a sloppy yet charming low-fidelity slab of wood adorned with blocks of 8-track tape, spirals of hiss and warble; crisp discs of feedback and bowls of delicately placed distortion from which the lo-fi indie artists of today can peruse.
While this slacker sound that came to define the band’s earlier music was established as a result of economic factors, it’s what ultimately made them into the high-kicking indie rock heroes that they are regarded as today.
Released on March 4, Guided By Voices’ 12-track Crystal Nuns Cathedral is a portrait of the band as they claw their way to a stadium sound, the grandest and tightest they’ve ever appeared. It’s clear from its sound that this album was made with the now-postponed 2022 tour in mind: the monumental volumes of noise, double guitar rhythms, thundering drums and shout-worthy lyrics feel designed for the sonic capabilities of an architecturally enhanced venue.
Beyond just the inaccessibility of high quality music production equipment, GBV’s staple sound originally derived from the breakneck speed at which they cranked out songs. Frontman Robert Pollard was known to stockpile demos and collages of ideas, which would expand into a brief band rehearsal and subsequent recording session. However, replace a studio with their buddy Steve’s garage. This aspect of the band is certainly still evident, considering their three most recent albums were released over the course of a year.
However, this lo-fi ecosystem can only develop so far: amplifiers can only be arranged in so many ways, and dynamic ranges can only be conquered so much.
The apparatus that formed GBV’s indie rock hits also enabled them to obtain the financial means for the bigger, higher quality sound that exists within their latest work. The induction of in-house producer Travis Harrison and overall tightening of the group was a game changer for 2021’s Earth Man Blues, It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them! and especially their most recent record.
On Crystal Nuns Cathedral, major power chord riffs join slick production to create a ladder up which their melodies spiral, as Pollard weaves his poppy hooks through the rungs of massive noise. While consistency eventually crumbles to repetition, their propulsive rhythms thrust each song after the next. The record’s modernized classic rock sound feels like an ode to the genre: a shameless work of genuine appreciation that proves rock does not have to contain a progressive flair to evade a completely uninspired form.
“Eye City” is an impressive opener, with its epic driving beat that snatches you close and whispers into your ear — or rather screams — clues about the rest of the record’s tone. Tediously consistent drums are the matchbox against which the gritty chords strike, creating a captivating slow burn song. It develops into an explosion of power chords that recall their last record, backed by prog-infested drums over a layer of cello strings. Pollard’s reverb drenched vocals dunk you into the abrasive atmosphere of “Eye City-” it feels almost as though he’s dragging you along on his unwillful journey through a city gone to shit.
This is followed by the positively medieval “Re-Develop” with its droning background guitar sandwiched snugly between Kevin March’s driving drum beats and riffs that can only be described as jaunty.
Next song, “Climbing a Ramp,” is another slow burn that spirals upwards in pitch. The winding melodies are bolstered by grandiose strings, a musical motif that greatly benefits this project overall. These cello strings heard both here and on “Eye City” provide some diversity in arrangement that allows the album to boast its technical growth since some previous works.
“Never Mind the List” is the gloriously mid-tempo centerpiece of Crystal Nuns Cathedral. Its shamelessly traditional rock and roll sound demands to be performed in an arena. However, around this song is when I started to conclude that at this point Crustal Nuns Cathedral will simply be a classic rock record. I say this in all attempts to avoid an equation with the typical 60s and 70s rock and roll acts, but rather to truly drive home the sheer noise and simplicity of the chords being hammered out on this record. While this begins as a charming display of appreciation for the genre, “Never Mind the List’s” rhythmic monotony is the point at which it all begins to collapse into a litany of power chords and turbulent energy.
The album’s sixth track “Come North Together” feels like heart palpitations: moments of sparse instrumentation and driving guitar riffs weave amongst tight-tempo, chord-heavy verses. The variety in tempo here is enough to redeem the first half of the album from the usual trappings of classic rock, with its slightly jangly sound and demonstration of Pollard’s pop songwriting skills. The song’s driving power allows the group to put their technical growth on full display, as it’s heavily reminiscent of their earlier works, but with a much tighter flow.
Once you arrive at “Forced to Sea,” the album’s repetitive nature reappears, along with an eerie guitar rhythm that’s a lighthouse bulb swinging across a dark sea. Pollard sings, “Chasing the seahorse around / Making it hard to sustain,” lyrics which resonate more and more as an overbearing sensation gradually begins to materialize out of the high tempo, high energy tone.
Guided By Voices have certainly never been revered for their coherency amongst albums. However, with Crystal Nuns Cathedral they supply 12 pieces of steady rock with power pop sensibilities: pieces that, while well-carved, lack enough experimentation to maintain interest. This is disappointing, especially considering their utterly daunting forty-four album discography in which they play with jangle pop on Bee Thousand, psychedelic lo-fi tension on Under The Bushes Under The Stars, and dark experimentation on Devil Between My Toes. Simply the fact that GBV churned out so many diverse and successful albums is a testament to their ability to get in the studio and play around, producing something much more fun and interesting than what is exhibited here.
The production work of Travis Harrison is a main factor at play in maintaining some freshness throughout Crystal Nuns Cathedral. Harrison’s work with The Boredoms and Built to Spill indicates his ear for a tight sound, which helps prevent the collapse of GBV’s steel walls of guitar that were so meticulously crafted at the beginning of the record. Harrison expertly bridges the domineering guitar with Pollard’s precise vocal melodies and lyrical structures, providing the cinematic feel that occasionally bursts through the album’s repetition.
Guided by Voices’ Crystal Nuns Cathedral certainly swallows you into its fist-pumping power. With all of the album’s captivating intensity, the energy levels are like a hot cup of coffee in the morning- or a hot cup of coffee to the face. Their consistent jabs at stadium rock allow for some great moments of sturdy drumming and lively guitar work that prevents any song from feeling like filler, despite the album’s repetition.
At its best, the record provides some remarkable moments, with occasionally exciting string arrangements and beautifully united harmonies. At its worst, the band uncharacteristically caves into a highly monotonous sound. If nothing else, Crystal Nuns Cathedral delivers a project that refreshingly defies not only the band’s own lo-fi sensibilities, but also the climate of our modern world- it’s a record that is solid and reliable throughout.