Published on 6th December 2020
Tom Doncourt & Mattias Olsson’s Cathedral
Earlier this year, Mattias Olsson released a beautifully emotional and deeply personal album called Tom & Tiger, inspired in large part by the passing of his friend Tom Doncourt.
Keyboardist Doncourt will be known to many as an integral part of American band Cathedral, and the marvellous 1978 album Stained Glass Stories, a widely praised work which they were unable to follow up until the release of The Bridge in 2007 after a near 30 year hiatus. Certainly a band that did not receive the wider acclaim that it deserved.
After Cathedral, Doncourt released a series of solo albums in his final years, Mattias contributing as the two became close friends. The last of these releases, The Lantern, appeared posthumously, after Doncourt’s death from lung disease in March 2019. In the year leading up to this sad event, Tom and Mattias collaborated on a new work, using the Cathedral name but in a new reworking rather than a re-tread of the band’s original style but clearly in the vein of Cathedral and Olsson’s former band Änglagård. Work continued on and off as time allowed, Olsson describing the process, in a recent interview with Permafrost, as “incredibly relaxed, open and fun with a lot of story sharing, joking and discussions … These conversations and memories are with me forever and have changed the way I hear and see the world”.
Despite the awareness that Tom’s time was likely to be limited, the process proved to be an enjoyable distraction for him, all the pieces written by the pair with lyrics by Doncourt, recorded at their respective studios in New York and Stockholm. After Tom’s death, Mattias was determined to complete the album as a memorial to his friend’s work: “Finishing the album has been a strange and eerie process as the music was created by the two of us during a long, intuitive and wild conversation. And now that dialogue has gone silent.”
Recorded as live as possible, based on improvisation and with little editing or computer input, the music needed to “be unsafe, on the edge of falling apart all the time.” Mattias describes the collaborative process as “finishing each other’s musical sentences”, and you get that feel from listening to the results. There’s a looseness that is very appealing, something that was a key part of the writing and recording process: “Make it weird, funny, loud and honest. Don’t clean it up. Leave ink smudges, out of tune Mellotrons and the odd offbeat Tom hit. Because that is where the real emotions are… hiding and trembling with excitement.”
The finished album contains two long pieces with a selection of shorter vignettes, the result a particularly varied collection that plays to the strengths of both men. As you might expect, it’s swathed in masses of vintage keyboard textures. There are certainly symphonic elements, but that does not tell the whole story and there is plenty of room for Mattias’ iconoclastic experimentation. As Mattias says, “I hear it more as a sonic polaroid of the friendship we shared and the love and respect we had for each other which made us feel free and safe to create, explore and have fun. I feel very proud that with this album there is something physical that you can actually hear and experience from that room in Long Island over and over again.”
The first thing that strikes you is that it sounds great. There are ‘warts and all’ textures, but the sonics are spot on, right from the multi-tracked choral intro to Poppy Seeds, which opens out into an expansive sound of low-key rhythms and massed keyboards with a stately melancholic edge, intricate and delicate, forming a bright lead into the darker Chamber. This was the last piece Tom wrote for the album, his rough sketches sent over to Sweden only two weeks before his death. Mattias and Hampus Nordgren-Hemlin re-recorded Tom’s ideas note for note, replacing samples with real instruments, the idea being “to add as little as possible and amplify what was there as much as possible to retain Tom’s original vision”. With multi-tracked acoustic guitars spread across the soundstage, there is a pastoral Hackett-era Genesis feel to start, changing tack into towering cliffs of Mellotron and then a surprisingly slinky King Crimson groove, led by guitar with massive bass pushing it along, interspersed with lilting harp sections.
The first of the set pieces is #1, dark and brooding Scandinavian high-prog, coloured again by a monster bass riff and huge keyboard parts with choirs and cycling KC guitar figures. Mattias’ drumming is great here, granite and steel pounding where required, a deft lightness of touch elsewhere, airy guitar parts and feathery swirling keys alternating with the return of the thumping bass. This sinister listen is a high point for me, an exhilarating 10 minutes which soars majestically in the final section.
The delicate ringing upright piano of Tower Mews (named for Tom’s studio) offers a sad coda to #1, swelling flute, choral and violin voicings giving a lovely orchestral swell. The electronica of the brief Today features voice samples gamelan and delicate prog before album centrepiece Poppies in a field. The floating vocals set this one apart, woozy melodies giving it a very human quality. It’s haunting and mightily impressive, bass building with layered keys, becoming more dynamic in a spooky mid-section of vocals and sweeping synth strings. A bass-led tribal section adds drive before a dreamlike sequence swells expansively, breaking down into dissonant percussive chaos, rising electrostatic scales transforming into swirling tones. It’s quite something.
Finally, the simple melody of The Last Bridge Organ becomes and evocative crescendo of guitars and keys, quietly evaporating to nothing in a poignant and fitting conclusion.
This a striking album, and as with all of Mattias’ many and varied releases, it’s well worth spending time with. A diverse recording, largely built from sketches and fragments, it hangs together very well. Exhilarating at times, effectively beautiful at others, this is a lasting and well realised tribute to Tom Doncourt, of which Mattias Olsson should be justly proud.
01. Poppy Seeds Intro (0:59)
02. Poppy Seeds (2:05)
03. Chamber (3:36)
04. #1 (10:38)
05. Tower Mews (2:01)
06. Today (1:24)
07. Poppies in a field (12:33)
08. The Last Bridge Organ (2:36)
Total Time – 35:54
Tom Doncourt – Mellotron 400, Chamberlin M1, Moog 15 Modular, Hammond Organ, Grand Piano, Yamaha CS-30, Ondéa, Bird Organ, Wurlitzer Electric piano, Clavioline, Hammond Solovox
Mattias Olsson – Drums, Tuned, Untuned & Detuned Percussion, Electric & Baritone Guitars, Wurlitzer Electric Piano, Turntables, Speak & Read, Vako Orchestron, Optigan, Gizmotron, Chamberlin Rhythmmate
Hampus Nordgren-Hemlin – Electric Bass, Additional Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Fender VI, Jenco & Schiedmayer Celestes, Vako Orchestron, Hohner Bass 2, Hohner Guitaret, Omnichord
Jerry Jones – Electric Sitar
Akaba – Vocals
Stina Hellberg Agback – Harp (track 7)
Hanna Ekström – Violin & Viola (track 7)
Anna Dager – Cello (track 7)
Record Label: Roth Händle Recordings
Country of Origin: U.S.A./Sweden
Date of Release: 10th December 2020