Death metal had been well established for years by the early 90s. The genre was rapidly becoming an arms race of technicality with many bands attempting to use studio trickery to make records far beyond their musical ability in attempt to compete with their best contemporaries, e.g. Morbid Angel. Many brought in hired shredder studio musicians like James Murphy with drum tracks copy and pasted together onto tape from drum samples and “played” live with triggers activating those same pre-recorded samples at the slightest touch. At the same time, good grindcore bands were turning into second-rate death metal ones or worse, lame “melodic hardcore” which turned hardcore punk aesthetics into slit your wrists whine pop.
Lee Dorrian, vocalist of Napalm Death on the b-side of Scum and From Enslavement to Obliteration, was disgusted by Napalm Death writing material incorporating the worst, bouncy hit people aspects of death metal in an attempt to reach a wider audience and quit the band in 1989. He soon formed Cathedral with Gaz Jennings and Mark Griffiths over a shared love of older heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath, Candlemass, and Witchfinder General. Demos and an album on Dorrian’s old label Earache quickly followed.
Forest of Equilibrium‘s riffs were in a minimalist heavy metal style similar to the hardcore-influenced Celtic Frost but with the influence and nihilistic aesthetic of early Black Sabbath’s malcontent with post-war occidental neuroticism and hippie idiocy. Unlike the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Cathedral’s riffing wasn’t static: powerchord rooted heavy metal riffs proceeded around a series of progressing tonal centers as in of early death metal such as Slayer while leads and melodic fills consisting of chopped up progressing, bluesy melodies like a more mournful Motorhead crawling forward. What separated Cathedral from the black and death metal other than the tempo and riffing was a reliance upon epic song structures similar to more coherent 1970s progressive rock bands such as King Crimson and Yes rather than riff mazes. Cathedral also adopted those bands appropriating elements of English folk music which Black Sabbath had experimented with as intros and interludes.
Cathedral chose to show an atmosphere of overwhelming dread of certain death and the inherent purposelessness of human life rather than the “overwhelming power” of death metal. Forest of Equilibirum‘s atmosphere gives impressions of a medieval village slowly dying off family by family as the Black Death spares neither serf nor lord. A cough meant certain death spread by the grind of the dawn to dusk toil of pre-modern human existence. The compositions on Forest of Equilibrium constantly crawl forward, never stopping to thrash about, echoing the dance of death enveloping all in a destructive cosmic miasma of humanity’s eventual demise.
Cathedral’s career peaked on Forest of Equilibrium and catastrophically flushed itself down artistically just like most bands with who have any worthwhile releases. Having made their musical points, Cathedral were briefly signed to a major label hoping to rehash 70s rock for a grunge audience as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Black Crows, and Aerosmith were doing at the time. The Ethereal Mirror threw everything from Deep Purple to disco at the wall and nothing stuck. The Carnival Bizarre and later albums tried to unsuccessfully imitate their influences but Cathedral never again attempted to write metal compositions or shed the radio pandering, probably for fear of alienating the small stoner fan base attained through late night MTV exposure.