originally written by Chris McDonald
Most who heard Pagan’s Mind’s previous album, God’s Equation, know that Heavenly Ecstasy is a crucial outing in determining this band’s enduring vitality. After a string of three incredible albums, God’s Equation was the sort of tailspin release from which many successful outfits never recover. Despite some promising traits that carried over from the works that preceded it, God’s Equation was mostly a dull and cheesy affair, and pointed towards some troubling inclinations for the band.
So, after such a contentious outing, Heavenly Ecstasy is more than just another Pagan’s Mind album: It’s also a chance to prove that its predecessor was a fluke and that this once-mighty band is still relevant. Does it live up to the task? The answer is no.
This record is certainly a step forward in some ways from the dull mess that came before it. There are no Bowie covers; the artwork is great; and the electro-industrial elements that were over-used on God’s Equation are greatly toned down, giving Nils K. Rue’s outstanding vocals their proper room to shine. And shine they do. Rue’s vocals are riveting and empowering even five records down the line, and while there are still some nu-metallish/industrial touches peppered throughout the album, Rue’s consistently excellent presence behind the mic makes them much more forgivable. The lyrics are pretty typical nerdy Pagan’s Mind fair, but Rue manages to make even the more chuckle-worthy lines have some impressive emotional weight, and he hits some seriously powerful notes throughout the record’s ten songs.
However, on the instrumental side of things, Heavenly Ecstasy is too thin, too disjointed, and too idle. In the past, Pagan’s Mind has showed a great ear for mixing their uplifting melodic arrangements with some decidedly metal crunch and for offsetting their serene interludes with devastating technical prowess. To that end, there’s definitely some satisfying heft to be found on this record; opener “Eyes of Fire” ends with some intense keyboard/riff interplay, while “In the Aftermath” and “Follow Your Way” brings some crushing Meshuggah-styled clatter to the table. But most of the tracks only showcase one or two of these gripping moments, while the rest of the song is filled out with meandering riffwork and light-hearted “old-school” melodies that are bland and unexciting. Despite some catchy vocal refrains and interesting instrumental dynamics, tracks like “Intermission” and “Live Your Life Like a Dream” are lacking in the depth and ingenious sense of epic flow that was so mind-blowing on albums like Enigmatic: Calling. Once the band busts out a crushing futuristic groove or enticing guitar solo, they typically revert into more passive and simplistic passages that hinder any sense of building momentum.
The biggest culprits in this regard are the riffs; they just aren’t that interesting, and are often quite dull and lazy. While the instrumental segments generally sound good, the guitars take a gigantic backseat whenever the vocals surface, particularly during the choruses. Rather than interact with the singing in an engaging manner, the riffs drop back to a purely rhythmic role; as a result, the vocal hooks themselves suffer because they feel too solitary without a more engaging musical accompaniment. Often the keyboards will attempt to fill in the gaps left by the sparse guitar work (as in “Walk Away In Silence”), but this is only marginally effective, and basically just makes the music sound busier than it actually is.
In addition to the underwhelming riffs, the majority of the songs here are played in the same mid-tempo and with similar straightforward drumbeats. There’s much less of the polyrhythmic intensity and complex arranging that give the songs some edge, in favor of a sparse, accessible approach that feels flat and unenergetic. Closer “Never Walk Alone” exemplifies this trait; following a criminally powdery interlude in “When Angels Unite,” what should be a powerful and climactic finishing song instead becomes an overly-long exercise in the same lax tempos and bare-bones riffage that constitutes the rest of the disc. I’m glad that Pagan’s Mind is embracing their 80’s influences, but couldn’t more effort have been made to give these riffs some bite? The lack of energy and enthusiasm on the musical side of things is too hard of an issue to ignore, particularly in the second half of the disc, and it lessens the impact of the album’s brief excursions into excellence as well.
In many ways, Heavenly Ecstasy could have been exactly the kind of follow-up I wanted to see following my disappointment with God’s Equation. It’s an immediate and undemanding album with some fantastic lead singing that shows a refreshing return to the band’s traditional/progressive metal roots. But with this transition comes an entirely new set of problems. The band has swung too far in the opposite direction this time, relying too much on Nils K. Rue’s vocal work to carry instrumental compositions that fall far short of the outfit’s earlier releases. Heavenly Ecstasy is a sign that Pagan’s Mind can still put out some entertaining music, but it also solidifies the fact that this is a band past its prime, and any hope for a return to its glory days will likely go unanswered.