News reports regarding Tony Iommi’s health, combined with the recent tragic losses of Mark Reale (Riot) and Ronnie Montrose, have set me to thinking about the whole notion of ‘guitar gods’ lately. There’s an end to the road, clearly – a time when even our beloved fiery fret-ignitors will either hang it up or be plucked from the game too soon. But it’s not the consideration of ‘loss and mortality’ I’m trying to pinpoint here. It’s the fact that a sizable portion of metal receiving national attention today seems to sweep the shredder predilections of yore under the rug in favor of exaggerating descriptors such as ‘brutal,’ ‘punishing’ and ‘suffocating.’ So who’s in charge of the torch? Sure, there’s no shortage of bands that (thankfully) keep the melodic flame burning, but I’m talking about guitar gods here, people: The axe-wielders who carry albums and inspire Bic light-shows and contact-highs at your local venues.
Well, halle-Iommi-lujah for doom metal, I say. For within these walls, the spirit of the classic shredder can still fly fiery and free, and Pale Divine‘s Greg Diener, whether you’re familiar with him or not, stands amidst a handful of other current notables with potential for eventual ascension to the hallowed halls of anointed shredders. I should have noticed it ten years ago, but it took a particularly sublime moment in “(I Alone) the Traveller” from 2007’s Cemetery Earth to fully open my eyes. The guy’s lead guitar work easily lends as much of a voice to the crux Pale Divine sound as his actual voice, which, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention, is umpteen miles away from balls in its own right. Anyway, it was precisely that overpowering moment of ‘ripper clarity’ that inspired a perfect score from yours truly for Cemetery Earth — a rating I still stand by today because of how it managed to swirl into my life and mark one of those rare instances where you realize a missing piece of the puzzle just found a snug fit.
With the release of album number four, Painted Windows Black, we’re re-introduced to much of what made Cemetery Earth so compelling. Diener’s fretwork takes an early spotlight as things open with the instrumental “Nocturne Dementia,” a tune that winds listeners on a surprisingly brisk ride during its opening minutes before braking half-way with a perfectly executed transition into the smooth, smokey doom that anchors the band to the classic “Maryland” sound. And from this point on, Diener rips through a mind-boggling amount of leads for an hour+. The closest comparison I can think to make is Victor Griffin (Place of Skulls, Pentagram, Death Row), which should be recognized as the towering compliment it’s intended to be. Both men occupy a realm where the concept of a ‘strict formula’ lays beaten to the dirt in favor of a soulful, improvisational vibe that sounds as if it naturally taps directly into the heart.
“Black Coven” and the excellent “The Prophet” sound closest to the Cemetery Earth course because they stir in a wider range of faster tempo’d fist-pumping heavy metal reinforced by co-founder Darin McCloskey’s rumbling rhythm. And the exceptional “Angel of Mercy” stands as the most likely candidate for this installment’s ‘”(I Alone) the Traveller”-holy-shit-moment’ because it perfectly weaves together all of Pale Divine‘s strongest elements with the album’s most engaging chorus.
The biggest shift in overall sound (beyond its even stronger production) has to do with the fact that a significant portion of the new material floats very comfortably at a sloooow pace. (And stretched: Five of the eight tunes clock in at over 9-minutes.) “End of Days” pushes a relaxed, nearly breezy vibe right from the gate that feels a bit like Revelation circa Release, but its easiness is offset by some of the most emotive and animated singing on the record. The 11.5-minute “The Desolate” continues the casual advance, but does so with a much darker demeanor that could probably benefit from a tighter leash on the improvisational wandering in its second half. And “Shadow Soul (The Awakening)” explores an entirely new terrain with its curiously playful, jazzy intervals that, admittedly, still sounds a little odd nuzzled alongside the rest of the tune’s heavy stance.
The self-titled closer ties up the record beautifully with a first half that’s wrought with all the noodling goodies and anguish we’ve come to love about this band, and eventually hammers the album home with a beautifully smooth, slow and heavy doom stomp that stirs in multiple layers of Diener solos for the closing 4-minutes.
As is often the case, scoring a release has proven to be more difficult than writing about it. Outside of a need for some trimming here and there–mostly in the latter half of the album–I wouldn’t say I like Painted Windows Black any less than I did Cemetery Earth, but you obviously can’t duplicate a ‘wow moment’ similar to the one that detonated my ears back in 2007. In the end, I’d simply call this recorda great follow-up to a superb album and leave the score-squabbling to the number nerds.
If you’re the type who likes classic doom that’s slow, emotional and packed to the rafters with leads, you should definitely step up and give Pale Divine your attention. And here’s to hoping the band can finally nail down a permanent bass player to increase the likelihood of hearing this material just as nature truly intended: from a stage at high volume where those leads can freely rip through the night.