FROM A DUSTY SHELF…
Specific interpretations of “the underground” in relation to metal can lead down any number of passageways. For many, the term represents little more than a categorization for virtually any band not big enough to grace the cover of Kerrang! For others, it’s a tag synonymous with those who champion the pure nature of metal in virtue of integrity, diligence and devotion with little or no regard for widespread acclaim. My preferred slant, as is likely the case for 99% of the Last Rites community, is the latter, but I would add a motion to consider the entire concept through a similar sort of lens as Neil Gaiman’s alternative London, or “London Below.”
The underground looks similar to the real world, but the shadows can be more treacherous, the occupants can be…otherworldly, and if you dabble in any given level of heavy metal’s brand of morbid alchemy, you are aware of the underground’s unpredictable presence and often chaotic thoroughfare. How well you learn the ins-and-outs and how best to navigate the most revered corners and wildernesses depends on how rooted your dedication happens to be; transients simply get a taste, true dwellers reap the rewards of the Solstices, Witchfyndes, Black Holes, Brocas Helms, Tomb Molds, Slough Fegs, et al that display(ed) all the panache and capacity of the more prominent acts, but remain(ed) entrenched in the underground’s familiar niches for reasons as deep and as varied as any sound mind could fathom.
England’s Pagan Altar absolutely typified the underground. If they aren’t crowned outright Kings by virtue of having a lamentably modest output over 20 “active” years since 1978, they are unquestionably esteemed Princes based on the merit of the material that managed to see the light, and due to the level of conviction attached to every facet of the band: the music, the lyrics, and the live performance.
Pagan Altar were doom before we knew to call it doom, but like their fellow countrymen Witchfinder General, they rode the Sabbath wave and evolved directly alongside the burgeoning NWOBHM scene of the late 70s and very early 80s. This resulted in an approach that emphasized a raw but fiercely melodic sound that was frequently self-produced (by necessity) and embraced taboo themes centered around fantasy and the occult. Pagan Altar in particular were masters of pushing the envelope in terms of grim atmosphere, opting to forgo synchronized kicks in bellbottoms or leather onesies in favor of floating from eerily lit cemetery mist in hooded robes and surrounding themselves in all manner of skulls, candles and inverted crosses, all under the watchful eye of their now-familiar trademark sorcerer.
But that style – that frightful, crawly heavy rock that was largely defined by the vital energy shared between founding members Terry (vocals) and Alan (guitar) Jones (also father and son) – kept Pagan Altar perpetually underground and obscure even within the underground, because slow & doomed was never the apple of the established record label’s eye, particularly when the bigger names pushed speed and energy to younger and younger crowds. So in 1985, Pagan Altar hung up their robes with nothing but a single self-released cassette demo under their belts, and the members went on to (ostensibly) less esoteric pursuits.
One of the beauties of the underground, however, is how it manages to offset its inherent aloofness by never letting anything that’s ever holed up behind its walls to completely fade away. Bootlegs of that early demo surfaced, pretentious record collectors jacked up the price, and thanks to all the unforeseen and fresh curiosity, Sire Terry and Heir Alan decided to breathe new life into the beast, which resulted in the first official release of the Pagan Altar demo under the fresh title Volume 1 in 1998.
And there was much rejoicing.
The even better news, however, came with the understanding that this renewed interest in the band’s earliest material meant people probably wanted more, so Pagan Altar officially reformed in 2004, dusted off stacks of tunes that were merely put to paper or already recorded in Pagan Studio between ’77 and ’84 and subsequently produced 2004’s superb Lords of Hypocrisy and 2006’s equally thrilling Mythical & Magical.
And there was even more rejoicing.
The Pagan Altar that should have gotten its due in the early 80s was finally gaining traction 25 years later, and CD and LP and digital mediums were furnished through multiple underground avenues that included Oracle Records, The Miskatonic Foundation, Buried by Time and Dust Records, Cruz del Sur, I Hate, Sentinel and Shadow Kingdom Records to help fill demand. Live shows ensued, including a knock-out set at Maryland Deathfest, and tunes written between 2004 and 2005 were harvested and girded for a new recording, Never Quite Dead, slated for release in 2014. Setbacks occurred, which was certainly nothing new for a band that spent the better part of 30 years facing adversity, and then…tragedy…
NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN…
Terry Jones passed away on May 15th, 2015, after a year spent fighting cancer. The news delivered a leveling blow to fans old and new alike, and after a period of mourning, Alan revisited Never Quite Dead and decided it needed one last series of brushstrokes before being something that suitably represented the significance behind its release. He brought in bassist Diccon Harper and drummer Andy Green, both of whom spent time with the band ten years ago, retitled the work The Room of Shadows, and left it in the capable hands of Temple of Mystery Records and Adam Burke for the (amazing) cover artwork. The resulting swan song is fittingly superb and bittersweet – a triumph all around, save for the dire event leading up to its delivery.
Many of the ideas for the album came down the chute during the recording of Mythical & Magical over a decade ago, so it should come as no surprise to discover that The Room of Shadows follows closely in its predecessor’s footsteps, just as that record held firmly to the roots laid down by the band 25 years prior. In other words, you can almost see the dust rising from the pages as these stories unfurl, and those who have never experienced Pagan Altar could very well walk away from an initial encounter muttering sentiments along the lines of “Sounds like something Vincent Price would listen to while polishing off a twelver of Schlitz in the garage.”
One person’s “old-fashioned” is another devotee’s “timeless,” I suppose. Regardless, Pagan Altar in 2017 sounds like Pagan Altar in 1982, and those who’ve been preparing for this release for years expect and absolutely rejoice in that knowledge.
Release date: August 24th, 2017. Label: Temple Of Mystery Records.
The dominant mood is appropriately grim and funereal, perhaps uncannily so, but in natural PA fashion, even the album’s doomiest struts – opener “Rising of the Dead,” “Dance of the Vampires” and the shadowy 10-minute “The Ripper” – all eventually tromp out bursts of raw energy fueled to capacity through stacks of fiery leads. Alan Jones absolutely slays on the record – multiple times on every tune, save for the short and quiet closer – and at times one can’t help but wonder if some insoluble, mystical energy had a hand in his fretwork. Simple knack, most would affirm, but probably the most relevant memorial this particular son could give a father.
The mood lifts a pinch when the heavy rock side of the band’s face shifts further into the light – the bouncing trot of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” for example, and the way “Danse Macabre” rocks in an absolutely classic fashion by bringing to mind a much darker translation of Kansas, had that band waived the organs and somehow chose to grimly serenade about shimmying corpses.
The true highlight, however, lands with the album’s title track, which, apart from being a rather ideal embodiment of all the band’s unique features, also represents one of the finer songs Pagan Altar has recorded in years. The way that slow kick drum thumps a weighty lifeblood alongside Terry’s warm (nasally, but comforting) storyteller’s voice and Alan’s delicate fretwork, and the manner in which that doomy lick lifts off at 2:25 into its soaring centerpiece – this is precisely the reason many of us hold the band in such high regard.
(Supplemental bonus: the origin of that particular track’s story is based on a narrative provided by close friend of the band, Albert Bell, who happens to play in an equally underground (and epic) doom band Forsaken.)
It would be patently absurd to expect devotees of Pagan Altar to separate the circumstances behind this record from the laurels they’re destined to heap upon it, and really, that’s not something that warrants much grumbling; this will be the final record from the band, and this will be the last time fans hear that unique minstrel’s voice delivering something they’ve not yet explored. But pull The Room of Shadows from the shelf and drop it in the lap of most any person who considers themselves a fan of heavy rock that commemorates and restores yesteryears and that person will absolutely find plenty to revel in. This is timeless music that relates cautionary tales and elements of the occult and humanity’s flaws around a perfect blend of doom and folk and roaring rock, and it’s all delivered by a band that was responsible for helping shape sub-genres that have since become ingrained throughout heavy metal. In other words, vital marrow for old and new bones alike, and an exceedingly appropriate way to close the book on one of the genre’s most genuine and remarkable underground acts.
On September 9th, 2017, Alan Jones, Diccon Harper, Andy Green and a selection of session members will deliver a final performance at the Wings of Metal festival in Montreal under the name Time Lord. There’s little doubt that the event will be just as unforgettable as the man who will be commemorated that night.
Rest in peace, Terry Jones. And Godspeed, Pagan Altar.