To say that Paradise Lost has been on an upward trajectory since the beginning of the current millennium is a bit of an understatement. The climb back to greatness was gradual, however, with each album bringing back a bit of the band’s former metal heft, and a bit of their songwriting nuance. By the time of 2012’s Tragic Idol, they had completely shed the Depeche Mode-isms and rediscovered their full talents. It was their heaviest album since Icon and had hooks and vocal melodies that rivaled Draconian Times. Paradise Lost was back.
Label: Nuclear Blast Records.
It is with a bit of sarcastic sadness, then, that I must report that Medusa is where Paradise Lost’s re-upward trajectory stops. This new album probably isn’t quite as good as Tragic or Plague, but it’s hardly a letdown. At best, Medusa is a lateral move, one that finds Paradise Lost comfortably resting on top of their second career plateau. Despite what Gregor Mackintosh has been saying about it being a full album of “Beneath Broken Earth,” this isn’t nonstop sorrow; there are actually a lot of passages that flat rock in a doom/death’n’roll way. The album is, however, extremely heavy, with a ludicrously thick production that still finds space to breathe. It is also really great, with just a couple naggy caveats that most of you will never think about because you aren’t an insane human who hates fun.
On the surface, Medusa sounds like a continuation or expansion of Plague’s harsher doom/deathness. Hefty opener “Fearless Sky,” lengthy for the band at well over eight minutes, employs their full set of tricks: chunky, slow riffs, Holmes’ ever-improving growls and screams, and Mackintosh’s sublime, atmosphere-expanding lead work. A touch of the band’s pop sensibilities comes through as the main passages include a kind of crawling catchiness while the rhythms of the clean vocals mirror those of the harsh, and the song even features a boogie-Sabbath section that seems to exist purely to show off the thick treatment of Stephen Edmondson’s bass.
Throughout the album, little changes between songs really aid the proceedings. “God of Ancients” at times features more of that doom/death boogie, but also gets downright intimidating during a ride cymbal-driven bridge. “The Longest Winter” is primarily carried by both Holmes’ baritone and a particularly textured, floating lead guitar sound, making the song earn its return to growls. Closer “Until the Grave” is as sorrowful as the album gets, instantly feeling like a natural followup to The Plague Within’s wonderful “Return to the Sun.”
The album’s one flaw might actually be that Paradise Lost is trying too hard to fit in their newly re-discovered extremeness. Shorter tracks such as “Beyond the Gallows” feel a tad truncated as if they rely purely on heft for success, and really could have used another minute or two for said heft to spread out. Elsewhere are a few moments when Holmes’ normal singing voice(s) might’ve fit a bit better than his growls. It’s really a testament to the band’s songwriting talents that the harsh vocals work great 90 percent of the time despite the band rarely playing music that would typically justify such an approach. Still, a song like “Blood and Chaos,” which is largely just a straightforward rocker, would feel a touch more natural with more cleans and fewer growls.
(Aside: Replacing any of the “lesser” songs with bonus track “Symbolic Virtue” would have been an instant boost. (Aside aside: Make sure you get a copy with “Symbolic Virtue”; it rules.))
If anything, Paradise Lost’s return to extremity has only enhanced how great they were and are when employing all tools at their disposal, especially their gothic tones. Nowhere is this clearer than on the album’s masterful title track. The pairing of a chilling clean vocal line with an unexpectedly uplifting lead guitar melody is perhaps the album’s finest moment, and only sticks with the listener as the song moves naturally through various moods. The song is a clinic in understated songcraft and performance, and an instant Paradise Lost classic.
Time will tell how the lesser-but-still-quite-good tracks on Medusa sink into the subconscious. After all, these songs would be highlights on pretty good albums like In Requiem, and only seem like filler in comparison to Medusa’s finest moments, which can stand strongly next to anything the band has ever done.
In the end, once every filthily fat riff has faded, every haggard growl has settled, and every beautiful lead drifted into the ether, it’s clear that Paradise Lost has crafted yet another mostly monster album that defies aging as much as it feels like a product of it. Medusa is massively heavy, as oddly catchy as it is dark and harrowing, and most importantly, extremely well written. Even with the above nitpicks, this is pretty much exactly what folks want out of Paradise Lost in 2017: a continuation of rediscovered excellence.