“Sad songs say so much.” — ancient Eltonese proverb.
WHY SO GLUM, CHUM?
It’s said that art mirrors life, so then it follows that art is empty and largely meaningless without emotion, and then further, that the most memorable instances of both life and art are those imbued with the strongest emotions: our biggest loves, our hardest heartbreaks, our highest highs and deepest lows. And for all the great inspirations that love has brought unto us, be it sonnets or symphonies or “Something,” there’s still something a little silly about being in love. It’s an all-encompassing, truly extreme emotion, but even then, love is just so… hokey.
But sadness, on the other hand… Well, sadness is something else entirely. For one thing, it’s universal: Show me someone who hasn’t been sad, and I’ll show you an android. Existence is suffering, say the Buddhists, and they’re correct. Every day brings a new struggle, a new heartache, and every day takes away seconds and minutes and hours as we all spiral eternally inward to our deaths.
So what’s there to be sad about? Everything. Within sadness, there’s the entirety of human existence, everything you have ever done and everything you will ever do. Think about the happiest you’ve ever been—or more accurately, the least sad—and then realize that, at some point, you will never again be that happy, that at best you just try to recapture it until your eventual demise. Think about all the things you love, and then remember that, one day, they will all be gone. It’s inevitable. It’s existence. That’s life, they say, and it truly isn’t fair.
YOU’D BE PRETTIER IF YOU SMILED MORE
And yet, that is Life, and that’s the lot we’re given, and there’s really no other option but to grin and bear it. In our sadness, in our eternal suffering, there’s still beauty, in a sonnet or in a symphony or in “Something.” And then, in that beauty, in those moments of our least sadness, there’s triumph—we may never fully beat the beast, but in those moments, we find within ourselves the drive that forces us to lift our heads and face the Great Sadness and say, “Get thy mopey ass behind me, Morrissey, and let’s get on with living as best we can, for I know the time is short.” Maybe it’s a temporary reprieve, but then again, all things are temporary, after all. All we can do is occasionally laugh to keep from perpetually crying.
So then what of this beauty that we steal from sadness? It’s fleeting, but it’s powerful. In this sprawling beautiful mess we call heavy metal, no band knows the power of sadness more than Paradise Lost. No band is better at capturing both the dreary and world-beaten downs and the triumphant soar of the upswings, the balance of dark and light that comes from minor-key melodies and crashing chords against the irresistible uplifting chorus, from gothic melodrama and arena-scaled hook.
Come with us then, dear reader, to find the beauty in despair… [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
EMBERS FIRE[Icon, 1993]
The start of “Embers Fire” – and as such, the start of Icon as a whole – begins as Paradise Lost fans up to that point had come to expect: slow, hugely powerful, and foreboding. That familiarity would not last long. When the verse hits, it isn’t just clear that the band had taken another step in their constant evolution, but that their two most key members were beginning to plateau in both skill and confidence.
If you’ve heard the song, you know the moment. It’s that vocal line from Nick Holmes, all gruff growl-singing and harrowing roar, and that guitar hook from Gregor Mackintosh, answering Holmes with a doomy klaxon to create a masterful bit of call-and-response songwriting. The passage is repeated throughout, never really changing but seeming to grow in emotional weight and authority with each repetition. The rest of the song, from the release of the chorus to the smooth catharsis of the Gregor solo, both elevates and is elevated by that singular, magical, absolutely gargantuan main motif.
The song is also a turning point. The “gothic” vibes had obviously been part of Paradise Lost before this, but “Embers Fire” is the moment when the band became fully dedicated to the sound, helping to shape it the way they had shaped doom/death not even three years prior. But taken independent of what this song meant for this album, band, and scene, “Embers Fire” is just about as good as slow heavy metal can get. [ZACH DUVALL]
FEAR OF IMPENDING HELL[Tragic Idol, 2012]
I have our dear and often pesky friend nostalgia to thank for ensuring Lost Paradise and Draconian Times remain permanently perched at the top of my personal Paradise Lost totem. However, there have been stretches over the years where I suddenly realize Tragic Idol represents the band’s best overall work, because the blueprint here is very similar to Draconian Times and adds the benefit of years spent honing their craft plus a more robust production to the payoff. Accordingly, the thought of picking a single best song is enough to make the head spin.
“Fear of Impending Hell” ultimately wins the fight, though, because it provides all the things we’ve come to expect from Paradise Lost—great riffs, that signature PL moodiness, and insanely memorable hooks—and it does so with more dramatic effect compared to any other song on the record. The way that smoky, dreamy outset gives way to a perfectly wistful Mackintosh lead that promptly swirls into one of the most infectious Nick Holmes lyrics EVER is utterly impeccable, and we’re not even a quarter of the way through the song yet. The lead that follows is flawless, the transition into the quiet stretch is seamless, and absolutely everything about the full picture screams “this is the point in the film where the protagonist wanders the park alone and miserable, and then they’re struck with the sudden and grim realization that they’re better off alone and with a fresh start”… All in black and white… With cold rain threatening… And they might’ve left the burner on in the kitchen… And an impending Hell looms larger than life… [CAPTAIN]
As mission statements go, they don’t come much finer than “Gothic,” the first song on Paradise Lost’s classic-to-end-all-classics second album of the same name. Truly, right out of the gate those first four measures lay it all down, and in one brilliant sub-five-minute sweep the song points the way forward from the grisly triumph of the debut and onto the increasingly streamlined but no less powerful triad of albums to follow. Gothic is perhaps the most unique album in PL’s catalog, in no large part because it manages to sound both transitional AND definitively itself at the very same time. Those chiming clean guitar tones almost evoke the melancholy grandeur of the Cure, and Gregor Mackintosh’s mid-song solo is a magnificent display of restraint and timing. Is it slightly awkward how the string section ascends and abuts directly into a reprise of the earlier bridge (albeit without Sarah Marrion’s voice)? Friend, this was 1991; anything was possible and everything was necessary in extreme metal. “Gothic” is a window to an impossibly wider world that Paradise Lost ushered in, conquered, and then sidestepped. Bask in it. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
BENEATH BROKEN EARTH[The Plague Within, 2015]
Paradise Lost’s career arc is a concave parabola. They started with five stellar records, each markedly different than the last, moving from death / doom to goth-metal to goth, and then they descended into what is undoubtedly their weakest era (though it remains underrated) as an electro-tinged rock band. Coming out of the other side of that era, they began a systematic upswing back to their earlier heights, easing closer to heavier with each subsequent killer record. By the time of 2015’s The Plague Within, they were fully firing back on all cylinders, and on that record stands this track, the band’s heaviest moment and an absolutely crushing example of all things great about death and doom in perfect balance.
Trudging forth with a world-shattering riff, the whole of “Beneath Broken Earth” moves with a steamroller’s measured pace, in no hurry to crush anything and everything in its path. Holmes’ recently rediscovered death growl snarls away atop it, and Adrian Erlandsson manages to push the whole thing forward with remarkable energy, given the snail-worthy pacing. Somehow, Paradise Lost makes six minutes of 26bpm seem downtrodden and uplifting at once. Hail to nothingness, indeed… [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
FEARLESS SKY[Medusa, 2017]
Paradise Lost absolutely ROCKS at opening tracks. By their fifteenth album, Medusa, that should be quite clear. It was a difficult exercise voting for Devil’s Dozen tracks and not simply listing most (twelve) of their opening tracks (or their title tracks, even).
That should clue you in to just how great “Fearless Sky” is. In a list where we tried to intentionally avoid opening tracks dominating the list, we couldn’t allow this one to be denied. It is, as the children say, “an absolute beast.” Doom, melody, and deadly heaviness combine to make this track a prime example of just how absolutely great Paradise Lost can often be. The opening organ is a lovely touch that helps retain the band’s indelible gothic vibe. The crushed velvet and lace move aside only when the melodic death metal leads overlay with the death/doom chord progression, combining in something of a pressure cooker to produce what is undeniably a sound belonging to only one band. Throaty vocals bubble forth, toying with nearly clean guitar melodies that weave themselves surreptitiously around the thick main body of the composition. Characteristically, this all gives way to baritone clean vocals that are infectious, moody, and hypnotizing.
“Fearless Sky” is a song to be heard with eyes closed, your mind envisioning a darkened landscape adorned with ghouls of varying degrees of horror. Let the neck muscles rock the skull into a rhythm, and let your mouth open and spill forth in harmony with Mr. Holmes as your fingers loosely dance and bob along with Mr. Mackintosh. Paradise Lost is the Mount Rushmore of death / doom. [MANNY-O-WAR]
HALLOWED LAND[Draconian Times, 1995]
With their death metal roots now a distant four years and several thousand miles in the rearview mirror, Paradise Lost spent 1995 shirking questions pertaining to “selling out for a more commercial sound” in favor of deep treasure baths and a five-star resort life in a place like Barbados, thanks to sales from album number five, Draconian Times.*
*Okay, maybe coin showers and three-star motels in and around Piccadilly Circus.
Obvious truth: the writing was on the wall long before Draconian Times regarding PL’s commerciality, but this was the record that truly cemented the band as bigwigs with the sort of songwriting chops that coulda shoulda woulda landed them closer to the radio if they’d only softened the blow a wee bit more. Hey, if Metallica could do it…
Take a song like “Hallowed Land”—arguably the most powerful cut amongst a great many grade-A Draconian choices. Swap out the harder riffs for some deep beats and a strong synthesizer influence and you’ve got an ideal upbeat hit for Depeche Mode’s Ultra; there’s a similar sort of charming and forlorn flare in the way Gregor Mackintosh and Andrew Holdsworth (keyboards) colored the edges here that’s analogous to Martin Gore’s methods for making a colossal tune like “It’s No Good” impossible to skip over.
Little did we know, Draconian Times was precisely the stepping stone necessary for the band’s trip into true electronic rock two years later. But hey, most metal fans weren’t quite ready to talk about Depeche Mode and Paradise Lost in the same breath back in 1995. And even though Paradise Lost’s foray into electro new wave goth synth delivered some (smaller) success and a scattering of new fans, a song like “Hallowed Land” stands as a stark reminder that Paradise Lost maybe coulda shoulda woulda gotten even bigger had they stuck to straight-up guitar rock, because when they were good at that, they were really great. [CAPTAIN]
PITY THE SADNESS[Shades Of God, 1992]
Snug between the twin monsters of Gothic and Icon, Shades Of God is a transitional record for our doomy gloomy heroes, but it also falls as one of my favorites of the band’s varied catalog. This was the record that brought me fully into the Paradise Lost fold, all those many moons ago, one I would slip into my crappy yellow Walkman and sink slowly into, lost within Gregor’s guitar melodies and Nick Holmes’ pervasive sadness.
And of course, “sadness” is a concept that’s virtually synonymous with Paradise Lost, at least on the musical front, and as mentioned, no band has as great a skill at balancing that sadness against some triumphantly engaging music. “Pity The Sadness” itself is an uptempo number, by any standard but especially by Paradise Lost’s, though it does make certain to intersperse some half-time sections to amplify its still-palpable misery. Bassist Stephen Edmondson gets a chance to shine in the intro, gliding downward beneath hanging chords, and then the song proper kicks in with a forward drive and an instant hook in the beautifully gothic woe of “Sadness lives after we die…”
So, yes, sadness there is, but there’s no need for pity. In fact, here as with all Paradise Lost, there’s that triumph, that beauty, that light in the perpetual gloom… [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
Gothic was a lot of things. It was one of the first true classics in doom/death; it hinted at the direction the band would later take (it’s right there in the title); and it was also a sign that Paradise Lost would not be sitting still at about any point in their career.
But more than that, Gothic was EVIL. The combination of colossal heft, an almost rickety sound – particularly in the lead guitars – and the raw, perfectly produced growl of Nick Holmes created a sound that was as purely demonic as about anything in metal at the time. And nary a tune on the record got down with the evil quite like “Rapture.” The almost serene (but no less heavy) opening bars act as a bit of a deke, because once Holmes screams out “In agony-AH, we are now!!!” you know that this tunes means Beelzelbusiness. The key stretch starts at about 2:50. Some slow leads combine with one of the nastiest screams of Holmes’ career only to be followed by a muddy trudge-wallow, from which a particularly twisted and demented Mackintosh lead emerges in extremely methodic fashion.
It’s nasty, mean stuff, but like the rest of the album, it never forgets how to rock. Release the weight of sin, indeed. [ZACH DUVALL]
SAY JUST WORDS[One Second, 1997]
The rather rude way to put it is that if anyone was shocked at the turn Paradise Lost’s music took on One Second, it’s likely they hadn’t been paying particularly close attention. Although the overt trappings of synthpop that characterize the album – although in a way more closely resembling a more goth-leaning Depeche Mode or slightly more mainstream Sisters of Mercy – seem a sharp digression at first, instead the album is something of a culmination of the band’s trajectory across Icon and (particularly) Draconian Times towards the platonic ideal of classic metal signifiers transformed into a perfect modern sheen of goth rock earworms. “Say Just Words” is, therefore, the most irresistible and unimpeachable pop single of Paradise Lost’s career. The opening piano line is a bulletproof hook, the verses riff thickly in a lecherous boogie, and Nick Holmes’s downward stretching range on “…say just words to me” (while also recalling Therion’s “Nightside of Eden”) is a delirious counterpoint to that ascending piano hook. If you prefer Paradise Lost pre-Draconian Times, I get it. If you fell off the train between 1997 and 2012, well… that’s pretty silly, but still, I can kinda get it. But if you can’t shut your goddamned cynicism down and dance to “Say Just Words”? Brothers and sisters, please get yourselves correct. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
NOTHING SACRED[Host, 1999]
Throughout their exceptionally long (and successful) career, Paradise Lost have not been shy or timid when it comes to approaching new sounds or incorporating new moods into their compositions. There is no better example of that sheer bravery than their 1999 album Host. Aside from basically founding the sub-genre-combining doom/death Paradise Lost dabbled heavily in goth, melodic death metal and straight-up rock. For Host they swapped labels from Music For Nations to EMI (where they would have a brief two-album run) and swapped sounds, sliding into some sort of synth-heavy, trance doom of sorts.
While “Nothing Sacred” wasn’t tagged as a single for the album, it was a track that best exemplified what Paradise Lost was attempting to achieve with this outlier. While both albums on EMI (Host and Believe in Nothing) were representative of the band’s admission that they were essentially lost, they are also a testament to what a room full of exceptional talent can achieve, even with the most severe writer’s block. The track’s opening reveals a distinct feeling of a band toying with ideas rather than finished compositions. Synthesizers, keys, and guitars playfully bounce around, before settling into a distinctly 90s-rock vibe. The vocals are emotive more than they are anything normally associated with Paradise Lost. Grunts and vocal bends populated the melody lines as what is essentially a pop-format drives forward. Out of context, it would be nearly impossible to recognize “Nothing Sacred” as a Paradise Lost track, given that the band has such an uncanny sound for most of their career. This one would be at home on a pop compilation, an American Idol-type contest, or even an early-AM Top 40 show in the mid-90s.
And then, just like that it ends. Without a composed ending, outro, or a standard sonic stamp. Rather, the song just hastily fades out, much like this style did for Paradise Lost themselves, as they would soon return to their more distinctive sounds. [MANNY-O-WAR]
ROTTING MISERY[Lost Paradise, 1990]
If we are to believe what we read on the internet—and by the grace of Copernicus’ glorious bangs, why on earth would we not believe everything we read on the internet—one would likely surmise that Paradise Lost’s 1990 debut is not the preferred pick for those attempting to spotlight the band’s most pioneering release. “Not yet fully developed” is a critical phrase you’ll often see associated with Lost Paradise in the modern age, and it’s at least understandable when considering the impact Gothic made exactly one year later.
However, if you count yourself lucky enough to have lived through the birth of death metal, or at the least, consider yourself a true student of how extreme metal developed some two-plus decades ago, you understand that Lost Paradise represented an utterly unique beast when stacked next to peer output. Sure, there were already loads of examples of severe darkness and general hopelessness in other branches, but Paradise Lost introduced the death metal world to true misery, and no more fitting representation of that trailblazing truth exists outside of, well, yeah, “Rotting Misery.”
That bell… That miserable bell and its brutally grim knell that unveiled the gloomiest, doomiest commencement to a death metal song the world had ever heard. And despite the fact that the album as a whole exposed flaws in proficiency and command, this particular slice of anguish was absolutely goddamned perfect—like a relentlessly grinding hearse / tank hybrid slowly crushing gravestones as it rumbled toward oblivion.
Even by today’s standards, “Rotting Misery” feels like the most gutturally grim slice of grey, funereal misery to have ever crept from a cemetery gutter. And that strangely suffocating (and very distinct) Hammy production only served to strengthen the glorious futility.
Before gothic affairs flourished, leaden misery ruled these lands. [CAPTAIN]
I REMAIN[Faith Divides Us – Death Unites Us, 2009]
By the point of Faith Divides Us, Paradise Lost was moving from the rock era back towards a Draconian-esque blend of melodic and gothic metals, and “I Remain” stands as one of the finest of many fine songs on that particular album. Structurally, it’s an oddball — opening with a heavier section, driven by guest drummer Peter Damin’s double-kick pattern, before dropping into a killer world-sized hook in the “Tear me down and break me, I remain…” chorus, Damin building the tension with a perfectly placed build-up and letting Holmes’ soaring melody bring the release.
From there, “I Remain” drops further into the chiming cleans of a goth-rock bridge, with another gloomy vocal hook atop a drifting downtempo beat, before the whole thing builds back up into a strong Mackintosh solo and musical hook. And then that chorus comes back around… Here again, sadness brings a smile, the darkness surrounds as the song lifts the listener higher and higher until it stops abruptly mid-riff, never to quite resolve, like life itself. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
SHADES OF GOD[Draconian Times, 1995]
Very early in the song “Shades of God” – which is not on the album Shades of God – Gregor Mackintosh plays an incredibly simple lead line that is nothing but a descending set of notes and his wah pedal. Almost anyone could learn to execute this line by the end of the first week of a Guitar 101 class, but difficulty is not the point. The point is that Mackintosh has made a career out of turning such lines into the purest of gold, and that even on repeated listens, the appearance of this particular line isn’t just the start of a great song, but a wondrous hint at the song’s climax.
“Shades of God” builds in intensity throughout in a manner that isn’t obvious until it bursts. The first iteration of the chorus is pretty big, but slightly reserved compared to what comes later; the second iteration of the verse shifts a little from the first and adds a layer. As a particularly great guitar solo is wrapping up, things reach a fever pitch and that simple, wah-fueled line from the beginning is used to re-introduce a bigger, more grandiose version of the chorus. It’s all made of the simplest parts but is absolutely chilling. The greatest pop songwriters in the world rarely match such verse-chorus-verse sleight of hand. That the song was placed on the latter third of a gothic metal masterpiece is all the more telling of how much Paradise Lost just couldn’t lose at this point of their career. [ZACH DUVALL]