As I write this, it’s early May 2020, and for all intents and purposes, the world is ending. A new plague has killed hundreds of thousands of people the world across; in hard-hit areas, hospitals were overwhelmed with the sick; most of our countries and cities have been shut down for months to prevent further infection. Though the wonders of technology gifted us with connections that span the globe, we’re isolated from one another inside our own homes, and in the instances when we aren’t, we put a brave figurative mask on the faces beneath our literal masks to journey forth into a sideways world.
Stuck inside, many of us squander our time by bickering incessantly and uselessly about the efficacy of those literal masks, and sometimes about the figurative ones; we argue about the origin of the sickness (as though it matters right now); we fight over the truthfulness of any piece of information we’re given, about the ability of our leaders to help us survive whatever is happening now and whatever will happen next. We are a world divided in almost every way: emotionally, politically, and physically. These are truly times of madness.
It’s the middle of week 9 of lockdown for me, with no clear end in sight, and it’s a beautiful spring day here. The sun is shining bright; the trees are green; it’s warm, and the birds are singing. And yet it’s hard not to see a dark cloud of sadness hovering just above all that beauty, a cloud that also has no clear end in sight. It’s sadness for those who’ve lost their lives, and for those who’ve lost their livings, and for those who may still lose either or both in the months to come. It’s a sadness for the world that was and will never be again.
Or hey, maybe it is. Sadness and Paradise Lost go hand in hand. For thirty-plus years, these somber Britons have peddled some of the most melancholy metals ever metalled, pioneering the death / doom hybrid and almost singlehandedly inventing gothic metal in the process. They’ve famously sidestepped into electro-goth-rock and then just as handily stepped back to metal, equally depressed in either format. Their return to metal has seen a string of five straight high-points, the last four of which are among the best records in their three-decade career. Obsidian is their sixteenth album, and it’s yet another gem in Paradise Lost’s coal-black crown.
Whereas 2017’s excellent Medusa saw the band revisiting their death / doom roots, getting heavier and uglier than they’d been in decades, Oblivion flips things back to a different part of Paradise Lost’s story, abandoning a large part of the resurgent death / doom in favor of a full-on dive into their gothic tendencies. The occasional symphonic flourish dances around Greg Mackintosh’s morose leads and Aaron Aedy’s crashing chords; chorused cleans chime throughout verses and hints of keyboards poke forth in a few places; Nick Holmes’ dour baritone croons bump against goblin-y death growls; his minor-key melodies drift atop the band’s lumbering tempos. And yet, none of it feels as miserable as it should, given that it’s impossible to talk about this band in terms of words traditionally associated with happiness and positivity. Here as in all of Paradise Lost’s work, I find that there’s a triumphant beauty in this sadness, a warmth in the darkness that makes Obsidian as oddly uplifting as it is downtrodden.
Opening with a drearily lilting acoustic section, “Darker Thoughts” rides its languidly jaunty 6/8 rhythm to goth-metal glory, the band kicking in to provide the broken earth beneath ethereal floating strings. “With inner peace gone, you pray / all those darker thoughts are coming back to stay,” Holmes intones, a grand summation of these frightening times when an invisible enemy lurks outside our doors. Lead single “Fall From Grace” is so set within Paradise Lost’s wheelhouse that it’s almost by-numbers, and yet it’s delivered with such skill that it’s undeniable, and following track “Ghosts” begins a mid-album run that see the band fully embrace their inner Sisters Of Mercy and Fields Of The Nephilim. Both of those tracks were released ahead of the album itself, and maybe it’s the familiarity factor, but when Obsidian’s final seconds fade out, both songs stand strong as Obsidian highlights, even among the consistently great set of songs that surround them.
It’s in that run of gothic metal at its heart that Obsidian finds its identity, and it’s in “closing” number “Ravenghast” that it finds its soul and its finest moments. (See below for a quick note as to why the word “closing” is in quotes there.) “Ravenghast” is quite simply, in a word, killer. It’s classic Paradise Lost in full effect, a grand example of why this band matters still and has mattered for decades. A hauntingly simple piano line gives way to more of that lumbering pace; Nick’s growl returns to the forefront, snarling while the band pounds out relatively straightforward chords that culminate in a majestic ascending riff and a Greg Mackintosh solo that caps off the album perfectly, spinning the tension skyward before a final verse and then the whole of it fades into piano and strings and then away…
I will admit that I may have a biased opinion, having been a Paradise Lost fan for thirty years now, but since they’ve re-embraced the heaviness, they’ve been damned near unstoppable, as good now as they ever were, and they have always been very good. Is Obsidian better than The Plague Within? Better than Tragic Idol? Well, that’s hard to say—they’re all cut from similar cloth, all different shades of a beautiful grey, and all maudlin masterworks from the saddest band in all the land. Time will tell if Obsidian holds up as well as Idol or Plague or Faith Divides Us, but I can assure you that it’s worth that time and worth the name of the band that bore it, and I can assure you that it won’t be leaving my player anytime soon.
I look outside now, fifty-five minutes after I started Obsidian. The streets are still empty, and the birds aren’t singing anymore. It’s starting to rain.
I stand corrected: This new Paradise Lost album is exactly what I need right now.
Reviewer’s note: If I may be so bold as to recommend not only the album but also the version, if at all possible, you should purchase the deluxe edition of Obsidian. That expanded set adds two bonus tracks—“Hear The Night” and “Defiler,” both of which are very worthy. Both are among the heavier tunes on hand, more growl than mope, and “Hear The Night” is blessed with one of those perfect Nick Holmes choruses. Both songs could easily be on the album proper, though they’d have skewed it further towards the heavier and less gothic end of things, so perhaps that’s why they’re appended here as a bonus. Regardless, I suppose it’s further testament to the high level of inspiration that marks this past decade or so of Paradise Lost’s work that even the leftover tracks are stellar.