Review Summary: "Store my bones in your mortuary, where summer fades."
Italy’s place in the metal world is as strange as it is underexposed. While the concept of “Italian metal” is not one that actively exists in the mind of many metal heads, secretly the country is up there with the likes of Finland, Japan or the Czech Republic as one that has a knack for breeding some of the more wayward metal out there.
No artist embodies this concept like Paul Chain does. Starting out in the late 70’s as the guitar player for Death SS, Italy’s answer to the Alice Cooper-inspired shock rock trend, Paul Chain branched off from his former band to carve his own niche in the doom genre. One trademarked by guitar playing that takes equal cues from the down tuned madness of Black Sabbath as well as 70’s psychedelic rock. A potent backbone for a sound that the man himself decided to ‘kvlt’ up by topping it off with cleanly-sung Italian-accent-heavy syllables that sound like some obscure occult English text is being recited without there being any lyrics at all. A modus operandi that no one else has tried to replicate.
While Paul Chain’s work made a name for itself in underground doom circuits, it remained shrouded in complete obscurity. His relatively best known work came to light in 1995. Alkahest is the result of a collaboration with Lee Dorrian, the then lead vocalist of doom legends Cathedral. The story goes that Dorrian stayed at Paul’s house in Italy for a certain amount of time where the two would take up visits to local graveyards, ruins and undiscovered swaths of land. A collaboration that resulted in a record that’s at both times Paul Chain’s most accessible and comprehensive work as well as one that embodies the core of his sound, one that oozes subtle surrealism and existential dread.
Being a collaborative work, the album itself can roughly divided into two parts. The first five songs are pretty much quintessential Paul Chain: droning Sabbathian doom riffs repeated to hypnotizing effect, solos based on blues schemes that are suddenly stretched into almost Hawkwind-esque space rock territory, ominous keyboard soundscapes and wordless but introspective vocal work which all come together in a mystical yet unsettling fog that envelops the space you find yourself in. While some may find it to be lacking some of the more experimental touches and dungeon atmosphere of the early work due to the adequately cleaner production utilized, it’s safe to say the songwriting has never been as strong as it is here with the choruses to tracks like “Roses of Winter” or “Three Water” resembling something catchy without the necessity of lyrics. Although the uneasiness is more understated on this record, Paul Chain still proves himself to be apt at writing riffs that are at both times crushing and haunting. An example being the main riff to “Sand Glass” with a deceptively simple piece of classic doom getting hallucinatory by the turn of a single note.
The second part of the record is where Lee Dorrian comes in taking over the vocal duties. Divisive as ever, Dorrian’s vocal work here is of the same mold as the stoned warbling used in mid era Cathedral. Occasionally going into whispering incantations at various dispersed moments or underplayed cleans on the achingly haunting ballad “Lake Without Water”, Lee Dorrian delivers his greatest performance second only to the one-off ghoulish work on Forest of Equilibrium. An acquired taste, his maniacally crazed occultist vocals prove themselves to be as good a companion piece to Chain’s singular playing as the aforementioned emotive phonetics of Paul Chain himself are. Never more evident than on closing doom behemoth “Sepulchral Life” where a work of crawling esoteric doom turns into an up tempo rocker before going into a crawl again without ever losing momentum of its transcendence.
While a few more uptempo parts as used in the closing song or another evocative interlude like the ballad would’ve been welcomed, it’s a testament to the talent of the artists involved that something this misleadingly simple can at once feel as otherworldly as it does. While staying in touch with the rocking quality of old school doom it appropriately conjures up a feeling of unease similar to one you experience while being confronted with something ancient and forgotten.
One of the greatest doom records of the 90’s, the fact that Alkahest came out in the mid 90’s may have something to do with its brilliance kept from being noticed by the greater public. It’s about time it crawls out of its forgotten tomb.