Review Summary: Years before the concept of Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson came to fruition, an English band was rocking the Sunn O))) image back in the ‘80s. And they fucking ruled!!
Every time I stumble across an album that hasn’t received much attention from the media, I know I’m in for a treat. I just know it! I don’t know why, nor can I explain it, but there is an undeniable quality in unearthed music. The fact alone that no one in your circle is aware of its existence certainly adds to the mysterious aura that surrounds your possession. And it surely is a valuable possession because it makes you feel special
. However, the rarity index by itself is simply not enough to justify the frequency; think about it: How many times have you disliked an album that you first discovered on your own? Not so many, right? That is my rhetorical question to you. Why we love music no one else knows about?
Whatever the answer, one thing is for certain; the underground cycles are a treasure trove full of rare and exceptional music. All you have to do is to know where to look. And, certainly, many fans did know where to look in the late ‘80s, when the first copies of this album were bootlegged at extremely high prices. This cheating act got the band’s attention and forced them out of retirement to re-master this album and make it available themselves. The only difference with the original demo tape is an acoustic instrumental that Oracle records called Acoustics
. The band later dubbed it The Dance of the Banshee
Now tell me, how many rock bands tagged as heavy/doom/occult metal can you think of today? Plenty, I’m sure. The last 15 years marked a resurgence in popularity for the occult rock artists. Many adopted the style in various forms; the candles, the Goth-looking image, the black robes, etc. But these effects are merely cheap parlor tricks. What matters most is the music behind it. If you can’t write music that moves the audience, you will not keep them investing. Pagan Altar not only had the looks-they had the skills to support their vision too. And that vision was truly unique. Their live shows were an unprecedented spectacle at the time. They brought theatricality, atmosphere, mystery, power, and formed a presence that was awesome to watch on stage; Cloak clad figures emerging from the mist to the accompaniment of Gregorian chants in a cemetery-like environment filled with altars, coffins, skulls, and inverted crosses. These guys were pure theater. They did exactly what Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson do today in their Sunn O))) moniker.
Only that this concept took form and substance so many years ago. Long before Dylan Carlson unleashed his seminal drone on the unexpected masses, there was a time when atonality and dissonance were not tagged as a distinctive genre. It was during that time when Alan Jones was unleashing his own branch of drone-doom British metal. Jones is truly an unsung hero in the world of heavy rock music. The way he arranges the guitar parts showcase a very knowledgeable and talented musician. His guitar playing is nothing short of epic and knows no boundaries. He’s the perfect combination of Tony Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore, Glenn Tipton, and Andy Powell/Ted Turner (Wishbone Ash), all in a package of one.
As with most of his British contemporaries, Alan is blessed with enough talent that allows him to arrange complete guitar movements. His playing includes everything; smooth transitioning, great riffs, excellent, thought-out solos, complex chord progressions. Above all, there is variety
, to such a degree, that even the basic patterns evolve from verse-to-verse. Alan refuses to have a stagnated sound, so he adds a lot of twists and turns in his riffing to keep things interesting. His soloing is not half-bad either. Although a bit sloppy, it is extremely tasteful and memorable. It feels natural
and not fabricated at all. You get the impression that a lot of care and planning was put into the note selection and arrangement. From the get-go, it becomes obvious that Alan has had his fair share with Black Sabbath, but his rhythm work is far from slavishly copying those guys. There’s a subtle flexibility in his playing, barely noticeable, but it works wonders and enhances the atmospheric qualities of the record.
It’s not easy to nail Pagan Altar’s branch of metal. The music resembles the work of Bedemon (early Pentagram) while, occasionally, proves to be much more authentic and better executed than the work of like-minded compatriots Witchfinder General. A popular opinion wants Witchfinder General and Pagan Altar together on the musical map. Some tend to compare these two bands as well, but I have noticed a difference in the sound of the guitars. In addition, I see more of black Sabbath’s sludge and Priest’s spirit in PA, whereas, in Witchfinder General, I see a lot more of 80’s metal (Diamond Head, Venom, etc). Jones’s heavy riffs might trick you at first into thinking PA just worships Sabbath. An assumption that couldn’t be more wrong, however, since, their music embodies many styles. If anything, only the slothful, monolithic riffs might come close to what is passed today as doom metal, but that’s like 20% of the songwriting in here. In any case, you have to be aware of what transpires around you. And in most of today’s doom, you don’t get to hear female vocals, shredding & overdubbed guitars. You don’t even get to hear as much folk as you do in this record.
The general structural outline is actually quite simple. Almost every song begins with a droning-doom laden riff and progresses to your standard slab of NWOBHM rock n roll. But within those jams, you uncover a universe of multitude possibilities. Imagine the riff-styling, songwriting/arrangement, and occult imagery of Black Sabbath, stripped entirely of its psychedelic bluesy influences and you might get the idea. Alan’s father, Terry Jones handles the singing duties and I have to say I have never heard a much weirder vocal work yielding such incredible results. Terry is not a metal singer in the traditional sense. His high pitched, thin vocals call to mind the vintage occult rock singers of the late 60’s/early 70’s. His nasal delivery (later attributed to the flu!), amplified by an organic and warm guitar tone, creates a soundscape that welcomes the listener to a distant, forbidden land of the English countryside. The end result is special
to say the least. In hindsight, it would be fair to say the British metal movement never produced anything remotely close to this album.
Those who appreciate certain elements in metal will certainly adore Pagan Altar’s music. The darkness of Black Sabbath, the progressiveness and complexity of 70’s Judas Priest, coupled with the epic screaming wails of a Geddy Lee-like singer, the atmosphere, and other-worldliness….
This album is a must-listen. Highly recommended for those who are craving for an old school, metal sound that is both original and awesome.