It’s been 15 years since Eastern Pennsylvania doomers Pale Divine released their pivotal Crimson Tears demo in 1997. That release in many ways would come to define them, as they signed with Game Two Records to issue their also-stellar Thunder Perfect Mind debut in 2001 and shifted to Martyr Music Group for 2004’s follow-up, Eternity Revealed. Some three years later, Cemetery Earth on Shadow Kingdom – who also reissued Crimson Tears in 2008 – promised to be the band’s last album, and it was plain to see their formula had run its course. The record, like everything the band had done leading up to it, was American doom built directly from the traditional prototype, wrecked emotionally but still rooted in a heavy metal burliness that came through in the thick riffs of band mastermind Greg Diener (guitar/vocals). As Pale Divine marked their return with a set at 2011’s Days of the Doomed fest in Wisconsin and followed with one at Stoner Hands of Doom in Maryland in the fall, they seemed armed with a new energy and newfound enthusiasm for what is patently unenthusiastic. Diener and drummer Darin McCloskey (also of Beelzefuzz) teamed with Sinister Realm bassist John Gaffney for those shows, but on their awaited fourth album, Painted Windows Black (Shadow Kingdom), it’s Jerry Bright taking on low end duties for eight tracks packed with enough doom to account for the five years since the last Pale Divine offering.
A lot of what has always been true about Pale Divine remains so on the 68 minutes of Painted Windows Black, and one imagines the band wouldn’t have it any other way. They are doom for doomers, playing off the genre’s conventions even as they remold them in their own image, making what is inherently familiar about traditional doom sound fresh, or at very least newly-miserable. Diener’s vocals keep to a middle range, neither high nor especially low, but add melody nonetheless alongside his guitar despite sometimes moving to the other side of bottom-of-the-mouth post-Hetfield heavy metal conventionalities. Those same conventionalities, though, often work in Pale Divine’s favor, as the instrumental “Nocturne Dementia” opens Painted Windows Black with marked immediacy both in Diener’s guitar and in McCloskey’s capable drumming, which sustains double-kick bass remarkably well underneath layered guitar solos. At six and a half minutes, “Nocturne Dementia” has to be more than just an intro, but the function is the same, even if it works faster than most of the songs’ plod, it sets the tone nonetheless, and the strong opening salvo continues with “The Prophet” (the shortest and most straightforward track at 5:26) and “Angel of Mercy” (9:13), which has Painted Windows Black’s most memorable chorus. Fantastic lead play is near-constant with Diener at the fore, and the album is mixed well so that although he clearly dominates with lead play and is often backing himself with rhythm tracks as well as Bright’s bass, it’s not necessarily overbearing when it’s not trying to be.
Still, Painted Windows Black is clearly led by the guitar and makes no pretense otherwise. “Angel of Mercy” skillfully returns to the chorus following a long instrumental break (there’s room for it), and ends quietly, letting the opening riff of “End of Days” – one of the larger-sounding – add a grandeur to what’s already a well-crafted album. Pale Divine stick to the theme that riff presents for most of that song, letting it play out even under Diener’s solos, but there is some development to be found amid the nine and a half minute sprawl, and by the time the six-minute mark is passed, one is reminded just as much of Pepper Keenan as of Bruce Franklin. More than some of the cuts in the bottom half of the tracklisting, those on the first stand out individually. Their structures largely the same, they nonetheless show personality in their choruses and, bolstered by the lead work – again, Diener’s pretty much putting on a clinic on how to play doom guitar – the tab book would have to come in volumes – tap into what’s always made Pale Divine stand out among their morose peers: technical ability coupled with quality songwriting and a tight grasp on their influences. It’s a clarity of purpose that continues onto “Black Coven,” which works with an ethic similar to “The Prophet” in being a straightforward lead-in for lengthier indulgences to follow. Perhaps not as memorable as “The Prophet” itself, but no less accessible on a doomly level, its familiarity is nearly instant, so that by the end of the song, you already know it and are well grounded as Painted Black Windows moves into its longest and most atmospheric piece, “The Desolate.”
If there is any, the issue with where “The Desolate” is placed is that it still has “Shadow Soul (Awakening)” and the closing title-track behind it. The song is a born finale, with feedback notes underscoring its initial verse and a sense of unfolding build that plays out over its full 11:34 runtime. Diener weaves in a hooky chorus, but really the song is too long to fully highlight it among the long breaks and linear flow. Likewise, charged with grounding the material, McCloskey is no less successful on “The Desolate” than anywhere else on Painted Windows Black, and in light of it being the longest track in Pale Divine’s career, they do a good job keeping a handle on it. That said, when “Shadow Soul (Awakening)” begins its subdued, almost jazzy, introduction it comes off as an afterthought or at very least a comedown from what came before it, despite a standout performance from Bright. As with the rest of the album, “Shadow Soul (Awakening)” stands on its own – indeed, in that regard, it’s a highlight for the shift in balance and increased presence of the bass – but after “The Desolate,” which so firmly set its mood, it feels like its position in terms of the songs around it doesn’t do it justice. All the more so when, at a little before seven minutes in, it explodes into a solo-topped riff that’s massive in its own right. And as a closer, “Painted Windows Black” does well in reinforcing what the rest before it has accomplished, but doesn’t necessarily expand on the formula despite hinting at some of the initial intensity of “Nocturne Dementia” in its latter minutes and otherwise boasting a main riff that would make Leif Edling himself blush. That’s not to take away from “Painted Windows Black” either – it’s just a structural issue on the second half of the album.
As regards the songs themselves, Pale Divine unquestionably benefited from their time apart, and in comparison to Cemetery Earth, Painted Windows Black comes off as more focused and more assured of its place in the lore of Maryland-style doom. 15 years on, Pale Divine have unquestionably left their mark on the genre that birthed them, and Painted Windows Black could be their finest hour (-plus) yet, but one also gets the sense in listening that there’s more room for growth – in Diener’s vocals and in the interplay between the guitar and bass, particularly – so maybe they’re just getting started. It’s a rare band you can say that about a decade and a half into their career.Glen Mills, Pale Divine, Pennsylvania, Shadow Kingdom