Pagan Altar, The Time Lord: The Mantra of the Tumult

Since regrouping in 2004 and releasing their second album, The Lords of Hypocrisy, and following two years later with Magical & Mythical, things have been relatively quiet for unsung NWOBHM heroes Pagan Altar. Vinyl splits with Jex Thoth in 2007 and Mirror of Deception in 2011 have kept their name out there, but the father/son founding team of Terry Jones (vocals) and Alan Jones (guitar/backing vocals) have been pretty quiet, playing sporadically but not with any great regularity or promotion. That may or may not change in 2013 as the Joneses make their US debut with a new lineup of Pagan Altar at the Maryland Deathfest – an appearance that hopefully arrives concurrently to a new album – but until then, the band look backwards with a reissue of some of their earliest recordings in the form of the 32-minute The Time Lord collection. Released on CD by respectable NWOBHM historians Shadow Kingdom Records (see also Manilla Road, Jameson Raid, Wolfbane and doom from Iron Man, Revelation and Argus, among others), this remastered, re-artworked version of The Time Lord is actually a reissue of a reissue, these five tracks having seen release on vinyl in 2004 when the band first came back together, but in the spirit of 1998’s Volume 1 – which was recorded in 1982 – 2012 finds these tracks from 1978-’79 no less thrilling than they might ever have been, the opening duo of “Highway Cavalier” and the title-track recorded at a professional studio in London and the remaining three – “Judgement of the Dead,” “The Black Mass” and “Reincarnation” put to tape in the band’s own studio. And it was tape. You can hear the audio hiss on “Judgement of the Dead,” from 1978, Terry and Alan Jones joined by bassist Glen Robinson and drummer Ivor Harper, who’d be replaced by Mark Elliott by the time 1979 arrived. It being a collection of material recorded across a swath of time and with different personnel – “Highway Cavalier” and “The Time Lord” also feature second guitarist Les Moody – an overarching flow isn’t really a concern, but it’s worth noting that one can listen to The Time Lord as a single record and not just a compilation and find it enjoyable on that level as well, the pre-shred in the guitars of “Highway Cavalier” portending what underground metal would become as it matured over the next decade.

It’s the shortest track on The Time Lord by nearly three full minutes, but “Highway Cavalier” might also be the most aptly-titled song on the release. At 2:37, it establishes some kinship with Motörhead’s pervasive bullshit-free ethic and relies on head-down, forward-directed push which Terry tops with vocal grit that’s still melodic without being overdone. The chug is slower than Pagan Altar’s London-based contemporaries, who would release Overkill the next year, but the simplicity of the groove is there, and it echoes as much through the material as Terry’s singing does while he sings about the idyllic biker-type freedom of the open highway: “I’m living free and easy/That’s how it’s gonna be/I’m free, free, free to be me.” It’s a chorus that only has time to repeat twice but nonetheless proves among the most effective on The Time Lord, setting up an interesting context for the more psychedelic “The Time Lord,” which takes a relatively simple guitar line and draws out the leads to efficiently give the song a sense of space. It’s quite a jump from frill-less “Highway Cavalier” to the title-cut, but the latter has a no-less-straightforward structure for its first half and it’s not until after a final chorus around four minutes in that Pagan Altar – then Terry and Alan as well as Moody, Robinson and Harper – break into an extended instrumental jam that rounds out the remainder of the time, a bit of Southern inflection working into the guitar solo underscored by Robinson’s low end righteousness (no doubt bolstered by the remaster job here) as Harper skillfully holds the progression together and provides a sense of linear movement. They crash to a relatively unceremonious finish, like they just decided to stop – though one imagines they kept that jam going much longer in practice at the time – and “Judgement of the Dead” brings about the first of the three self-recordings. The sound is rougher, but not terribly or detrimentally so – the lo-fi production and tape hiss fit the slower, Sabbath-style plod of the track pretty well. Terry delivers an excellently warbling cave echo vocal and though they’ve lost Moody in the interim, the guitars still have time to add little flourishes like plucking the strings up on the headstock and not missing a beat in the central riff of the verse. Rather than a long instrumental second half, “Judgement of the Dead” brings back its chorus in the midst of a break and then cycles through again, ending just under the seven-minute mark with one last chorus.

The most resounding triumph is still to come, however. With “The Black Mass,” Pagan Altar have an occult precision that’s as cohesive and doomed as anything Pentagram had on offer on their First Daze Here compilation. Though it like each of the last three tracks would show up on Volume 1, “The Black Mass” gets added appeal for its raw presentation on The Time Lord, Elliott’s drums punctuating what sounds now like an atmosphere of ancient learnedness (fitting the record should be named after a 13th century wizard) as the band careens into the chorus of, “This is the age, the age of Satan/Now that twilight as come/This is the age, the age of Satan/Now that Satan has come,” totally infectious in its rhythm. Alan follows with a solo before the stomp of the verse is resumed, and though the structure is essentially the same as “Highway Cavalier” – i.e. no extended breaks or extras, just a solo to bridge out of the chorus – “The Black Mass” is too much of a standout not to be the highlight. Another solo following the second chorus leads back into a third and a short outro cuts into the acoustic beginning of “Reincarnation,” showing already the growth of Pagan Altar over the year span between recordings. Terry’s vocal is more fragile initially, but swells in kind with a gradual build over the course of the closer’s nine minutes, showing both melodicism and diversity in approach, even as the heavier sounds commence. It was clearly positioned as the epic – in both position and ethic it is very much the proverbial “final track,” and closed out Volume 1 as well – but it earns its place, a chorus emerging slowly in the second half’s increasing momentum. By seven and a half minutes in, Alan is unleashing riffs and leads that must have had a young Steve Harris of Iron Maiden taking notes, and in its final stretch, “Reincarnation” successfully marries the heavy, doomier rock that preceded it with the bona fide metal majesty that was soon to follow, muted cymbal crashes giving a sense of clear purpose as track ends. Perhaps fittingly, the timing on a release like The Time Lord couldn’t be better, and of Shadow Kingdom’s many forays into NWOBHM obscurity, there are few unearthings that have felt as worthy as this one. If Pagan Altar can use it to build anticipation for a new full-length release, all the better, but even if not, The Time Lord stands on its own as a heavy metal classic waiting to be discovered. Recommended.

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