Friday Full-Length: Pagan Altar, Lords of Hypocrisy

Pagan Altar, Lords of Hypocrisy (2004)

I’ve been thinking of late about heavy rock in the ’80s, and just where the hell it went. By 1975, many of the bands who were slinging riffs a’plenty just four or five years earlier were distant private press memories. Or they went prog. Or they grew into more commercial arena rock. Disco, contrary to what was thought at the time, didn’t kill rock and roll. Heavy metal was quickly taking shape in the mid-’70s and punk was doing the same thing. Certainly the ’80s — and I’m sorry for generalizing an entire decade, but one has to categorize these things somehow or the brain will explode — had no shortage of rock and roll, from L.A. glam to East Coast hardcore and everything in between. There were some bands on the West Coast dipping into psychedelia in the early ’80s for the so-called “paisley underground,” but the hardest-hitting of them didn’t come close to the kind of heft that groups were producing a decade earlier. The heavy, it seems, went in a different direction altogether.

It got darker, turned to the atmosphere of its riffy roots and, as with bands like Pagan Altar, Witchfinder General and many others, established a principal tenet of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that holds firm throughout many metallic subgenres today: It started taking itself very seriously. Yeah, there were chains, and fire, and sometimes Rob Halford rode in on a motorcycle (by “sometimes,” I mean every show), but if you wanted fluff, go listen to dance music. Heavy metal was serious business.

Not really fair to call this the beginning of doom, since like rock and roll itself, doom is traceable back to the blues in the early 20th century, but it’s a pivotal moment for understanding what we consider doom metal today, and why we consider one record doom and another one not. Pagan Altar‘s Lords of Hypocrisy — recorded between 1982-1984 and left to languish for the next two decades until a 2004 re-recording and release (2013 reissues on Shadow Kingdom and Cruz del Sur) — is a prime example. The vocabulary and the delineation between metal and doom might not have existed the same way it does 30-plus years later, but Lords of Hypocrisy is every bit a doom record in intent as well as execution.

We know names like Trouble, Candlemass, Saint Vitus, The Obsessed, Pentagram and so on, and these are pivotal acts, but divide seems so extreme between the bright, made-up dopey smiles of glam and the no-fun-all-drugs downerism of early doom metal (and, for that matter, thrash, which had just about everything in common with doom except tempo), that I can’t help but think of political party lines being drawn and remaining uncrossed. I wasn’t there — I was four in 1985 and not that cool a kid, sorry — but it seems to me that what would’ve been the middle ground between these polar opposites was solid, engaging, by-then-traditional heavy rock and roll. Where were the new bands, not ’70s holdovers in metal, punk or rock, doing that?

For Pagan Altar‘s part, they remain thoroughly underappreciated, mostly in terms of what they could’ve contributed atmospherically to the NWOBHM at the time had they managed to get a record out. Their debut, Volume 1 was tracked in 1982 and released in 1998, by then following up an impressive self-titled demo released 16 years prior. Lords of Hypocrisy is a prime marriage of elder methods and modern sound that few in the NWOBHM or out of it have managed to capture, completely absent the self-indulgent grandiosity of Iron Maiden or or the strange, half-hearted attempts of many of Pagan Altar‘s contemporaries to recapture something that was lost, its rawness and honesty bleed through the quiet stretches of “Armageddon” as much as the quick, comical “The Devil Came Down to Brockley” — Brockley, UK, being the band’s home — or the building emotionalism of “The Masquerade,” and it’s simply a superior level of output. It’s not as clean or crisp sounding as any number of records by Saxon, but like Witchfinder General, like Venom and others, Pagan Altar were always shooting for a different kind of heavy.

The band, reactivated since 2004, suffered a tragedy last year with the death of founding vocalist Terry Jones. At the time, they were said to have a new album, titled Never Quite Dead, in the mastering stage, but there’s been no word since about whether or not it will ultimately surface posthumous to Jones‘ contributions. His passing was a greater loss than heavy metal realized.

But of course, the work remains, and in the case of Lords of Hypocrisy, it’s amazing how vital this material sounds for having sat around for 20 years. Part of the appeal of doom very often is that it sounds like it’s from another time. In this, as in the best of cases, that seems to make it timeless. Hope you enjoy.

Busted laptop. Jury duty. The radio stream down. A full-time job. The goddamned Quarterly Review. A whole pastiche of ongoing medical shit. It’s a good thing The Patient Mrs. wasn’t around for most of this week, because I’ll be completely honest with you, I was a friggin’ wreck. After I finished writing the last of the posts for today last night, I pretty much curled up in the fetal position on the couch, put on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and was about as mentally ready to completely check out as I can remember being in a long, long time. It has been a draining few days and I’m looking forward to a restorative weekend. I hope to sleep until 10AM at least once.

The Patient Mrs. returned last night, incidentally, and today took about five seconds out of her own busy existence to bring mine into order, which was thoroughly appreciated and duly humbling, as I no doubt would’ve continued my caveman flailing until finally clubbing myself in the face and losing consciousness, existentially speaking. I cannot begin to tell you how fortunate I am to have her in my life.

I’m also heaving a sigh of relief today because jury duty didn’t result in me being picked for anything. Basically I gave up a morning and an early part of an afternoon to the cause of being called up to a judge’s sidebar and telling him that I don’t believe in human impartiality. Might’ve been worth it if I’d had been able to bring a functioning laptop with me to dick around on during the mind-numbing stretches of waiting in the jury pool. “Would you differently consider the testimony of a policeman rather than that of a civilian?” Uh, yes. Because I’m not an idiot. “Is there any reason you would be unable to judge this case impartially?” Yes, because there’s no such thing as impartiality. I was amazed to be the only person raising my hand.

Anyway, it’s over, and unlike the last two, three, however many weeks it’s been, the furthest I’m traveling this weekend is maybe to Boston, which is about an hour, so I’m stoked for what I hope will be some mental resource-gathering and getting my head together.

Monday, look out for a track premiere from Thermic Boogie. Also next week, reviews of WitchcraftMatus and hopefully Terraplane. I gotta look at my notes when I get back to my once-again-functioning laptop that The Patient Mrs. had repaired this afternoon while I was at work, but there’s probably more I can’t think of, in addition to the news, on which I’m also already and perpetually behind. Hey, I put up 50 reviews this week. I’m doing the best I can.

As I know we all are. Please, have a great and tremendous and not-at-all-injurious weekend, and please, check out the forum and the radio stream.

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2 Responses to “Friday Full-Length: Pagan Altar, Lords of Hypocrisy

  1. Ryno says:

    Not unlike Pagan Altar, you, JJ, are under appreciated, undervalued, but still loved. I’ve read your stuff for years and I just bought a T-shirt. Not because I needed another black t-shirt, but because I feel like I owe you. And I’m sure there are a few others out there that feel that way as well. Glad the Patient Mrs. can understand your plight. Keep the light burning bright and know I, for one, appreciate your efforts. Not sure I can ever repay you for all the great stuff you’ve turned me on to over the years, but I will, for damn sure, buy you a beer or 5 if I’m ever in your hood. Or if ever you’re in mine. Cheers, man! Keep it rolling.

  2. Obvious & Odious says:

    My ambition is to listen to all the bands in the quarterly review, but it never works out that way. Each day, by the 4th or 5th one I always find something I dig, end up listening to that for a while, lose track of time, etc, and never end up finishing all ten. When ten more come up the next day, I start at the top and the process repeats.

    My point is that I can’t even find the time to sample all 50 bands, and can’t imagine how you can listen to, evaluate, and write about them all on top of having a job. And a wife. And a dog. You’re the man

    Oh, and ditto the post above, too!

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