Review & Track Premiere: Pagan Altar, The Room of Shadows

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[Click play above to stream the premiere of the title-track from Pagan Altar’s The Room of Shadows, out Aug. 24 via Temple of Mystery Records.]

Thirty-five years after recording their debut album and nearly 20 after Volume I finally saw its release, Pagan Altar put the capstone on their career with The Room of Shadows. What has been floated as the NWOBHM-era cult outfit’s final long-player is their fourth/fifth overall and arrives 11 years after its predecessor, 2006’s Mythical and Magical, via Temple of Mystery Records even more dripping in context and narrative than the simple span of time and retirement of the band. Founding frontman Terry Jones — who along with son/guitarist Alan Jones oversaw the original run of the band from 1978 through 1985 before coming back in 2004 to offer up second album, Lords of Hypocrisy (discussed here), and the EP of earlier recordings, The Time Lord (review here), before moving onto revisit Volume I in 2005’s Judgement of the Dead, and the aforementioned Mythical and Magical — passed away in May 2015 following a fight with cancer.

Pagan Altar had issued splits with Jex Thoth and Mirror of Deception in 2007 and 2011, respectively, as well as a single, Walking in the Dark, in 2013, and 2014 was supposed to see the realization of their next full-length, Never Quite Dead. It was recorded and tabled in light of the illness, and with the elder Jones‘ death, it was unclear whether or not it would ever come out. The Room of Shadows is that album. Alan, along with bassist Diccon Harper and drummer Andy Green, went back into the studio and re-recorded the instruments behind his father’s vocals, and the seven-song/46-minute The Room of Shadows stands not only as a fitting final installment to Pagan Altar‘s career and homage to the unsung legacy of Terry Jones and the band’s contributions to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and traditional doom, but also years of work making what could be argued as the most accomplished outing of their tenure.

That’s not to take anything away from Mythical and Magical, which was comprised of material written during Pagan Altar‘s first run, or Lords of Hypocrisy or Volume I, The Time Lord or anything else the Joneses have brought to bear intermittently over the last 35 years, only to say that The Room of Shadows has a nearly impossible charge before it in living up to its narrative and it does so with cohesive songwriting and without getting lost in either its doomly ambient mire or the weight of its conceptual task.

From opener “Rising of the Dead” through the landmark hook of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” the playful horror thematic of “Danse Macabre,” the Sabbathian centerpiece “Dance of the Vampires,” the proto-metal thrust of the title-track, the 10:36 grandeur of “The Ripper” and its accompanying minute-long epilogue “After Forever” — it does not seem like coincidence that one title comes from Judas Priest and the other from Black Sabbath, though neither is a cover — The Room of Shadows unfolds classic-sounding underground metal with rare clarity and poise that highlights Jones‘ vocals and presents them as part of a complete picture of what Pagan Altar still very much have to offer listeners; not just a voice from the past, so to speak, but an enduring take on heaviness that’s relevant in atmosphere as much as craft.

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In the fluidity of “The Ripper” alone, JonesJonesDiccon and Green engage distinctly NWOBHM dynamic through multiple patient movements, loud, quiet and dramatic, with a turn to a more storytelling lyric, where earlier, the pair of “Danse Macabre” and “Dance of the Vampires” finds Terry descriptive. That there should be so much focus on death throughout The Room of Shadows — “Rising of the Dead,” “Danse Macabre,” Dance of the Vampires,” “The Ripper,” etc. — is somewhat eerie when one considers it as a posthumous release, but again, it’s the songs themselves that allow Pagan Altar to get through this material without being consumed entirely by the “last album” factor. Whatever else it may be for the band, it is a considerable achievement.

And one apparently some time in the making. “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” with its uptempo, standout chorus, dates back to the 2011 split with Mirror of Deception and late that same year was posted as representing Pagan Altar‘s next album, then due in 2012. How far back the other material on The Room of Shadows might go in terms of composition or specific recording date, I don’t know, but Alan‘s taking charge of the instrumental elements behind his father’s vocals ostensibly to give the band the best representation possible serves the dual purpose of lending a freshness and energy to the tracks. One can hear it clearly in his soloing on “The Ripper” or in the gallop of Green‘s double-kick in the second half of “Dance of the Vampires” as much as the effective atmospherics of the slower parts in “Rising of the Dead” and the initial minutes of “The Room of Shadows” itself, which also finds father and son harmonizing a tale of a scared child before taking off at a briskly punctuated, lead-topped clip; the tinge of UK/Celtic folk in Terry‘s voice not at all lost in either the subdued or the raucous moments.

Complemented by gracefully strummed guitar shimmer, that will come into play again on the 1:33 “After Forever,” which closes The Room of Shadows with a duly poetic last verse and resonant emotional finish that succeeds despite the thematic turn between the title-track and “The Ripper” before it. Pagan Altar spent three and a half decades as an underrated band, and The Room of Shadows may in fact be their final offering — though of course one never knows and there are always opportunities for live albums, lost tracks collections, etc. — but as its eponymous cut, as “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” as “Danse Macabre” and the rest of its inclusions show, they’re an act capable of finding vibrant delivery in the realms of darkness and death, and if there’s a chance these songs might carry their story forward to a new generation in terms of audience, that’s a chance well worth taking. Born of tragedy and defeat, The Room of Shadows brims with timeless victory.

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One Response to “Review & Track Premiere: Pagan Altar, The Room of Shadows

  1. […] Temple of Mystery Records. Jetzt gibt es den Titelsong und einen weiteren Track daraus im Netz: PAGAN ALTAR „The Room Of Shadows“ bei TheObelisk.net. PAGAN ALTAR „Dance of the Vampires“ bei […]

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