Pagan Altar’s debut has an odd history all its own. It was originally recorded in 1982 and circulated around the underground as demo tapes for the better part of the 80’s and 90’s, only finally seeing the light of day officially as Volume 1 in 1998, along several other reissues in the years since. For shorthand I’m just gonna refer to it as Judgement of the Dead, because that’s what I bought it as around 2014 or so. Gimme a handle and I’ll use it, y’see.
The Pagan Altar style, as it were, is two huge parts Black Sabbath-esque doom and NWOBHM, and one smaller part English folk (albeit not as woven in as later PA records would do) That description doesn’t really do justice to how unique the bands’ style is – the devil is in the details, after all. Take the riffing for instance – it’s obvious Alan Jones heard more than a couple Sabbath albums in his day, but the rhythm guitar work is far from slavishly copying that band There’s a subtle litheness to his playing, as liable to go from bludgeoning doom crunch to ushering in stomping mid-tempo riffs – the moment “The Black Mass” speeds up into that triumphant stomp riff is a “shit just got real” moment if the rest of the song didn’t get your ear on that front – to a fair bit of the classic NWOBHM gallop in stuff like “In the Wake of Armadeus” or “Night Rider” gone a whole lot darker than most of the rest of that movement.
The most important part is that the riffwriting is seriously awesome – not only are those different styles blended together seamlessly, there’s just something about the riffage on here that effortlessly straddles the line between convincingly occult and insistently memorable. You can remember most of the riffs off this album after a couple of listens, and there’s always something that catches the ear after each listen. Of particular note is that Jones’s lead guitar work is somehow both prominent and extremely tasteful throughout the album – there’s a sense of real care and thought that was put into the note selection on the leads, not to mention there’s this sort of quality where they ooze over the rhythm parts that’s really neat and helps to further the atmospheric qualities the album possesses.
Of course, you can’t really discuss Pagan Altar without mentioning the vocals – Terry Jones (Alan’s father, incidentally) had a rather unique style vocally even for doom. I guess you could imagine Ozzy at his absolute most nasal timbre, but again, that doesn’t really capture it. Terry’s voice sounds absolutely decrepit more than anything, like an English folk singer who got super into some dark shit and ended up sounding like a goat, along those lines anyway. I get why people hate the vocal delivery, but, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve always preferred vocalists who have character and suit the atmosphere/emotional vibe an album is going for instead of something clean cut and perfectly mannered. And honestly, I can’t really imagine another singer matching the delightfully dark, ritualistic air the songwriting here exudes than Terry. Well, the same can be said for everything else PA did, really, but it really matches the sort of dusty, candlelit ritualist aura the songs craft here than anything else.
It can’t really be stressed enough that, for all of the nattering about how unique Pagan Altar’s stuff is in delivery that the most important thing, more than anything else, is just that they’re phenomenal songwriters. The atmosphere emerges, not strictly from some post-production trick or what have you, but by the quality of the riffcraft and the way the songwriting unfolds. Like most bands of their era, PA uses verse/chorus song structuring, but their rendition of it couldn’t feel less sterile if they’d go out of their way to try. There’s a fascinating looseness to the writing – again, in particular the lead guitar feels like it oozes out, alongside the bounding & muscular rhythm section underpinning everything – that nonetheless manages to click together brilliantly. What defines a lot of great music, metal especially, is that each individual part can not only stand out, but is also dependent on the previous or next passage for context within the greater whole of a song, and not for nothing the occasionally brilliant use of foreshadowing/anticipation. Pagan Altar does that absolutely spectacularly, such as the synth intro to “Judgement of the Dead” that sets up the crushing force of its main riff, for instance. On this record they showcase their ability to handle stuff from the aforementioned upbeat tracks to something more ambitious and genuinely epic with aplomb. “Reincarnation”, and in particular the way the band handles its build up, is stunningly brilliant throughout its almost 10 minute running time, and between the brilliance of its riffwork – in particular that last faster riff that comes in near the end is incredibly powerful and memorable – and its sense of direction that patiently moves forward, it never really feels like it’s just dragging or running out of direction at any point. There’s an organic sensibility to PA’s writing that’s just… above and beyond what most of their peers were doing, and honestly above a ton of other metal in general.
Consequently, it almost feels less like an album and more like you stumbled on a lost ritual somehow caught on tape. Recommended? Absolutely, if you’ve somehow eluded it, and if you haven’t heard it in a while… well, it’s as good a time as any to revisit it, so what are you waiting for?
Favorite track: “The Black Mass”
Album Rating: 96/100