The passing of Pagan Altar’s incomparable singer Terry Jones in 2015 was the saddest of news.
The English band’s revival on the stage of the University of London Union some eight years before, as recounted by several forum members here on MI, must surely count as one of the most unlikely revivals in the metal scene at large.
How many metal bands of any stripe featured such a rich father and son dynamic?
With the gifted Alan Jones on guitar alongside his father Terry, the band shrugged off the decades and breathed life into a grimoire of extremely unique material.
Granted new life by the mini-revival of Doom Metal at the end of the 2000s, they went on to play in Ireland several times and appeared at festivals far beyond, grasping the opportunity to let a 1978 project that never really lifted off achieve a measure of success in years that must have seemed like the far future back in the seventies.
To their credit, when Pagan Altar took to the stage, they always did so with class and a desire to bring to life to the poised, Victorian theatricality that they prized.
They were undeniably special.
The treat of hearing a final posthumous album, with Terry have passed away, is something to be treasured. It carries with it a certain stroke of fatefulness, of a final rueful tip of the hat, that has to be recognised as special.
Getting to the songs, and the task of keeping track of when and where the band originally recorded certain tracks is a tough one, with the group routinely holding onto tracks for years.
What’s clear is these songs were recorded with Terry still in excellent form, though liner notes point to some re-recording having taken place.
‘The Room of Shadows’, originally rumoured to be entitled ‘Never Quite Dead’, hoves into sight with a steady knell of guitar, and ‘The Rising of the Dead’s depiction of eerie churchyards and “burning resentment of the living”.
It’s about as Doom as it comes, and a satisfying opener.
This is rapidly followed up by the mid-paced swinger that is ‘The Portrait of Dorian Grey’, originally released on a split several years ago. This is where the real Pagan Altar magic starts flowing, but also where the true sonic nature of the album becomes apparent.
By and large, the record sounds like a more modern Pagan Altar. The guitar is highly polished, and Terry’s diction has never been clearer. The snare is especially high in the mix.
This is a bit of a change for older devotees, used to the charming (and frankly more nasal) exhortations on classics cuts from ‘Lords of Hypocrisy’ and the lo-fi clang of reverb-filled guitar that typified the group.
It’s a change even from the more modern sounding ‘Mythical and Magical’, with all the indications of a producer trying to make every element more audible.
Does this really impact the songs in any negative way? Not particularly has to be the response, but it does make for a different and somewhat more sparser Pagan Altar listening experience.
The fine songwriting thankfully pushes these concerns to the side.
The title track is nothing short of a triumph, an inter-generational epic with enough fireside menace and melancholy to place it amongst Terry Jones’s best work.
He improves on this with the introspection of ‘The Ripper’, with it’s slow burning anger and protracted ending, where the band’s performance really shrines through.
Finally, he gifts us with the short and sweet ‘After Forever’, with its images of ‘cascading leaves of gold and russet brown’, an autumnal moment that soundtracks both the man’s passing and the darkening season of the album’s release. The Sabbath song title you can take a nod to those Birmingham minstrels that Pagan Altar so clearly sprung from.
For someone just getting into Pagan Altar, they should be ushered past ‘The Room of Shadows’. The stone-cold classic first record, and ‘Lords of Hypocrisy’ should be where the journey begins.
But this is a fine a send-off as fans could wish for, full of power and character, with Terry Jones front and centre in a ringmaster role that only he could pull off.
The odd production and some slow moments aside, the relaxed grandeur of the group has never been so apparent.
As time’s occultation of the group completes, this will go down as a fine swansong.
4.3 / 5 – Lorcan Archer ::: 26/11/17
Released via Temple of Mystery Records. Don’t forget our MI Pagan Altar podcast, here.