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Paul Chain is, apparently, a weirdo who came from the band Death SS, who I know nothing about and thus won’t bother trying to summarize. No, I think I have enough material here just talking about Paul Chain’s oddball solo debut Life and Death. It is an esoteric and individual beast without anything resembling trendiness or modernization, reaching back from its late 80s standing into the dark murkiness of the 70s at some parts, and at others into an entirely new dimension, unexplored by man before and since. People, I can’t come up with any more ways to say this is strange, so let’s just cut the middle man and start reviewing this sucker.
Life and Death isn’t exactly a title that sends any warning signals to your brain, and neither the track names or the cover art does either, so I really had nothing to go on. I guess I was expecting some sort of dirty, minimalistic doomy affair with deep, grunted vocals and dirgey bass and occult themes, or something, but really I was completely unprepared for the airy strings, the clean, sluggish guitars that sometimes broke into melodious leads and the high-pitched warbling from the vocals that followed.
Yes, Paul Chain as a vocalist is quite literally out of this world, as I can’t think of even one other singer I know to compare him to. His voice alone sounds a tiny bit like Jon Arch if he ever got a super-clean production job, but it’s the way he sings that is so different from anyone else. For one, a lot of the time he apparently isn’t even singing real words – he’s completely made up his own language. How fucked up is that? It’s actually really cool and lends to the alien mystical air this album was obviously trying to set up. And two, his vocal lines are just so idiosyncratic and so stylized that I doubt anyone could cover and not sound totally ridiculous even attempting. His voice dives and soars and croons and emotes a million different ways over the course of this album, and not once does he sound like he’s straining. His high, slightly breathy whine is layered over the music like a light morning mist.
The music isn’t quite as weird, but it’s still pretty damned distinctive. The first track is a pretty useless intro without much to really make it worth hearing, but then “Antichrist” kicks in, with its crawling tempo and strange nuanced vocal lines, and this is a song that had to grow on me a little – it’s not one of the best on here, but it’s certainly good enough to introduce the listener to what’s going to come. This is music that succeeds when you just sit back and let it roll over you in waves – like on “Kill Me,” which rides a really simple, driving riff for the entire seven minute run-time, along with Chain’s moaning of the titular words for the chorus. But it works; it really works. It engulfs the listener in a chasm of melody so tight they might never be able to get out, and it’s probably the album standout at the end of the day. “Ancient Caravans” is a short, soft piece with some really delicate vocals and an atmosphere like the Middle East at nighttime, and then we kick into the other album highlight with “My Hills,” which explodes like a shooting star with happy island-style acoustics layered over colorful, blazing leads in what ends up being a mouthwatering affair. It’s not terribly metallic but it is a wonderful, engaging piece of music.
The rest of the album remains curious, with the sliding guitar melodies of “Alleuia Song” and the muttered vocals and more traditional metal riff of “Spirits,” even though there are no songs as good as “My Hills.” “Cemetery” is 8 minutes of thumping bass-lines, grunted vocals and loopy, obscure guitar leads, and it comes together pretty well, never failing to entertain even if it isn’t really something that will blow you away. The album closes with “Oblivious,” which is an organ piece that leaves the listener feeling uncertain, staring at the night sky wondering what he or she has just experienced…I like it myself; it’s a good way to leave an impression. It’s like, what happened? I’d better listen to that again and inspect it more closely. And that’s always good.
Life and Death is pretty much like that as a whole, really – it’s a curious affair, and no doubt inspired. With only seven tracks being actual songs it runs under 40 minutes of real music, and I think that hurts it a bit, as it really does fly by. And I don’t want to be mean to this album or anything, but a lot of these songs just don’t really catch fire. “Kill Me” and “My Hills” are about the only ones that do. Nothing else really comes up to that level, and it’s a little disappointing, as I know he has it in him to do a whole album like that. These songs are good, but most of them end up being just…curious, rather than spellbinding and arresting as those two mentioned songs can be. This feels like a warm-up album at the end of the day. Nothing wrong with that, and I can really dig this when it’s on, but I think the stars are telling me with this to go seek out Chain’s future exploits and find gold…