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The Secret Lords of Heavy Metal - 99%

DreamOfDarkness, December 16th, 2013

It's a miracle: Why is Pagan Altar still so obscure after all these years? Their previous outputs have been one of the finest in the entire heavy/doom genre, and Mythical & Magical is even better than these in the best possible way. It's heavily guitar driven doom metal with lots of melodic leads, accompanied by the nasal vocals of Terry Jones that take some time to get used to, but are very unique and do a great job telling the mystic and "pagan" stories behind each song.

The instrumentation is fairly typical for heavy metal: Drums, bass, rhythm & lead guitars and vocals, to which occasionally flutes, synthesizers, samples and a female choir are added. While the drums and bass take the backseat here and support but not lead the music, the guitars shine in every possible way. First of all, the guitar tone is just perfect. Warm, heavy(-ly distorted) and bluesy at the same time. While the riffs roar and rumble through the songs with power and groove, the leads are singing, wailing and screaming with a lot of feeling to them. No mindless shredding is to be found on here, not a single wasted note. Alan's guitar style in general is certainly unique and a blend of blues, heavy metal and folk and never sounds like a rip-off from Black Sabbath, whom they are often compared to, or any other band.

The vocals aren't technically very good as Terry's vocal range is rather limited and his nasal tone is sometimes almost over the top so that could put off some people. But somehow they work with what the band is trying to do, telling mythical and magical stories of witches' rituals, druids, sorceress and the like. Just as in Black Sabbaths eponymous song Ozzy's pleading vocals ("The flames reach higher, and higher!") couldn't be replaced by "clean" ones, an ordinary voice wouldn't fit Pagan Altar. Also keep in mind that Terry is really old for a metal vocalist, at least 60 when this album was recorded. However this makes the narrating part at the beginning of "The Crowman" and his general performance in "The Sorcerer" much more authentic and atmospheric.

I wouldn't want to put some songs above others as they are all part of the experience. There are folk-ish songs like "The Crowman", short bluesy pieces such as "The Witches Pathway" and the extra atmospheric ballads "The Sorcerer" and "The Erl King". Some songs could be seen as fillers, but not in any bad way. They are just shorter and simpler in their structure and allow for some breathing between the longer ballads. Even those "fillers" are excellently executed and provide a rather uplifting and relaxed hard-rock vibe to them.

Pagan Altar are far from modern - they sound ancient and aged in pretty much any way. But maybe that's why their music doesn't get old even on countless listens. I can loose myself endlessly in the dense atmosphere, the thoughtful and perfectly fitting lyrics and the soulful and spot-on guitar playing. Compared to their previous albums they improved the production that is now cleaner but still warm and organic. I'd also say they are a bit more melodic than on Lords of Hypocrisy or Judgement of the Dead as they have finally put down the typical NWOBHM sound that was present especially on the debut and replaced it with some more folk elements. Now they play a very unique blend of traditional doom metal, folk and blues I can hardly get enough from. This is their best release so far and certainly an album I'll still be listening to in 20 years.