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Preaching at the altar of the lead - 89%

lord_ghengis, December 20th, 2013

I love guitar solos and leads. They're wonderful additions to any song which can provide flair, excitement, emotion, sheer technical impressiveness, cover for dynamic shifts, provide melody and beauty or savagery and insanity, or any other number of glorious things which make metal songs even better than they already were. One thing I couldn't say however, is that solos can really make a song. By definition, they're a topping, a little bit of extra awesomeness to add to the bulk of the song. As such a good solo never really makes a bad song "good", it just means you've got a bad song with a ripping lead guitar section in it. Manilla Road's gloriously well composed licks and harmonies never make up for the fact their vocalists suck and they sound like they record their music inside a cardboard box with the microphone left outside, Ningen Isu's unique playing style can't make up for the fact their majority of their riffs are tired rehashes of rehashes from the Black Sabbath days. Obviously after a set up like that it should be painfully clear Pagan Altar completely mess up this argument.

I'm just going to start off by getting all your bad will thrown at me right away; Pagan Altar are kinda mediocre going on a bit crappy. Literally everything they do that isn't a lead guitar line or outright solo either sucks or is completely inconsequential. The vocals sound like a mix of Sol Invictus guy, both old bored man Mark Shelton and earlier, ridiculous nerd with the presence of a wet moth Mark Shelton, an old soft rock singer my Mum likes who's name I can't remember so you'll need to trust me, and finally, I don't know, a giant nose? Admittedly they write pretty solid vocal lines for his chops, there aren't any attempts at glorious and epic soaring heights or rapid fire tongue twisters, it's just nice mid paced hooks make good use of his "Nyeeeeehhhh's" and "Nyuuuuuhhh's", making his performance likely the best non-lead guitar aspect of the album, but I'd hardly call this album a vocal powerhouse. At best it's a clever recognition and acceptance of one's limitations and weaknesses.

The production is old school as hell, but very, very easy going. It provides no heaviness for the underutilized doomier side of their sound or the more commonly used rocking and trad metal riffing based one. Not to say that all heavy metal really strives to be the most devastatingly immense thing in the world all the time, and a very good portion of the album is very folky and slight in stature, but this is a fair bit too weak sounding for my mind for anything with the amount of rhythm guitar a genre like metal revolves around. The drumming is as inconsequential as any drumming performance and sound has ever been, and he's been mixed accordingly. The bass certainly does different stuff from the guitars, but it lacks the rumbling, dense production it needs to make it worthwhile.

But most importantly of all, the riffs are generic as shit. They're old school, heavy metal true and proud no doubt, but these riffs are pure throwback with nothing to set it apart or above the stuff that was getting churned out in massive numbers back in the late 70's/early 80s. This isn't like Satan, who's modern take on old heavy metal managed to create new and lively riffs which still fit into the framework of the old school sound, Pagan Altar's riffs are generic gallops and power chord hooks which were dated by 1981 with nothing to set them apart from the pack. Maybe bigger NWOBHM fans than me appreciate the simple notion of throwing back to the past and successfully executing the extreme baseline rules of the style, but as someone who has to sit through dozens of the most faceless and lifeless retro old school death metal acts to find an Ignivomous or Embrional, I can't see other retro genres getting free passes for simply matching a sound roughly. For me there are legitimately four rhythm riffs on this whole album which rise above complete and utter mediocrity, at least half of them on Daemoni Na Noiche, and I haven't listened to that much NWOBHM. These are just old riffs, not new old riffs.

...But here's the thing; none of that matters on Mythical and Magical. Not one little bit of all that crappy to eh stuff matters one slightest little bit, purely due to the lead guitar chops of Alan Jones and the band well placed faith in him to be absolutely perfect absolutely all the time.

This album is just dripping with the gooey remnants of the best lead sex music has ever had. These guys don't just have ripping dedicated solo sections, they'll just straight up sit a song on top of a solo that just keeps playing the whole time because fuck it, the leads here are awesome and no stupid little metal song is going to interrupt it, so they may as well coexist. As a conservative estimate I'd say around 70% of the album has some kind of lead guitar lick or outright guitar solo on it. For instance, opener "Samhein" is five and a half minutes long and features a solo starting at around 1:15 which doesn't let up for the rest of the song! Not to say it degrades into a senseless wankfest or anything, they just resume playing their song with the verses and choruses and bridges and all those good old song parts right over the top while all the lead wizardry keeps going along at the same time underneath it, and it's pretty much the best thing in the world. This brilliantly over the top concept is repeated in the vast majority of the tracks on here.

The leads here are diverse, melodically appealing, fresh and elegantly composed. They cover a multitude of different sounds and moods, both across the songs themselves or the albums, "Cry of the Banshee" alone opens with medieval tinges of the licks in the verses, then has an up front genuine solo, then closes out with some very old fashioned drawn out notes which are quite dramatic and gripping. Other songs manage to fit in a of other ideas and emotions over the length of the album, from the epic magnitude of the solo at the end of "The Sorcerer", to the lightning fast meedling of "The Witches Pathway", to the outright beauty of the graceful background licks of "The Crowman" or the nostalgic rock phrasings of the mid portions of the same song, to the energetic runs of "Flight of the Witch Queen", the band nails a just disgusting number different types of lead and solos with utter perfection. They're always fitting, always fresh, always moving to a certain goal and always exceptionally well played.

Well, maybe I'm selling this album a little bit short; the band has a second ace up their sleeve, namely a bunch of really well done, fitting neofolk or folk rock or whatever. It's not my favourite style of music, but Terry's vocals really suit the less rocking style of music and all of the acoustic licks are flavoured with that nimble and wandering touch which makes the solos on here so delightful and addictive. Terry's old-man-who-can't-really-sing style suits songs that are made for old men who are tired of the world and just want to go die in the forest surrounded by cultists for obvious reasons. Admittedly, these songs do tend to cut down on the amount of outright electric guitar soloing compared to metal numbers (but fret not, they're still there for at least a few minutes of each song), but I think the overall product is far more compelling.

What I find most charming and interesting about Pagan Altar is that they've pretty much flown directly in the face of everything that I would always say makes a good metal album, and they've done it so well that it kinda ruins other bands for me. This is all about the little bits of flair that I would usually say are just the "extras" to the main portion of an album. All the usual things tend I look forward to in metal just aren't here, from magnitude, to riffs, to energy, to tone worship, it's all missing but I don't care. They've managed to make what are 30 second bursts of colour to other bands and turn them into something that can carry an entire song, hell, an entire album. The leads are so tightly woven into the composition that a whole song which fails so many basic metal quality checks for me suddenly kicks ass in its entirety. It's just such a wonderful concept that it completely screws up my listening habits for other bands. I can listen to the previously mentioned Satan and all I can think is "Yeah sure they've got these awesome riffs which are 70,000 times better than PA and the solos are sick as, but why aren't they playing those solos for 80% of the song?!", like it's some kind of reasonable request. This album has completely mangled my demands for bands to avoid having flat moments at any moments whatsoever. Soon as any band does some kind power chord riff or trad metal gallop without some kind of background guitar solo blazing along underneath I get insanely, irredeemably bored... so thanks, Pagan Altar, you killed your genre while not even being very good at the main core of it, well done, jerks. Awesome, awesome jerks.