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Shades of perfection - 92%

differer, May 27th, 2009

In the event that a band drastically change their musical style over the course of their career, it is very likely indeed that one of their albums will in retrospect be thought of as the one that best encompasses this transition. We all should know how constant and fast the change was for Paradise Lost – it is precisely because of this, that ‘Shades of God’ is far from being a clear “transition album”. It has remarkably few obvious similarities with either its predecessor ‘Gothic’ or the follow-up ‘Icon’. The style and quality found here are nowhere to be heard on any of the band’s other works; this is an outstanding release.

On ‘Gothic’, the band had adopted an unusually strict distinction between rhythm and lead guitars as opposed to the debut, which focused more on two-guitar harmony lines and unison riffage. The style had, however, not yet had the time to fully develop, and was kept simple – possibly in order to keep things “under control”, so to speak. Here, the two guitars work together to weave patterns of melody and heaviness that are close to perfect; one could say that they had now learned how to utilize the lead guitar to its full potential. As a result, the songs have grown longer, more epic in nature, so that the riffs and melodies now have a chance to build deeper, more varied atmospheres. The guitar parts are simply better this time around, giving the listener plenty of things to follow and notice on repeated listens, which makes this album a definite grower when compared to the instant accessibility of ‘Gothic’. In particular, the guitar solos have turned into a key element; lengthy, melodic and relatively simple, they sound much like a second vocalist, really. And the songs have not only grown in duration, their structures have become original and unpredictable – some might say patchy, as a negative comment, but I would rather call them more interesting than before. Other things have changed, too: the female vocals that helped define gothic metal are now almost entirely gone, only appearing on ‘As I Die’; Holmes’ deep growl has become a “cleaner”, higher yell that, while not as powerful as before, sounds anguished and sad, fitting the music very well indeed.

There are no stand-out tracks on the album at all. Instead, there are stand-out parts of tracks, thanks to the creative songwriting. These include the soft acoustic guitar on ‘Daylight Torn’, the lead melody underneath the vocals in the chorus of ‘Pity the Sadness’, the unexpected triplet feel of ‘Mortals Watch the Day’, as well as countless others. Granted, ‘As I Die’ IS the obvious hit single, but even so is not any better than the other songs – in fact, I would name it the album’s weakest moment. To be quite honest, I have some serious problems thinking of these tracks as “songs” in the normal sense of the word. This as an extraordinary release, because the individual song parts (movements, one could say) are by far more important than any of the full songs. Most people would find this strange and unfitting – after all, we are talking about “popular music” of some sort – but to my ears at least, the entire idea of “songs” disappears more or less completely with this album. Even though there are verses and choruses, intros and bridges like anywhere else, they are not something you need to expect; the music is great, therefore the structure becomes meaningless.

Only very few things on ‘Shades of God’ make me raise my eyebrows. These are tiny details, of the kind that make you feel uneasy for a second or two but are soon forgotten. There is the case of unison guitars that, on occasion, play an astoundingly simple riff – from a musician’s point of view, this is strange. It’s almost like there shouldn’t be a second guitarist. Maybe (lead guitarist / songwriter) Mackintosh wipes the sweat off his forehead and takes a sip of water during these parts when performing live? What a clever man, in that case. At times, it is also a little too obvious that the music has been written by a guitarist. The solos, while of superb quality in general, can feel overdone in the sense that some of them are too long for their actual content, starting to feel like pointless noodling. My main complaint, however, is the drummer. Matthew Archer never was a “real” drummer – and he has said so himself. He’s struggling to keep up with the others, when of course it should be the drums that set the pace. It’s a literal wonder how he can pull off the up-beat parts of ‘Pity the Sadness’, for example – and even those don’t verge beyond common heavy rock in terms of speed. The beats sound lazy, giving the impression that he’s restraining the band rather than working with the other members. Having said that, it must be pointed out that I didn’t notice any of it before becoming a musician myself – I suppose that a “normal” listener should have no strong objections.

As far as I’m concerned, Paradise Lost went all downhill after this album. ‘Icon’ still had its moments, but the magic just wasn’t there anymore – to me, that one was a huge letdown back in the day. Their more recent output does not even deserve a mention. On ‘Shades of God’, they were at their creative peak – not bothering with common standards and making music that has aged astonishingly well, if at all. I find it very strange that this style has apparently not inspired too many imitators. Perhaps it’s because there is no imaginable way to do it better, so why even try. In short, this is one of the best metal albums ever, and if you’re not familiar with it by now, you should be ashamed.