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Clever, not perfect - 85%

gasmask_colostomy, June 29th, 2015

This is a clever, clever album that all too often gets overshadowed by the underground and commercial behemoths that flank it on either side, namely 1991's 'Gothic' and 1993's 'Icon'. Those two albums bear more similarities to one another than to this one, the decrease in aggressive vocals on 'Icon' notwithstanding. For pure style, this is probably the PL album that I admire the most, edging itself into true doom while actually encompassing a wide range of other metal genres. 'Mortals Watch the Day', for example, is a fast song that bears more towards thrash and the bitterer end of NWOBHM than one might expect. You might have heard comparisons to Metallica's early 90s sound, but I can reassure you that's bullshit - PL were much more interesting and inventive. Perhaps the mid-pace and footstomping riffs are a reminder of 'The Black Album', but there's a lot more going on than that. Now that I've fucked up my introduction by saying six different things and explaining nothing, let's start fresh.

'Shades of God' is an album that does something quite special: it remains essentially unknowable many years after first listen. I thought the same about Opeth's 'Deliverance', which I cannot penetrate to this day, meaning that each time I listen to it, it unfolds itself anew and surprises me to some degree. Both that album and this one are intricate and progressive, though I would say that this album poses more problems for the casual listener, in which case it also rewards the ardent listener even more. The level of detail on the songs here remains stunning 23 years after the recording date. The production separates the instruments to a slight extent, meaning everything is easy to pick out, but you'll be listening to Gregor Mackintosh on lead guitar for at least half the time, and that's where things start to become hazy. Almost all the time, he's doing something new, either leading the band in a new direction or heading contrary to their movement; sometimes the rhythm guitar is the basis for the song, sometimes lead guitar, occasionally bass too; usually, one of those players is moving in different circles, like the rather exciting and dizzying bassline on 'Embraced' that underlies the hook heavy riffs and pulls you away in its undercurrent. The riff presence on this album is simply staggering and (I say this far too often about PL) can't be found anywhere else. The basic riffs are rooted in either doom or no shit heavy metal, yet the level of subtlety and decoration that those basic riffs get is bizarre - go to Unorthodox's 'Balance of Power' or The Obsessed's 'Lunar Womb' to find its double in two doom power trios. Perhaps the riffs are best described as riff riffs and lick riffs, many of which are meshed together into baffling, catchy choruses and hooks, meaning that the guitars never grow easy or boring.

Does it surprise you to learn that this is nowhere near as focused as 'Icon'? The songs are much longer in the first place, plus there are extra pieces that perhaps don't need to be included (acoustic introductions, stand-alone riff ventures, and so on), so nothing is as compact and catchy as 'Embers Fire' or 'Widow', not even the relatively brief 'As I Die', which includes whispered voices, strings, and a chorus that isn't quite a chorus. However, does it surprise you to hear that I rate the performance of each band member very highly? This is an intensely creative album and the summary of 'As I Die' probably justifies that statement, even the more obvious single material doesn't follow conventional song structures, even if all of the songs do have repeating parts - they are just complicated parts or repeat unexpectedly. As I mentioned, the guitarists are on fire, and I would point to both of them, since Mackintosh's ear for melody was still adjusting from doom death, meaning that he plays those licks sometimes instead of harmonic parts, while Aaron Aedy certainly gets his best outing in PL colours, turning out a classic/stadium doom masterclass of slow-burners and dark foreboders. The solos don't quite have either the unearthly tone of 'Gothic' or the instantly recognisable idiosyncracies of 'Icon', but still slay in a more classic style. Stephen Edmondson does a great job with the bass and is a key part of almost every song, adding depth to both melodic and rhythmic spheres. The drumming goes a little awry, not in Matthew Archer's performance, but in the production, where the snare sounds plastic, like he's hitting the side of a wheelie bin with a shovel, although worse things have happened in PL's recording history (*ahem* 'Lost Paradise' *ahem*). Nick Holmes doesn't rule this album as one might expect, especially with all those Hetfield comparisons: in fact, he merely does alright, sounding only just vicious enough to back up the lyrics and sometimes struggling to make his presence felt.

Slightly disappointingly, the amazing style is undermined by merely decent songs, which don't all deliver on their innovative promise. A few of the longer ones (PL rarely, if ever, exceed 7 minutes on a full-length, and here four songs topple that target) lose their initiative and wallow a little, even if 'Crying for Eternity' has one of the coolest riffs of the bands career. The big numbers are probably the first and last songs, 'Mortals Watch the Day' providing a faster and more energetic take on the doomy recipe that stays perky and challenging for its duration, while 'As I Die' errs closer to actual gothic rock in its atmosphere. My preference goes to 'Pity the Sadness', which also raises the tempo past middle ground and swoops on an elongated melody that rushes the song so thoroughly that Holmes only manages to get in the word "Morning" (beautifully, one must admit) to stand for a chorus. Mackintosh steals that one completely and the hooky chorus riff of 'Embraced' is curiously joyful as well.

'Shades of God' isn't the best Paradise Lost album by a long shot, but it is one of the most interesting and rewarding of repeated listens. The depth of invention and time spent on each song unveils depths that the band have not since returned to, except a hint on the recent 'Medusa'. This is doom with a view; a great band being clever, not just good.