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A forgotten masterpiece of doom and gloom - 97%

Thalassic, December 11th, 2018
Written based on this version: 2016, CD, Minotauro Records (Reissue)

Italy’s place in the metal world is as strange as it is underexposed. While the concept of “Italian metal” is not one that actively exists in the mind of many metal heads, secretly the country is up there with the likes of Finland, Japan or the Czech Republic as one that has a knack for breeding some of the more wayward metal out there.

No artist embodies this concept like Paul Chain does. Starting out in the late 70’s as the guitar player for Death SS, Italy’s answer to the Alice Cooper-inspired shock rock trend, Paul Chain branched off from his former band to carve his own niche in the doom genre. One trademarked by guitar playing that takes equal cues from the down tuned madness of Black Sabbath as well as 70’s psychedelic rock. A potent backbone for a sound that the man himself decided to ‘kvlt’ up by topping it off with cleanly-sung Italian-accent-heavy syllables that sound like some obscure occult English text is being recited without there being any lyrics at all. A modus operandi that no one else has tried to replicate.

While Paul Chain’s work made a name for itself in underground doom circuits, it remained shrouded in complete obscurity. His relatively best known work came to light in 1995. Alkahest is the result of a collaboration with Lee Dorrian, the then lead vocalist of doom legends Cathedral. The story goes that Dorrian stayed at Paul’s house in Italy for a certain amount of time where the two would take up visits to local graveyards, ruins and undiscovered swaths of land. A collaboration that resulted in a record that’s at both times Paul Chain’s most accessible and comprehensive work as well as one that embodies the core of his sound, one that oozes subtle surrealism and existential dread.

Being a collaborative work, the album itself can roughly divided into two parts. The first five songs are pretty much quintessential Paul Chain: droning Sabbathian doom riffs repeated to hypnotizing effect, solos based on blues schemes that are suddenly stretched into almost Hawkwind-esque space rock territory, ominous keyboard soundscapes and wordless but introspective vocal work which all come together in a mystical yet unsettling fog that envelops the space you find yourself in. While some may find it to be lacking some of the more experimental touches and dungeon atmosphere of the early work due to the adequately cleaner production utilized, it’s safe to say the songwriting has never been as strong as it is here with the choruses to tracks like “Roses of Winter” or “Three Water” resembling something catchy without the necessity of lyrics. Although the uneasiness is more understated on this record, Paul Chain still proves himself to be apt at writing riffs that are at both times crushing and haunting. An example being the main riff to “Sand Glass” with a deceptively simple piece of classic doom getting hallucinatory by the turn of a single note.

The second part of the record is where Lee Dorrian comes in taking over the vocal duties. Divisive as ever, Dorrian’s vocal work here is of the same mold as the stoned warbling used in mid era Cathedral. Occasionally going into whispering incantations at various dispersed moments or underplayed cleans on the achingly haunting ballad “Lake Without Water”, Lee Dorrian delivers his greatest performance second only to the one-off ghoulish work on Forest of Equilibrium. An acquired taste, his maniacally crazed occultist vocals prove themselves to be as good a companion piece to Chain’s singular playing as the aforementioned emotive phonetics of Paul Chain himself are. Never more evident than on closing doom behemoth “Sepulchral Life” where a work of crawling esoteric doom turns into an up tempo rocker before going into a crawl again without ever losing momentum of its transcendence.

While a few more uptempo parts as used in the closing song or another evocative interlude like the ballad would’ve been welcomed, it’s a testament to the talent of the artists involved that something this misleadingly simple can at once feel as otherworldly as it does. While staying in touch with the rocking quality of old school doom it appropriately conjures up a feeling of unease similar to one you experience while being confronted with something ancient and forgotten.

One of the greatest doom records of the 90’s, the fact that Alkahest came out in the mid 90’s may have something to do with its brilliance kept from being noticed by the greater public. It’s about time it crawls out of its forgotten tomb.

Originally written for

Lee Dorrian & Paul Chain. I'm unworthy. - 88%

mad_submarine, May 23rd, 2013

When someone asks you to describe a doom metal band these days it is not as easy as it would have been ten years ago. There is stoner doom, death doom, funeral doom, traditional doom and so on and the diversity is bigger than it used to be. While many people hate these classifications and prefer to refer to the music just as "doom", the classifications are also very much needed in order for one to make a proper description. Italian doom bands, however, always resemble other Italian doom bands regardless of their exact style. There is always this 'old' feeling, the smell of ancient times and this specific Italian flavor to the music that makes it sound Italian.

While I like Paul Chain's albums, I must confess that having Lee Dorrian on "Alkahest" is what made it really pleasing for me. Okay, the truth is that I literally found myself jumping with exhilaration (as if Christmas presents had arrived two months earlier) when I found out that Lee is doing some of the vocals.

To the point. As expected, my favourite tracks are the ones with Lee on vocals plus "Roses of Winter" and "Three Water". If I were to be a superhero I'd definitely choose "Voyage to Hell" for my theme song. Just hear that fucking starting riff, it is one of the most awesome, tight doom riffs and will literally make you piss in your pants from sheer exhilaration. The organ thing in the beginning prepares you to enter the church of evil doom. As if you're on the last level of a zombie apocalypse game - you know the tough shit is just going to come for you. Lee's vocals are excellent again, some of his best performances and sound as wicked as ever, but maybe a bit faster than his usual singing pace. Maybe some of the lyrics will help you emerge in the atmosphere. Prepare, you are going to be dragged to hell and back:

''The Goat of fire in me ablaze
Oh cosmic furnace I behold
In Hades summer you live there
I've pulled you through the seven gates''

I don't even need to mention the solo guitar, it slays. Paul Chain is a fucking genius when it comes to guitar solos, man. So well-fitting, towering, bad-ass doom stuff. Songs like "Sepulchral Life" sound like taken from an early Cathedral record, I almost wait for Gary Jennings to pop up from somewhere with his excellent guitar sound. Records like this one make me wonder how awesome can you get. "Sepulchral Life" is overflowing with awesome solos. You think "Fuck, this shit is too good" and here comes another one. Slow drums, Cathedralesque sound, Lee on vocals, Paul Chain solos - nah, this is too much for my little heart to bear.

Like on every good record that is not "Forest of Equilibrium" there are songs that stand out more than the rest and are obviously better in composition and overall mastership. "Alkahest" is no exception, but overall all songs are good "enough" to pass the ''mediocre'' level barrier. "Roses of Winter" is a sweet nod towards Sabbath's "Children of the Grave", having almost the same pace and everything. It just sounds like other version of the same song. The remaining part of the album is the usual Paul Chain - strange vocals, great guitar experimental work and a lot of velvet magic.

All in all, if you think of yourself as a Cathedral fan or fan of good doom in general, introduce your ears to this. It's nothing too slow or too heavy, but still absolutely awesome, at times creepy and EVIL. Long live evil doom.

Chicchiricchì is what an Italian rooster says. - 86%

Acrobat, November 22nd, 2009

Paul Chain had been lingering around my “music I’m sure I’ll love, but have yet to hear” list for quite some time prior to actually hearing this, Alkahest, which is perhaps one of the more ‘well-known’ Paul Chain albums; meaning literally tens of people have heard it rather than just Paul and his chickens. Mr Catena’s style -- on Alkahest, at least what with it being the only of his works I’ve heard -- is one that should pose no problem for any traditional doom fan to get into (acquiring actual copies of his work, however, well don’t ask): it’s steeped in the traditions that came from the smoggy midlands of some pale and insignificant nation. I am, of course, not referring to Budgie at this point and perhaps a band whose name rhymes with “Slack Babbath”. However, the ease in which I found myself enjoying this is not at all reflective of the uniqueness in style here, which often lays closer to the surface than you’d think with this album. But, I must stress I’ve barely scratched the surface with Paul Chain.

Firstly, with the distinctive nature of Alkahest comes from the fact that Paul’s from Italy, not the place in which the weather varies between rain or a heavy sense of damp in the air at all times, and thus we get a certain sonic quality that I can only describe as “Italian”. There’s something about his vocal styling that is identifiably recognisable as such, a lot softer than most other traditional doom metal vocalists (let’s say Lee Dorian, for instance); but not at all lacking for it. Especially with the sort of “Softly softly catchee monkey” mood present here. I’m thinking this “Italian” vibe I get from Paul’s vocals comes from the fact that he sings a phonetic mumble-jumble that may or may not resemble English in an Italian accent. Got that? Good.

Anyway, about that; I personally think it’s very interesting that Paul just witters his way through this album. Of course, you could just say “He’s not saying anything, it’s all nonsense!” but that would be missing the point here somewhat. I personally like a more cryptic lyrical approach at times (see: Guardian, Awaken the), and so the Italian-babbling-nonsense doesn’t faze me one bit. See, though, something of a novice when it comes to Paul Chain (I’ve only heard one Death SS album, too), I’d guess that this lyrical approach -- which is utilised until Lee Dorian spoils things with actual words! -- is so the listener can attach his/her own meanings to the ‘lyrics’ and thus having a greatly personalised listening experience! Either that, or Paul had a very cruel English teacher at school who didn’t actually teach him proper words and as such Paul thinks he’s made a lot of very profound points about alchemy when in all actuality he’s just making a soothing murmur.

I get the feeling that Alkahest is one of Paul’s more straightforward albums (if you’d like to help me procure more Paul Chain albums, please, be my guest and send me some). It’s not laboured or predictable, at all, but rather confident stuff from a man who possesses a deft touch in his work. It’s not all great, though, ‘Voyage to Hell’, suffers from a riff that I could only really call “bouncy” and Lee’s vocals get a bit too dramatic (especially in the ‘preaching’ section, which brings to mind Sabbat’s ‘The Church Bizarre’). But otherwise, Alkahest is a solidly enjoyable album; I think my personal favourite might actually be the ballad, ‘Lake Without Water’ -- it’s very cool to hear Lee sing like this, as his voice actually has a very beautiful quality to it when he’s not indulging in some of his more maniacal, stoned warbling. It actually brings to mind ‘Solitude’ from Master of Reality -- which Cathedral, tellingly, covered in fine form for one of those otherwise abysmal Sabbath tribute albums. ‘Roses of Winter’ would be another stand-out, with a more NWOBHM-bent to the riffs and with Paul’s vocals at their ethereal best. It's really entrancing stuff, and typically, the lead guitar work is absolutely stellar. Though, I don’t want to dwell too much on the Sabbath comparisons -- I’d say Paul sounds like Iommi’s Dio-era style playing to Ozzy-era riffs. He’s perhaps one of the more overlooked great metal guitarists; but that silken playing just needs to heard!

So, Alkahest has certainly piqued my interest further in Paul Chain’s work. On the surface it might appear a rather straight-up (down, surely?) doom album, but there’s a wealth of ingredients -- some more cleverly veiled than others -- that I’m guessing (and this has been a review of much blind speculation) comes out with its true colours showing on some of Paul’s other works. Sometimes, it is the little synthesiser pieces and other assorted swirling noises that I want to come into the foreground more often, and if anything I’d like more ‘Lake Without Water’-styled songs here. But, minor gripes aside, Alkahest has well-and-truly whetted my appetite for more.