Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pagan Altar—The Time Lord (Shadow Kingdom Records)

It’s always exciting to hear a new release from Pagan Altar, even when the material isn’t all that fresh. The Time Lord EP is a spruced-up CD version of a vinyl-only release that I Hate Records put out in 2004. The EP comprises five demo recordings dating as far back as 1978—way, way before heavy metal became the self-sufficient mini industry that it is now.

Pagan Altar were perfectly positioned to make a splash during the NWOBHM, yet it took the rise of the Internet to bring them out in the open. It’s a mystery to me why they didn’t get signed to a specialist label like Neat or Ebony at the time. Maybe their downtrodden and macabre Olde English style wasn’t what labels were looking for. They didn’t fit in with more fresh-faced and energetic bands like Saxon, Maiden or Leppard who were cracking it commercially, or extreme bands like Venom, who had an immediate appeal to the growing legions of freaks out there. Maybe if there’d been a doom scene beyond Witchfinder General and Trouble, Pagan Altar would have risen from obscurity more quickly. They've found their niche now, though, alongside the likes of Pentagram as once-obscure, now-revered forefathers of doom.

Elderly the songs may be, but there’s no expiry date on these babies. Blow off the dust, wash off the soot, and they’re still pretty tasty. “Highway Cavalier” is a hard-charging slice of biker rock about livin’ free and easy (and that’s how it’s gonna be) that rules even if the drum set sounds like something salvaged from a tip. The title track is the EP’s high point, partly because it's a heavy metal song about space. It has a Hawkwinded charge to it before opening up in its final act for some wonderfully drawn-out southern-rock soloing. The next three songs all ended up on Pagan Altar’s debut, Volume 1, and feature more of the band’s Sabbathy side, especially on "Judgement of the Dead." The recording quality is brittle but damn if there isn’t some impressive bass playing rising above the hiss. It’s almost as if they recruited Geezer himself for the session. On the nine-minute “Reincarnation” vocalist Terry Jones gets to showcase his unique, raspy style. Even in the band’s youth, he sounds like a wise old sage. It's probably down to the trebley recording, but that razor-wire guitar tone during the song's scorching climax sure works for me.

While it’s not the perfect place to first approach the Pagan Altar, there's no denying that this EP features some excellent material. These recordings aren’t exactly up to Martin Birch’s standards, but they’re well up to the job of capturing Pagan Altar’s mystique; the band's raw despondence and devotion to the macabre corners of heavy metal. Nobody writes and plays ’em like this anymore. Kudos to Shadow Kingdom Records for making this release available again.

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