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Album Review: Pagan Altar – The Room of Shadows

In a time where so many bands want to sound retro, no old school portrayal is more accurate than that of Pagan Altar. This may primarily be due to the band having gotten its start in the NWOBHM era and for drawing most of their material from songs written at that time. But the British doom lords also have a distinctly hazy production and performance style that evokes the aesthetics of a bygone era, one dating back centuries that has faded into the mists of time until a ghostly Celtic aura is all that remains.

This is especially true for The Room of Shadows, which is not only the first Pagan Altar album to come out since 2006’s Mystical and Magical but also their final release due to the unfortunate passing of singer Terry Jones in 2015. It operates on the same tropes as the three full-lengths before it. The production is devoid of any modern influence, the guitars consist of fuzzy rhythms and classic rock leads, the lyrics are as macabre as ever, and Mr. Jones still has the jangly drawl of a Lovecraft Country bumpkin.

But while Pagan Altar’s brand of doom has always been mixed with folk, classic rock, and bits of traditional heavy metal, there’s definitely not as much of the latter compared to their other albums. With the exception of the upbeat “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” and the celebratory chorus of “Danse Macabre,” The Room of Shadows never ventures past a mid-tempo pace. “Dance of the Vampires” packs in a particularly heavy riff set but the album as a whole doesn’t feel any more oppressive or downtrodden than other efforts either.

Instead, the band’s folk side is more prominently highlighted. There aren’t any power ballads in the traditional sense but songs like “Danse Macabre” and the title track integrate acoustic segments into the material quite nicely and the vocals are clearer while still having that signature storyteller feel. In addition, “After Forever” is a minute and a half long closer with an oddly personal lyric and vocal performance that feels as if Terry Jones is delivering his own epitaph. I’m not sure if the band knew what was to come or if they were just listening to more Jethro Tull than usual, but it’s haunting all the same.

Pagan Altar’s albums have always felt like old-timey folk legends set to music so it isn’t too surprising to see their last one pay tribute to their fallen vocalist in such a subtle yet haunting fashion. The transition to a slower, more scaled down sound is natural and the songwriting keeps things tasteful without having to bowdlerize the ghoulish storytelling. It’s a shame that it took this long for The Room of Shadows to be completed but fans are sure to appreciate the band’s return, even if it is just to say goodbye.

Highlights:
“The Portrait of Dorian Gray”
“Danse Macabre”
“Dance of the Vampires”
“After Forever”

R.I.P. Terry Jones (August 24th, 1945 – May 15th, 2015)

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