“Beware the Crow that stands alone, the one that watches and waits,
Beware that unguarded moment, that subtle twist of fate.
It may just be the eyes of the Crow man”
Nunhead Cemetery in South London provided a perennial inspiration to ambidextrous English band Pagan Altar. Opened in 1840 but fallen into disrepair since the middle of the last century, Nunhead is today sustained by the efforts of a dedicated group named Friends Of The Nunhead Cemetery. Considered the least frequented of the Magnificent Seven of the London cemeteries, even a cursory glance at some of the scenes from this place, and then investigating its curious history, offers an explanation of why Pagan Altar used it as backdrop for their brand of earthy heavy metal. A previous post had tried to explore the relationship between places and music, and how the mind plays the role of mediator in this association, and, through various complicated interpolations and extrapolations, quickens the connection between the two. So much so that, on conscious and concerted thought, place and music end up becoming synonymous in the listener’s consciousness.
But this is from the listener’s perspective. To create music evocative of places – or any other idea external to the music in general – is an altogether different process from the one of receiving it. It calls on artistry and a level of musical granulation not commonly accessed by the large majority of metal bands. Musical granulation with respect to an idea is the attention paid to ensuring that each individual musical component corresponds to an appropriate sliver of the idea at hand. It then follows that the extent of musical granulation will be large or small depending on the musician’s commitment to the idea, and then – perhaps even more importantly – the tools available at his disposal to realize that idea.
Pagan Altar excelled at this concept of musical granulation. Theirs was a picturesque style of heavy metal formed in the free-living spirit of the 70s. Coming in the wake of genre-defining albums by Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, Pagan Altar never quite identified themselves with the NWOBHM, instead happily pursuing their own idiosyncratic path. Perhaps that was also the reason why the band never caught fire; a scene on the cusp of partisanship wouldn’t have known what to make of their strange amalgamation of influences. A classic demo was released in 1982, but lack of attention from labels, the press, and even the underground forced the band into a premature retirement in 1985. But metalheads are nothing if not guardians of the past, and the legend of Pagan Altar continued growing in all the time since their disbandment. Bootlegs selling at outrageous prices finally shook the band out of their decade-long slumber, culminating in the release of Volume 1 – a collection of old recordings – and one of the most deserving and satisfying underdog reformation stories in all heavy metal six years later.
What is the Pagan Altar sound? I’ll use my favourite album by them, Mythical And Magical, to draw inferences. Father and son, Terry Jones on vocals and Alan Jones on guitar, formed the backbone of the band. Terry Jones’ voice was nasal in timbre and had a bucolic quality that now seems a relic of the past, at least in metal, but what a wonderful relic! Metal singers today – and metal musicians at large – imitate the metal bands they grew up idolizing; as such, their voices, technically immaculate though they may be, are lacking in personality and sheer breadth of assimilated experience, and instead compensate with volume and attitude. Terry Jones, however, came from a different era, was probably reared on a different musical diet, and that upbringing was palpable in his singing. Touchstones would include singers like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Manilla Road‘s Mark Shelton, and the tragically underrated Terry Reid (not metal, but providing an instant comparison if one is familiar with his catalog). The bourbon-soaked voice of the wizened story-teller, much more so than the virtuoso, adds character to the heavy metal song, and Terry Jones was nothing if not the consummate storyteller and bard. His druids and fauns and witches spat in the face of the new-fangled Christianity in Roman Europe, weaving poetic tales of the occult which rose like an evening susurration as if from under the very plinths at Nunhead itself.
But beyond Jones’ voice, Pagan Altar were chiefly a guitar-driven band, and there was no genre of music pariah to guitarist Alan Jones’ sense of musical inclusivity if it ultimately helped him achieve the degree of musical granulation that Pagan Altar‘s themes demanded. Over and above the elephantine crunch of Sabbath – and to be accurate, Pagan Altar were as much old Blue Oyster Cult as they were Black Sabbath, with Alan Jones being every bit the phrasal counterpart of a Buck Dharma – Mythical And Magical is rife with elements borrowed from the blues, neo-folk, neo-classical, and even country, elements which would appear to be anathema to modern metal’s sense of insularity. But Pagan Altar‘s ouevre predicated just such a wide palette for it to be achieved with any conviction. Very frequently, the notion of metal, at least in the minds of the mainstream, is relegated to a one-tone emotion like anger. Which is without doubt a comprehensive part of the genre, but in the process the idea of music as a series of conceptual tones and scenes becomes somewhat obscured. It takes true craftsmen like Pagan Altar to bring it to the fore again; not because it is something they believe is missing in today’s world, but because it is all they’ve ever known. There is no awkward self-consciousness to be found in their music, there are no figurative bell bottoms worn in the year 2016. And Mythical And Magical is all the more genuine for it.
(Terry Jones passed on in 2015 at the age of 69)