UK Doom Legends Pagan Altar Find Life After Death
Ahead of their final live performance, stream the band's final studio album, ‘The Room of Shadows,’ and delve into their long, strange history.
Photo courtesy of Pagan Altar
"Now I'm on death's door, we'll be together…. And I'll be with you then and after forever."
So goes the seemingly prophetic closing lyric from cult British doom legends Pagan Altar's final record, The Room of Shadows, which will see an August 24 release via Canadian label Temple of Mystery. Although it's easy to draw the conclusion that the record seems so infused with death because it was recorded following late vocalist Terry Jones' cancer diagnosis, his son and guitarist Alan Jones refutes the suggestion.
"We written all the words to that in 2004," Alan Jones explains from his home in the rural English countryside. For this piece, I spoke with him, bassist Diccon Harper, and drummer Andy Green, the latter two of whom both rejoined the band in 2016 to finish the recording. Both had already served time in Pagan Alter: Harper from 2007 until 2010, and Andy from 2008 until 2009. The only two consistent members since day one have been Jones and his late father, whose relationship was kept obscured in the band's early days. "They used to say that they were cousins for years, so no one knew that they were father and son!" explains Harper.
The duo began writing in the late 70s, stockpiling a myriad of songs that have taken decades to actually see release. The Room of Shadows is the final installment in their remarkable legacy, released two years after Terry passed away. Like 2006's Mythical & Magical and 2004's Lords of Hypocrisy, its focal points are the atmosphere and ambiance conjured by the younger Jones' psychedelic and progressive shredding, and his father's warbling croon, which weaves remarkable tales of intrigue and the undead. "It's a collection of stories," Jones offers.
Originally dubbed The Ripper thanks to Terry Jones' fascination with the infamous British serial killer, the album title eventually became The Room of Shadows to accommodate his wishes to depict a family member on the cover. The girl depicted in the pastoral Adam Burke painting is Terry's grand-daughter Ellie, and the band's long-held mascot, known as the Sorcerer, is also integrated into the band name above the painting, setting the tone for the shadowy, textured release. Lyrical commentary includes Dorian Gray's crumbling fictional portrait on "The Portrait of Dorian Gray," an assembly of the undead on "Dance of the Vampires" and "Danse Macabre," as well as arguable album centerpiece "The Ripper." The song ends on a sinister note, with an Jones uttering an angrily, mumbled phrase–"The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing"—known as the Goulston Street graffito. Written on the stone walls of the London district of Whitechapel, looking down at the same streets that Jack the Ripper stalked, the highly contentious graffiti was found beside a bloodstained apron thought to be owned by the murderer himself.
"It was Terry's interest," Harper explains. "He had a real passion and interest in the Ripper and who he was. If you read the lyrics and the song, there was deep political intrigue in the royal family; people trying to hide who the real person was doing it, because they thought it might be [Albert Victor], he was a prince at the time. He was involved in it in some way. They were trying to blame the Jewish community. Al was involved with a prostitute, Mary Kelly [who became the Ripper's final victim at age 25]. She was probably pregnant with the Prince's child, that's what it's about, to cover it up."
Although the Internet incorrectly suggests that the band started two years later, Jones began writing Pagan Altar material with his father in 1976, when he was only 15 years old. Three years earlier, his father had surprised him on Christmas morning with his first amp and guitar, a Kimbara that has been used on nearly every album since. His dad wanted to be in a band, so, inspired by the virtuosity of Rainbow's Ritchie Blackmore and the progressive battering of Rush's Alex Lifeson, Jones began to practice. At the time, their sound was utterly groundbreaking; the New Wave of British Heavy Metal had come to dominate the regional music scene and playing slow was utterly unfashionable. Very few bands in in their vein even existed at that point—Pagan Altar's first recording was preceded only by a handful of singles by Pentagram, a single from Witchfinder General, and Trouble's debut demo. "He wanted to do it, so he just got his son to learn how to play," says Jones, laughing.
Originally dubbed Hydra, the father/son project then morphed into the Pagan Altar we know today. Eventually obtaining a drummer and bassist, the act began stockpiling material at a startling rate thanks to the Jones' easy synchronicity. Despite their cache, the band released only one demo tape featuring six tracks in 1982. However, their live show was already developing into an impressive spectacle. Conjuring the rich history of occult rituals that preceded them, the members appeared on stage in thick cloaks, putrid incense drifting from the stage. Thanks to their ground-breaking combination of warbling, slow-moving power and eldritch witchery, Pagan Altar began to take off. In 1982, they were offered a tour with a young Metallica, who had just released their now-iconic debut, No Life 'til Leather. Pagan Altar turned it down.
"They called my dad up at 3 o'clock in the morning, and they were quite new at the time, Metallica, and we were going to support them or they would support us, I can't remember," says Jones. "Me dad had a good job at the time and I don't think he was quite keen on just setting out to America, it was too much of a risk."
More setbacks followed. A single was lost to a record pressing plant closure, and eventually, they stopped altogether—only to come roaring back to life in the early 2000s, thanks the realization that bootleggers were making a fortune off of their debut demo. Pagan Altar released a remastered version, Volume 1, in 1998, which was then was followed by seven consecutive releases. In addition to releasing their official debut in the form of Judgment of the Dead, they also churned out new albums Lords of Hypocrisy and Mythical and Magical.
Unlike their first releases, Lords of Hypocrisy and Mythical and Magical demonstrated considerable growth in terms of the band's guitar playing, storytelling, and the overall richness of their sound, bringing in the guitar virtuosity of Mark Knopfler alongside hypnotic backing female vocals. During that extremely active decade, Terry Jones became well known as an affable, white-haired gentleman with a delightfully thick accent. He always made time to chat with fans, whether it was during the sweltering chaos of Maryland Death Fest or at 3 AM on the streets of Calgary following the Noctis Metal Festival. By the time he was diagnosed with cancer, the band had already been at work on their impending material. Rather than discouraging them, the diagnosis instilled the band with a sense of urgency.
"We actually started it in 2013, and as we started it, me dad got diagnosed, right in the beginning," Alan Jones told me. Although he is not eager to elaborate on the lengthy delay between recording and release, the short story goes like this: essentially, the existing rhythm section that had been recorded for the album simply wasn't working. "After me dad died, I didn't listen to it for two years. I just couldn't listen to it after that. You know, I really didn't like it. I just didn't want it to be remembered as the worst album we've ever done. It was only these two [Harper and Green] that have made me fall in love with it again."
"It's just doing right by the music," Harper adds. "The music is going to be there forever, long after the people are gone, and it's got to be right, and have the best treatment it can."
Despite its fitful birth, the album is truly a credit to the Jones legacy. From the labyrinthine guitar lines of the ominous "Danse Macabre" to the grand storytelling of "The Room of Shadows" and beyond, the record is resolutely infused with that enduring indefinable quality that makes Pagan Altar so essential. In addition to the music itself, the band has gone all-out on packaging; Temple of Mystery's Die Hard edition of the album comes with some of the same unusual incense the band utilized onstage in the early days.
"That's [label owner] Annick [Giroux]'s idea," Alan explains as Harper and Green chuckle in the background. "It's this thing called Kyphi, she found it. Apparently it's supposed to be a hallucinogenic, I don't know if it is or not. I must admit, it stinks something rotten. If you've got anyone in there with smelly feet, it'll get rid of that!"
In tribute to a life remarkably lived, the remaining members of Pagan Altar will perform at the final Wings of Metal Festival in Montreal, Canada on Saturday, September 9. Organized by Giroux, the fourth edition of the underground metal festival sold out in a single day, thanks in part to its small capacity and to its purposefully intimate feel. The Pagan Altar tribute is dubbed The Time Lord, and will features session members Brendan Radigan of Magic Circle on vocals and Andres Arango of Cauchemar on backing guitars. These two new blood additions are fitting, given that Pagan Altar influenced an emerging generation of underground doom musicians with their return to the genre, most notably Magic Circle, The Wizar'd, Tarot, Hour of 13, Funeral Circle, Gatekeeper, Lamp of Thoth, and Briton Rites. The only song from the new album that will be played is "Dance of the Vampires;" tthe remainder of the set will stretch across their discography, and following this final performance, the band will be laid to eternal rest.
"We wont do a Pagan Altar thing again, not as Pagan Altar. Not without my dad," Jones says firmly. "The whole Pagan Altar experience has to do with the family in the end."
Sarah Kitteringham will be singing along to every song that the Time Lord plays, likely with tears in her eyes (and is on Instagram, too).