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Paradise Lost
The Plague Within Dean Brown , May 20th, 2015 13:45

Paradise Lost's 14th studio album, The Plague Within, arrives at a curious time in the lives of two of its creators – vocalist Nick Holmes and lead guitarist/keyboardist Gregor Mackintosh. Last year the former was revealed as the new frontman of Swedish death metal supergroup Bloodbath, and they released their first album with a cloaked and crepuscular Holmes (or 'Old Nick' as he was called) lending his characteristic growl of bygone days. Upon its release, Grand Morbid Funeral was hailed as a success even by curmudgeonly Bloodbath fans who longed for the return of Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt on vocal duties. And, with the backing of the old guard, Holmes seemed to thrive in his new theatrical role, which enabled him to revisit his extreme metal roots on what was easily the heaviest album with his name attached since Paradise Lost's 'Peaceville Three' death/doom heyday of the early 1990s.

On the other hand, Mackintosh reverted to his death metal origins well before Holmes did, thus quelling claims of a musical mid-life crisis on his part at least. He started Vallenfyre in 2011 as a means to cope with the grief brought on by the passing of his father, and his band – a fierce combination of Amebix crust, Discharge hardcore attack, and Entombed and Bolt Thrower-esque death strikes – has since grown beyond Mackintosh's initial expectations. In Vallenfyre, Mackintosh – backed by At The Gates and current Paradise Lost drummer Adrian Erlandsson, ex-My Dying Bride guitarist Hamish Glencross, and bassist Scoot – takes not only the role of guitarist, but also of vocalist. And, like Holmes, he too was busy last year, when his band released their second album Splinters to critical acclaim.

For two musicians who appeared content to leave extreme metal as a historical aspect of Paradise Lost's deep discography, their rekindled love of underground sounds far removed from what their main band favoured during its patchy mid-period is obviously a point of interest for wayward fans who lost touch after the masterful Draconian Times. And expectedly, their outside projects have bled into Paradise Lost's new music. However, this development doesn't sound at all revivalist because the air of heaviness has, in all actuality, permeated their music since 2009's Faith Divides Us – Death Unites Us, albeit in a less pronounced state – especially vocally.

Holmes, who has always been a consummate vocalist and frontman, takes a truly dominant stance on The Plague Within. His death-growl, with proper enunciation intact, is back, front and centre throughout. But more importantly, his ear for seriously memorable hooks has not been supressed to satisfy the death metal contingent who will undoubtedly return, Walking Dead-like, once this album drops. His solemn verses on 'No Hope In Sight' mask how simplistic the chugging riffs are, which builds to a defiant bridge and roaring chorus; the song driven by Erlandsson's propellant double bass, Stephen Edmondson's locked-in basslines and Aaron Aedy's rhythm guitars during the chorus and given additional flare courtesy of Mackintosh's regal opening riff and subsequent lead work. Holmes then leads the anthemic second song, 'Terminal', in a straightforward, yet effective way. In fact, his distinguishable choice of vocals depends on the tone of the track, which, from a listener's point of view, is one main reason why your attention is held rigid for 50 minutes.

'An Eternity Of Lies' and 'Beneath Broken Earth' cast the quintessentially British gothic atmosphere across what eventually reveals itself to be a dynamically sequenced album. 'An Eternity of Lies' could easily be a cut from their most successful period during the 90s: the lumbering riffs and multi-headed vocals are all characteristic of that time. While 'Beneath Broken Earth' reaches further back to their earliest doom/death beginnings: slow, crawling wretch of the guitars, Mackintosh's stately leads and Holmes' resonant growls tying the band's past, present and future together in one deathly embrace.

Amongst doom/death tracks like those – 'Sacrifice The Flame' being another strong example of the band's experience at pacing and knowing how to incorporate subtle embellishments to enhance the impact of the guitars – are two songs that, for the first couple of spins, don't appear to fit the album's overall mood. 'Punishment Through Time', for instance, sounds like High on Fire if they were founded on Peaceville Three records instead of the speed-snorting mania of Motörhead. In all reality this song it's probably born from a love of all things Tom G. Warrior – especially how its title is shouted during the chorus – and the High on Fire similarities are perhaps unintentional, although distracting for fans of the Oakland band.

Initially, the sludge of 'Punishment Through Time' sounds oddly out of place because of that, and so too does 'Cry Out' – an up-tempo Halifax-via-NOLA rock song with more than a hint of Down to it. But once you really consume this album on a conscious level, you see that while those two songs are quite different from the rest of the material presented, they are positioned to add primal contrast to the funereal movements. And because 'Cry Out' is formed on Southern rock, faster tempos and less doom/death signatures, when the Wagnerian opening of finale 'Return to the Sun' (easily one of the best songs Paradise Lost have ever written) starts, the deep weight of the music and the emotion it releases resounds with superior force because of what precedes it. On 'Return To The Sun', Mackintosh's emotive lead work cries from the heavens and wraps itself seamlessly around Holmes' sung verses, and the song reaches a powerful apex during the final chorus, just like all good closing moments should. This track stands as a positive affirmation of Paradise Lost's importance as a metal band in the year 2015.

Prior to the release of The Plague Within, you'd be forgiven for thinking Paradise Lost's heaviest/best days were behind them – although the level of respect afforded to the band from the metal scene has remained constant and deserved. The major difference here from their recent run of records is that you can just feel the purpose and excitement emanating from each member of this legendary act, and that, coupled with extremely forceful songwriting, is what makes The Plague Within an essential part of their 27-year existence.

The Plague Within also leads you to question the creation of art in later life and how an artist's formative years can once again inspire them to seek out the vital energy that rippled through their early work. Notwithstanding the influence of Bloodbath and Vallenfyre, the success of Carcass's Surgical Steel must have, in some way, impacted Paradise Lost's thought process prior to writing: Carcass's acknowledgement of what their fans love about them and what fans wanted to hear on a new record helped focus the direction of their comeback album, which is now rightly regarded as a modern classic. While the circumstances of both bands are obviously different, especially in that Paradise Lost have been active since their inception and have released way more albums, The Plague Within has the overall feel of a shrewd comeback attempt. This is primarily because their 14th studio album showcases a newly determined band, one completely comfortable and keen to explore their extreme past – just listen to the fiery death metal expulsed during 'Flesh From Bone' – in order to breathe new life into their well-established sound. Consequentially, Paradise Lost have pounded a line straight through their lineage and have marched forth more relevant, heavier and diverse than they have sounded in years.