Formed in 1978, Pagan Altar are among the old guard of metal. In their early days, they were unapologetic Black Sabbath clones – just listen to the first few seconds of Pagan Altar’s “The Black Mass” and tell me you aren’t expecting to headbang to Iommi’s legendary riff. But of course, there is nothing wrong with being a clone if your identical twin is Black Sabbath. Crooner Terry Jones sings in a distinctly Osbourne-ian croak comprising the weakest part of the band’s sound, but it shouldn’t offend anyone who can palate Ozzy. The riffs that Terry’s son, guitarist Alan Jones, offers on tracks like “The Black Mass” and “Judgement of the Dead” are as doom-laden and memorable as anything the genre could sling when the Pagan Altar demo was released in 1982.
After a long hiatus, the band began pumping out albums in the mid-2000’s, most notably 2006’s Mythical and Magical. From the shuddering steps of doom, the band emerged into a faerie-light folk metal style steeped in Celtic folklore. But they haven’t gone completely soft with age. Pagan Altar have a trick up their sleeves in the near-virtuosic guitar performance laid down by Alan Jones. Apparently, Alan spent his 20 year hiatus practicing, because the highlight of every single song is in the dip and bend of Jones’ nimble fingers.
The album opener, “Samhein”, offers as good an example of Alan’s prowess as any other. The track begins innocuously enough, but by the third minute Alan seizes the reins with a gorgeous, undulating solo that never really quits. The story is the same for many of the other tracks on the album, with the band playing around Alan’s riffs before the rest of the band lays back in wonder of the lead guitar euphoria. “Cry of the Banshee” and “Flight of the Witch Queen” are among the strongest cuts in a mostly consistent album, but the clear gem of the album, and of Pagan Altar’s career, is the magnificent “Rise of the Dark Lord”. The song is an eight minute love letter to lead guitar. Jones unleashes a foreboding atmosphere with a perfect storm of catchy riffs before launching into a flawless solo. All of the tremendous, almost bluesy, restraint characteristic of Jones’ playing style is unleashed during the solo’s blissful zenith at 5:18. It’s truly a remarkable song, and a fitting endcap to an album rife with guitar genius.
Unfortunately, Pagan Altar’s status is unknown after the passing of bandleader Terry Jones to cancer. The time of the old guard is ending; Black Sabbath has played The End, and Pagan Altar may have come to their own conclusion as well. Whether the band forges onward or not, give these old geezers a chance.