The older you get, the more you realise that not only is “growing up” more complicated than you think, it sometimes looks like going back. In the mid-late 90s, bands were tripping over themselves to grow out of Metal – dropping the growled vocals, softening the sound and heading in a more self-consciously “mature” direction. Everything that lives, however, changes (apart from Lemmy), and the road ahead sometimes leads backwards.
When Nick Holmes announced last year that he was joining no-frills old school Death Metal revivalists Bloodbath it seemed to some people to have genuinely come out of nowhere, but the signs had been there if you knew where to look. My Dying Bride were very much ahead of the curve, reintroducing their Death Metal elements mere years after ditching them, but the others were catching up slowly – The King Is Blind, Vallenfyre (featuring PL’s own Gregor Mackintosh) and Bloodbath themselves all being formed by “mature” former Death/Doom Metal musicians. By the time that Paradise Lost – who had been steadily moving back to their heavier roots for the last several albums – announced that Holmes would be growling again on The Plague Within (Century Media), it can only have come as a surprise to people who’d stopped paying attention years ago.
That said, it’s important to start by understanding what The Plague Within is, and more importantly what it isn’t. Even in their demo days, Paradise Lost weren’t Morbid Angel, and this album should be best understood as a partial return to their roots. Ignoring the vocals for a second, the sound here is slick and melodic, the focus very much on big riffs and catchy choruses that most call to mind their Icon or Draconian Times (Music For Nations) periods. Songs explore the slower and faster ends of the mid-pace, but never really indulge in either. “Groovy” is a word that isn’t frequently used to describe Paradise Lost – and it certainly doesn’t fit every track on The Plague Within – but there are moments here where they almost attain mid-period Cathedral levels of swing.
Which is not to suggest that the rumours of their return have been overstated, just that they need to be put in context. The guitars are thicker and heavier than they’ve been in a very long time, and that adds a pleasing weight to even the catchiest of tracks. It’s not all catchy grooves, either – ‘Beneath Broken Earth’ captures the sort of forlorn True Doom grief-pride you’re more likely to associate with Warning or Solstice, and ‘Flesh From Bone’ has a genuine old-school Death Metal rumble that I genuinely never thought I’d hear from Paradise Lost again.
The vocals are the most instant point of focus, and they’re largely well done, shifting between mournful clean singing and the audible dry growl Holmes used so well on the recent Bloodbath.
It goes without saying, of course, that it’s not perfect. They’ve chosen to open proceedings with two of the weaker tracks, leaving the stronger ones to the end where the long running time means they’ve lost some of their impact. The vocals don’t always work – some of the clean singing sounds a little flat, and when Holmes isn’t pushing the full-on growl he sometimes settles for an awkward gruff-singing compromise that sits a little awkwardly. ‘Cry Out’ pushes the groovy-fun-party-Doom thing a little too hard and ends up sitting a little awkwardly on the album. Ultimately, however, The Plague Within is the kind of album that will stand or fall on the quality of the song-writing, and though it’s a bit of a mixed bag, overall they’ve done what they need to make it work.
Not a descent into the darkest bowels of harrowing Death-Doom, then, but expecting it to be would be rather silly. What The Plague Within offers is a sincere, heartfelt amalgam of older influences and current songwriting from a band who have always had the courage to follow their own muse where it leads them, even if it seems to lead them back.