Paradise Lost – The Plague Within
It’s somewhat impossible to talk about long-running British goth metal band Paradise Lost without talking about pop music. The reason for this is twofold. First, because Paradise Lost were, for a few years, a pop band in the genre sense—they sounded like Depeche Mode, one of the world’s most profitable and long-running synthpop groups (and were actually one of that band’s best imitators). Second, because they’re one of the world’s foremost masters of making metal music within the pop sensibility. On their newest album, The Plague Within, they don’t just bring all of their multi-genre talents together, they do so within that pop sensibility, as if to reconcile metal—the genre—with pop—the sensibility—once and for all.
In this instance, I mean pop sensibility as in the root of the word: popular. To quote Depeche Mode and keep my themes consistent, I’m referring to music for the masses—music to be consumed by the population at large: music which is immediately understandable without any specialized knowledge, at least up to a point. Pop as a sensibility is, at its core, inclusive, whereas extreme metal is about excluding, because musicians literally make their music harder to appreciate through tempo, distortion, vocal style and lyrical themes. Extreme metal requires a bit of work on the listener’s part to enjoy and decipher. This is why extreme metal fans often react with extreme hostility toward any band that might try to bring the stylistic trappings of extreme metal into the pop lexicon or vice versa; if extreme metal becomes music for popular consumption then it is, in a sense, no longer extreme.
That viewpoint ignores that extreme metal actually has a lot of appeal. While metal’s aesthetics—the occult, gore, mythology—run counter to mainstream sensibilities worldwide, the underlying emotions in the genre are universal. By my imperfect estimation, just behind love and sex (the twin thematic towers of the mainstream pop empire), depression and anger are two of the most universal experiences in the human condition, and they’re the explicit and implicit themes which most commonly drive metal.
Depression in particular is Paradise Lost’s strong suit, and singer Nick Holmes has long been a master at exploring that theme with just enough lyrical generality that anyone can relate with what he’s saying. Take for example, album opener “No Hope In Sight,” where Holmes expounds on an unspecific doom that could be drug addiction, war, economic collapse, nuclear annihilation or that time your significant other slept with your sibling and you had to ride home crying on your skateboard. His ability to be all of those things and sell it is what makes Paradise Lost a half-million unit pusher in Europe.
Of course extreme metal has always been a part of popular music. Many of the best metal bands play both games with aplomb, and doing so is what makes them great. Frequently, when an extreme band learns how to wield pop the sensibility without sacrificing their inherent identity, it’s hailed as a breakthrough in that band’s career (Behemoth’s last album, The Satanist is a great example).
What Paradise Lost are trying to do on The Plague Within is back their truck into an American extreme metal parking spot without scratching the pop paint job. So far, it looks like they’ve wound up between the lines without much hassle; the album’s getting rave reviews, and Last Rites even called it the best of their career. While I’m hesitant to call it the best (Draconian Times and Tragic Idol have more personality, and One Second is a sentimental favorite), it’s certainly excellent, and a definite album of the year contender in my book.
Here’s the rub: the way Paradise Lost is presenting themselves right now says a lot about the myopia of the metal intelligentsia, and possibly the American metal consumer base. Hype around this record took off when the band released the video for the song “Beneath Broken Earth,” an old school death-doom song exclusively featuring Holmes’ new black metal-tinged growl. People ate it up.
Trouble is, it’s not indicative of the rest of the album.
Most of The Plague Within sounds more-or-less like the band’s previous album, Tragic Idol, except with mixed clean singing and growling. This was smart on the band’s part, as Tragic Idol was a latter-day masterpiece, the culmination of the classic metal sound that the band returned to once they decided to no longer imitate Depeche Mode and The Sisters of Mercy. As it turned out, all the band needed was drummer Adrian Erlandsson of At The Gates to give their songs a little extra punch. Tragic Idol is a watershed moment in pop metal, but one that somehow did not increase the band’s visibility much.
That’s where the growls come in. That one little change was all it took to shift Paradise Lost from a pop metal band to an extreme metal band with pop sensibilities. Ten years ago, this approach would have seemed sour in the heyday of American metalcore bands taking good-cop-bad-cop vocal interplay into the realm of cliche. In 2015, it’s a revelation. All that’s old is new again. I tip my hat to Holmes for being able to pull this tired old trick off with confidence and mastery, but he never would have been able to do so without the songwriting chops he and the rest of Paradise Lost learned as a mainstream act.
The Plague Within is at its best when it hews closer to those mainstream sensibilities. The album’s twin pinnacles are “Terminal” and closer “Return to the Sun,” the songs that incorporate death doom as well as pop electronic elements. They both re-take cliches old and new: “Terminal” rides on a soaring guest female vocal hook, and “Return to the Sun” finishes with a series of bass drops. Of course they wouldn’t work without Gregor Mackintosh’s lilting and minimal guitar leads, but they’re still examples of what The Plague Within as a whole achieves: it proves not only that metal can be pop music, but more importantly it can be damn good pop music.