The Paragon Trisagion – The Three Hour Christian Prog-Sludge Album
Nearly a year ago I launched a column called The Community iPod, where I asked for Invisible Oranges readers to submit bands for me to listen to and review briefly. So far I’ve only responded to the first bunch of recommendations (I swear, #2 is in progress!).
Baltimore's Potmos Hetoimos stood out among those recommendations with a trilogy of concept albums, Agatha, Evelyn and Maribel. These records blend funeral doom, a style I historically have a distaste for, with progressive, psychedelic and jazz influences. As I delved further into the band’s discography, I found that the band’s sole member, Matt Matheson, has a particular talent for writing appealing music with ingredients I normally dislike: not just funeral doom, but also devout Christianity as a central lyrical theme.
Matheson’s faith and his musical ambition make up the bedrock upon which he’s built his remarkable tenth album, The Paragon Trisagion, which he describes as “to my knowledge, the longest studio album in metal history.”
He’s not kidding. Spread out over three acts (no physical discs) and clocking in at three hours and seventeen minutes in length, The Paragon Trisagion is a daunting record. Listen to it below.
The number three repeats itself in Matheson’s work: a triple album with a triangle on the cover follows a trilogy. “As for the number three, the trilogy has just always been kind of the standard for epic compositions. Once I decided to keep going with the style and storyline of Agatha, it just made sense to make it a trilogy. This album, in turn, was conceived as a triple album from very early on, and in this case it kind of loosely represents the Trinity, which is more or less what the title references.”
Apart from numerology, he’s definitely a more-is-more sort of guy—he loves nearly 78 minute rock albums from the height of the CD format. But he’s also trying to test the malleability of the digital format. “Now that music is primarily accessed through streaming and downloading, ways that aren't bounded by physical limitations, I just wanted to push it even farther.” At times it feels like he’s playing chicken; Matheson in the one car and my attention span in the other, both accelerating toward the cliff that is every other piece of music a person could listen to.
Listening to The Paragon Trisagion, I was reminded of the other triple album I digested this year, jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s aptly titled The Epic. Both records combine disparate styles and philosophies which nevertheless share root idioms: hip-hop would not exist without jazz samples to draw on, while doom metal would not exist without Christian verbiage.
There’s another, more important similarity. Neither doom nor jazz consistently draw attention to themselves, nor do they make a point to focus on brief and punchy songs the way rock and pop do. Both can be heard as boring and repetitive if you're not paying attention, and it's easy to imagine both records sounding more-or-less the same at the one hour mark, the two hour mark, the two hour twenty minute and seventeen second mark." The Paragon Trisagion and The Epic skirt that problem. Their songs borrow liberally from other genres and in so doing find their own identities.
Matheson said he focused on giving each song a distinct feel and appeal from ‘go,’ at least more so than he did on previous records. “I think with Maribel, I really hit the pinnacle of my ability as a doom composer. I felt like I had pushed my own personal capacity as far as it could go with that, and I was ready to get back to some more high-energy songs, stuff you could show off to your friends, stuff you could blast in the car. As much as I liked Maribel, anytime someone unfamiliar with my music wanted to hear what it sounded like, I would struggle to think of what part to show them. It's not exactly accessible. So I bought this album back down to earth a little, [...] and made each song something I'd be psyched to show people, something more immediately gripping.”
The Paragon Trisagion blends Matheson’s affinity for doom with the atmospheric sludge style that Potmos Hetoimos focused on before the Agatha trilogy, but it also dabbles in hardcore and post-hardcore, lending some songs more drive than pase Isis-style morass. An impressive roster of eclectic and offbeat guest spots further diversifies some songs. A few guest highlights include guitarist Carlos Lozano of Andorran prog-metal band Persefone, Norwegian jazz saxophonist Ben Widerøe from Seven Impale, and (of particular interest to longtime IO readers) Andrew Millar of Patrons of the Rotting Gate lending vocals to standout track “Amethysts,” which is part of disc 1.
“Amethysts” deserves special mention: solidarity anthems in support of transsexuals and homosexuals on progressive sludge albums are rare, to say the least. “I've ended up with several friends who have come into their identity as trans or genderqueer in recent years and I've watched them work through that, facing oppression and being ostracized and misunderstood. It has forced me to deeply think about what I believe as a follower of Jesus in a way that the Church in general hasn't really had to deal with yet,” Matheson said, touching on the internal contradiction that makes the song interesting.
“Most, if not all, of them are also former Christians,” Matheson expanded, talking about his transgendered associates. He insisted that he’s not trying to speak in stead of his associates, rather his song reflects on their experiences. “What ‘Amethysts’ is, then, is a story of a gay and/or transgender believer being shunned and rejected by other believers, but refusing to let go of their faith. From my side, it's an affirmation that there is a place for homosexuals and transgender and intersex and genderqueer people in the Kingdom of God—that you don't have to abandon your faith just because people of faith abandon you.”
The conversation Matheson is diving into rings timely following the legalization of gay marriage in America and the very public transition of Caitlyn Jenner. “Homosexuality has become an increasingly mainstream topic over the past decades, so the Church is well-versed in that conversation, but gender identity and expression is still very much a fringe topic in Christian culture. I mean, we're still over here arguing about whether women can be pastors and leaders in churches. When you're hung up on that, you're in no position to consider broader gender issues with any sort of open mind.”
In speaking with Matheson, the faith that informs his music ultimately came around to a countercultural attitude that informs more secular metal and hardcore. “Jesus always stood with the marginalized. His harshest words were not for perceived "sinners" outside of religion—those are the people he spent most of his time with. They were for the religious zealots who favored tradition over relationship. So in following Jesus, I have to be willing to reject certain traditions if it means a fuller expression of love for others.”
Honestly, Matheson’s open-minded approach to his religion finally convinced me to cover his remarkable music, even though I’m uncomfortable with religious music most of the time. Like David Eugene Edwards of Wovenhand, Matheson’s propensity for critiquing his fellow believers, coupled with his songwriting chops, put him in a rare class of musician: the kind of outsider that has a lot to offer for a specific, discerning audience.
Religious music takes flak for presumed proselytizing, but Matheson message seems more directed at his fellow believers than secular metal enthusiasts, which begs the question of who exactly his audience is. Before thinking too deeply on the question, I had to remind myself that Matheson is a one-man conceptual metal band who is willing to put out a single hours-long piece of music; audience is not his primary concern. The Paragon Trisagion will test that audience’s patience, but also reward it. The album drops on August 18th on the Potmos Hetoimos Bandcamp. Follow the band on Facebook here.