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Tragic Idols: Paradise Lost On Encapsulating Three Decades Of Doom With 'Obsidian'

Tuesday, 12 May 2020 Written by Matt Mills

Photo: Anne C. Swallow

This year has been shit. From COVID-19 to the Australian wildfires to ‘murder hornets’, it seems the only thing 2020 has wanted to do is spread panic and hopelessness worldwide. People are scared. Nick Holmes is also grimly fascinated.

“Maybe we needed all this,” he ponders in his dry Yorkshire accent, stuck at home during the height of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown. “Humans think we own the Earth. We don’t. We’re just guests here. Once we’re gone, the Earth is going to keep going. Sometimes you need a jolt to remind you of that. It’s not about who owns that and who’s got this. It’s about staying together.”

Holmes is no stranger to this kind of bleak contemplation. Since their 1988 formation, he has been the frontman of the notoriously depressive Paradise Lost, singing lyrics themed around death, nihilism and despair. His bitter wordplay punctuates the band’s 16 albums, including the brand new ‘Obsidian’, and has been one of the few constants in a career otherwise defined by twisted eclecticism.

Gothic rock, doom and death metal, and even speedier thrash, have all been welded to Paradise Lost’s DNA over the past 32 years. And ‘Obsidian’ celebrates every last one of those varied soundscapes. While the single Ghosts is a toe-tapping anthem reminiscent of Type O Negative at their most accessible, Serenity carries hefty Insomnium vibes—it’s pummelling yet also hypnotising in its melodicism. Elsewhere, Darker Thoughts is an acoustic ditty that suddenly explodes into ear-splitting roars with one abrupt breakdown. 

Even classical music cannot escape the album’s wide grasp, cropping up in the ominous choirs of Forsaken and Ravenghast’s chilling piano notes. “The best thing about ‘Obsidian’ is its mixture of songs,” Holmes states with clear confidence. Undoubtedly, it’s a serious extension of the music with which the frontman and his comrades kicked off their career.

Although the style is now merely one ingredient in their morbid melting pot, Paradise Lost began life as one of the UK’s first true death metal acts. The Halifax troupe were started by Holmes and his longtime friends (guitarists Greg Mackintosh and Aaron Aedy alongside bassist Steve Edmondson), who have known one another since they were at least 11 years old. The four had long shared an affinity for British metallers such as Black Sabbath and Venom, and their attention quickly began to be drawn internationally in the mid-to-late ‘80s as Morbid Angel and Possessed emerged.

“The death metal cult, if you will, was very, very small and very underground,” Holmes remembers. “The music was out there, but it was mainly Swedish bands and a couple of U.S. bands. Still, there were a good eight years where I was eating, sleeping, everything death metal. Greg and the other guys were exactly the same.”

By the time Paradise Lost released their full-length debut, the awkwardly titled ‘Lost Paradise’, in 1990, death metal had quickly dominated the extreme music subcultures in both America and Scandinavia. Favourites including Enslaved, Death and Obituary had all created landmark albums, hallmarks of which—groove-oriented percussion, haunting guitars and ceaselessly growled vocals—had inspired Paradise Lost’s own methodology. Yet, the band also stuck to their British roots by maintaining a slower, more sinister pace, akin to the unsettling crawl of bygone Sabbath LPs.

This obsession with the gloomier end of death metal continued through 1991’s ‘Gothic’. However, on the following year’s ‘Shades of God’, Paradise Lost softened their approach. Melodic guitar licks became more prevalent—inspired by local, Leeds-based goths Sisters of Mercy—as did catchier choruses, like those that punctuated As I Die and Mortals Watch The Day. 

The speed of the music was ratcheted up as well. Most notable, though, was Holmes trading his outright death metal growls for a slightly cleaner and more understandable shout, grunting with a similar muscularity to Metallica’s James Hetfield. As of this album, the quintet were no longer wholehearted death metal, but a fascinating fusion of the genre with more accessible goth-rock.

“After the first couple albums, I’d not gone off of death metal, but I’d started listening to other things as well,” explains Holmes. “The thing with death metal is, I’m very fussy with it. When it was the original bands, each one was unique and you could tell them apart. Bolt Thrower sounded nothing like Morbid Angel.

“When it became a bit more trendy, everyone started to sound the same. There were so many just trying to rip off their favourite bands. It got to the point where you can have 50 bands and only two of them would sound good to me.”

The evolution instigated on ‘Shades of God’ was also necessitated by years of Holmes’ untrained growling finally catching up with him. “I used to struggle with throat problems a lot when I was younger—regardless of the fact I was drinking 24/7 and staying up all night. That had nothing to do with it,” he chuckles. “I used to really rip my voice out; it wasn’t pleasant. I wasn’t looking after myself very well but, if you can’t do that in your 20s, when can you do it?”

Paradise Lost’s third album being a halfway house between his old death metal vocals and smoother singing only aggravated the frontman’s throat troubles. Holmes now looks back on tracking ‘Shades of God’ as “hell”, causing him constant pain. As a result, 1993’s ‘Icon’ abandoned its creators’ death metal roots entirely. It leaned even further into their developing gothic rock inclinations, while also adopting some of the existential angst of the then-burgeoning grunge movement.

“The death metal stuff, I must admit, at that point, I didn’t think I’d ever come back to it,” Holmes reveals. “I used to dread it because my voice was hurting all the time. I just wanted my voice to evolve and I’d found it very restrictive, just growling and nothing else. It hurt and it was boring.”

And, for more than 20 years, Paradise Lost were indeed done with death metal. Following the precedent established by ‘Icon’, the band spent the remainder of the ‘90s and the whole of the ‘00s testing the limits of gothic rock. They would dabble with electronica, synths and pop music on and off as the years rolled by, but their subtly melodic and unsettling M.O. always remained. 

It even strongly persists on ‘Obsidian’, where it is joined by a returning, snarling edge in a throwback to the rage of the Paradise Lost of old. And the stage for this album’s warring, metal-colliding-with-rock dynamic was established a decade beforehand, when guitarist Mackintosh, the lead musical composer, went through what Holmes half-jokingly dubs a “midlife crisis”.

“Greg got back into death metal about 10 years ago, as if he were a kid again,” the singer explains. “It might have been a bit of a midlife crisis, but it’s a lot cheaper than buying a brand-new Harley-Davidson.” Mackintosh quickly caved to his resurrected love for the genre and formed a side-project called Vallenfyre: an ultra-gnarly trio that dropped their debut LP in 2011.

It wouldn’t take long for Holmes to be bitten by the same nostalgic bug. The next year, Paradise Lost were touring the United States with fellow melancholic rockers Katatonia. Band leaders Jonas Renkse and Anders Nyström invited the vocalist to join their ‘90s-style death metal supergroup, Bloodbath, to replace outgoing frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt.

“I took a long time deciding, because I didn’t know if I could do that band justice to begin with,” Holmes admits. “I hadn’t done that kind of singing for a while and the style of the music is so unlike Paradise Lost’s. It’s incredibly rhythmic and super fast. With Paradise Lost, it’s slow and, if you fuck it up, you can get your wheels back on the track. When it’s a really quick song, it’s a lot harder.”

Nonetheless, Holmes eventually relented. His vocal technique had been refined by decades of prolific touring, and he was drawn to Bloodbath’s promise of a “complete death metal disco”. “When you’re surrounded by people playing it, you start to remember what you liked about it the first time around,” he says. His first effort with the outfit was 2014’s ‘Grand Morbid Funeral’, which saw the light of day just months before Paradise Lost’s ‘The Plague Within’.

With both Holmes and Mackintosh again invested in death metal, ‘Plague…’ reintroduced some genre hallmarks into the Paradise Lost canon. Nick would growl on one of their studio outings for the first time in 24 years. Plus, songs like Beneath Broken Earth slowed the pace to a familiar, crushing, dread-inducing crawl. The extremity would only be aggravated on the subsequent and more single-minded ‘Medusa’ in 2017. Still, despite viewing it as “just as heavy as anything on the last one”, Holmes considers ‘Obsidian’ to actually be an expansion of the more diverse ‘Plague Within’.

“‘Medusa’ was so specific that, personally, I just didn’t want to do another album that was like that,” he says. “I would say ‘The Plague Within’ is more up my street. Although I think the last one had some great songs on it, I do like a bit of variation. We really wanted to shake things up.”

It may be the most genre-spanning thing they’ve ever created, but Holmes doubles down that ‘Obsidian’ is “definitely a Paradise Lost album.” Every niche it draws from is a part of the veterans’ rich history, celebrating their broad legacy more successfully than any other entry in their stacked catalogue. ‘Obsidian’ is the perfect metal album for 2020. Much like the year itself, it’s constantly providing new, exciting ways to make you feel miserable.

‘Obsidian' is out on May 15 via Nuclear Blast.

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