The story of Pagan Altar is so heartbreaking even the Biblical Job would have questioned what they did to deserve all of the tragedies that befell the group, tragedies that finally silenced the band nearly 40 years after formation, but not before the swansong The Room of Shadows (Temple of Mystery Records).
The band formed at the cusp of the burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal in 1976 or 1978 (depending on the source) when seemingly every band wound up on a Neat Records compilation. Pagan Altar had a unique lineup—a father-son collaboration of the elder Terry Jones on vocals and his son Alan on guitar—and a cool sound owing more to classic rock such as UFO than fellow doom-trodden NWOBHM act Witchfinder General.
Despite an electric live show steeped in druid mysticism amidst copious amounts of incense smoke and ritual, other bands recorded while Pagan Altar floundered. There was always something impeding their success: a record plant shutdown causing an early single to literally vanish, having to turn Metallica down when the then-young thrashers reverently offered the band a spot on an American tour because they couldn’t risk losing their day jobs, etc.
A demo they recorded in 1982 sat in mothballs until it was finally given a CD release in 1988 as Volume 1. (It would later be reissued a few more times with the new title Judgement of the Dead.) With the release, the band sprung back to life, and with a subsequent string of critically acclaimed albums in the mid-2000s, it seemed there would finally be justice for all. However, in 2013 things took a dark turn as Terry Jones was diagnosed with cancer. Two years later he would succumb to the disease. His death would end Pagan Altar finally, only there was still a partially recorded album. Brokenhearted, Terry’s son gathered the Pagan Alter vets to finish what they started—and do so while he himself was dealing with cataracts that doctors have said will eventually blind him! If you play The Room of Shadows back-to-back with the ancient debut album, one thing that will strike you is that Terry’s distinctive warble sounds virtually the same, untouched by years or the battles with disease. Much like Scott “Wino” Weinrich, his is a voice synonymous with doom metal and it remains so on here.
It’s easy to take the lyrics on tracks such as “Rising of the Dead” or “After Forever” and romanticize a man coming to terms with his mortality, but the fact is that much of the lyrics came before the diagnosis and the man’s fixation with the topic of death is not exactly new. There’s no need to create a story when the story is so compelling and bittersweet without embellishment.
The Room of Shadows never loses sight that what made Pagan Altar special was how it interpreted classic rock within a doomy landscape. “Danse Macabre” is a piece of prog-metal melodrama that intentionally employs Kansas’ “Carry on Wayward Son” for the boogie breakdown; “The Ripper” is not the Judas Priest classic, but a slow-burning, soulful gothic dirge; and the title track is metal as folk or folk as metal, whichever you personally prefer.
When an album comes together under the circumstances that birthed The Room of Shadows, it is exceedingly difficult to be overly critical. Fortunately there’s no need. This finale is grand, a perfect elegy befitting the band’s storied past.