Arisen in service to the psychic swamp of seventies appreciation in the relative freedom of the mid-nineties came Pale Divine as an original in the truest tradition of northeastern United States doom metal. With their ‘bigger picture’ of blues-informed hard rock siphoned into the ooze of eighties underground ‘spiritual’ doom the quartet achieved their signature sound guided by the tonal excess of Sabbath-forward consciousness. With a love of the late 80’s/early 90’s Christian doom/stoner rock scene on their east coast Pale Divine formed in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania in 1995 on a course that ultimately elevated the innovations of Trouble, The Obsessed, and Joe Hasselvander’s work within Pentagram with a rejuvenating focus on the classic heavy psych rhythms of Sir Lord Baltimore, Mountain, and Leafhound. Building upon that foundation found the ‘Crimson Tears’ (1997) demo starting with a quiet bong rip and already showcasing the power of Greg Diener‘s guitar work yet the refinement of his vocal style wouldn’t follow until their debut full-length ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ (2001). The melodic style of Pale Divine has seen very little in the way of visible growing pains in the nearly twenty years since as the quartet developed away from the gloomy stoner/doom psychedelia-tinted sermonic excess of that first album towards their present status as a force of nature within the US doom metal underground. Slow and steady has won this race and while it may feel like an eternity between records this past decade the records have been entirely worth the patience.
Where the world began to wake up to the revelation of Pale Divine came with ‘Eternity Revealed’ (2004) a rare doom metal album that was driven by riff and vocal melody alike. The soul of the music was old and incessantly preaching but the sound was newly warm as the focus of 80’s doom met peacefully with the polish of the new millennium for an organic link between old and new doom. The first two records from this band are notable for their catchiness and the progression of style between them but quite frankly the world class, life-affirming art came with ‘Cemetery Earth’ (2007). That third album from the band was thier first, and only, with Sinister Realm founder John Gaffney on bass and could quite reasonably be considering among the best doom metal albums ever recorded. It is certainly my personal favorite doom-related release beyond the tide of the millennium. This is where I became a fanatic for their music, predestined by the release of ‘First Daze Here Too’ and the first remaster of ‘The Skull’ both of which had come out a year previous; I’d spent a lot of time wondering how a modern band might interpret that type of sound and songwriting into the future. The best example (that wasn’t just retro pandering) would have to be Pale Divine‘s ‘Cemetery Earth’ not only for the guitar work and gloomy, creative melodic focus but for its perspective that sees the world as a damning place.
There is disappointment in, and typically judgement of, humanity at the heart of any Christian music that isn’t worship or pure praise and this is where I grow weary as a long-standing opponent of piousness. The grotesque sanctimony of it is always loud and clear to the point of disturbance and thankfully Pale Divine aren’t directly cruel zealots with their beliefs, nor are their lyrics entirely focused on them. In the case of ‘Cemetery Earth’ a sort of apocalyptic fantasy of damnation along with themes of demonic possession within the hugely anticipated ‘Painted Windows Black’ (2012) the lyrical focus represents a conflict of good and evil that appear similar to the fantasy worlds described in old Dio or Rainbow records. I welcome the inherent art of the themes but I did not enjoy ‘Painted Windows Black’ because of its tendency towards wandering tracks that ventured beyond the eight minute mark without good reason. The delays and sterilized feeling of the record appear to have come from the need to separate the sound of Pale Divine from that of their stoner project Beelzefuzz and in doing so the life was sucked out of ‘Painted Windows Black’, at least from my perspective. What was impressive for its ambitions did not make for a memorable listen. So, where are Pale Divine in 2018? It might seem cliche coming from a decade long fan but they’re quickly right back at the top of my list.
This time around they’re fully staffed with yet another bassist, Ron McGinnis (Admiral Browning, Thonian Horde), and a second guitarist, Dana Ortt from aforementioned heavy rock side-project Beelzefuzz. Beyond those personnel changes the songwriting of pre-‘Painted Windows Black’ makes a decided return but with a long stare at ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ with an eye for revised vision. Instead of stating they’ve gone back to their ‘roots’ I’d say Pale Divine have simply refined their songwriting process to focus on their strengths: Melodic development, clever guitar runs, and laying bare the shared torments of the human condition. ‘Pale Divine’ excels in every area from its spacious heaviness and crystalline production to the absolute excess of riches provided by a tracklist with no padding or filler. Diener in particular pours the entirety of himself into this album with personal, honest lyrics and a gorgeously bounding set of riffs that build upon the fairly minimal hooks of the first three Pale Divine records with a wealth of psychedelic flourish and intricate groaning grooves.
How long has it been since a heavy metal album moved you? To tears, to action, or just beside yourself and lost in the moment with some kind of emotion stirred by its contents? In my own experiences it comes infrequently and without contemplation. The grandiosity of an undertaking be it architecturally beauteous or founded upon a genuinely intimate personal revelation often speak to me on an intellectual and inspirational level but those are often side-effects of analysis. Rock music’s cathartic ‘Me too, man…’ is so rooted in the blues and “So Low” (along with “Shades of Blue”) strikes such a chord with me beyond the typically impersonal fantasies of modern doom metal. Touch me once, shame on me but “Bleeding Soul” was twice and at this point the transcendental personal resonance of ‘Pale Divine’ becomes inarguable. I so often listen to old classic metal releases to recapture those sort of kindred moments and yet Pale Divine‘s fifth album feels kin to the classics already. Some of that surely comes from my obsession with ‘Cemetery Earth’ and a decade of fandom, mind you.
This is exactly the type of release that has inspired me as a fan of heavy metal for the last couple of decades from ‘Master of Reality’ to today’s finest. While many modern doom metal releases keep the faith in terms of heavy metal it feels as if Pale Divine could have restored it entirely on their own, at least when I am in the midst of its impressive pieces. It isn’t a perfect spin, as I eventually felt that “Curse the Shadows” was redundant and excess within the tracklist, but nonetheless this record has one of my higher recommendations this year for doom metal fans. Their sound should be equally resonant outside of the sphere of doom, though. For preview I’d suggest “Spinning Wheel” as an opener that fully reintroduces you to the power of their sound along with “Chemical Decline” for an example of the hook coming from riff and vocal alike, and finally “So Low” as my personal favorite doom-related song of the entire year.
Frozen and motionless. 4.75/5.0
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