Following the explosion of (what can only be called) mainstream success for death metal in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a backlash was inevitable. Growing out of grassroots tape trading and zine distribution, analogue social media if you will, death metal had caught the attention of major TV channels, record labels, and concerned parents, on both sides of the Atlantic. Black metal was one such backlash. Death metal was now pop music, it had been assimilated into the mainstream like every form of alternative music before it. From the opposite side came observations that the wall of extremity had been breached, and now everything sounded the same. We must return to first principles, return to writing tunes that can be hummed. This would sort the wheat from the chaff. If there is no cacophony of noise to hide behind, only the quality of the song writing would remain.
Yorkshire’s own Paradise Lost were one such band riding the wave of death metal while forcing it in a new direction. After a shaky debut that failed to find a voice of its own, ‘Gothic’ was released in 1991 and changed the way many approached death metal. This would later be known as gothic metal, as Paradise tended to play faster than their doom metal piers, but their approach to death metal was too melodic and catchy to simply be lumped in with the rest of the pack. By slowing the music down to somewhere around the golden tempo of 120 bpm, they made melodic extreme metal that one could dance to if so inclined.
‘Gothic’ channels the understated power of Celtic Frost at their best, which was enough for contemporary commentators to lump them in with the new wave of death metal spreading across Europe at the time. But Paradise Lost’s incorporation of melody layered over catchy powerchord riffs was to set this album apart. Rather than simply throwing riffs together with the occasional solo, the guitars work almost like a second vocalist. Although the vocals are distorted they are clear and crisp in the mix, making the lyrics easily discernible. So when at work with the frequent lead guitar melodies this functions in similar way to a dual vocal attack. The guitar tone also lends itself to this style of writing.
While the production is competent, it feels like all of the focus was on getting the guitar tone right, and also emphasising a wider varieties of tones across the album than many of Paradise Lost’s piers were utilising at the time. This means the drums, although competent, are very much relegated to time keeper. Their lack prominence in the mix seems to suggest that this was intentional. This is fitting for this style of death metal. Not percussive or particularly technical, Paradise Lost put all their stock in memorable, melodic riffs and dramatic leads, with the rhythm section merely providing body and weight to this distinctive music, and on ‘Gothic’ it works perfectly. It’s little wonder that these musicians would mellow out their sound on later albums and incorporate more elements of gothic rock over the years with various degrees of success. But their strong suit has always been that sweet spot of extreme metal, at once grim and overbearing, but also catchy and memorable.
Around the same time as the release of Gothic, Samael of Switzerland were taking a similar approach to black metal. Given all the noise that was made about Norwegian black metal around the same time that Samael released ‘Worship Him’ in 1991, it’s easy to forget that there is much to black metal outside of relentless tremolo strumming and blast-beats. Another graduate of the Celtic Frost school of riffcraft, Samael played at similar tempos to their forebears, sometimes even slipping below 80bpm. ‘Worship Him’ is comprised of simply power chord riffs and melodies played in a minor key, on a guitar tone more suited to melodic death metal than anything else. Indeed, on this album Samael sound more like a young Quorthon playing Celtic Frost than anything else.
Rhythms are simple and repetitive yet engaging. The drums are more prominent in the mix than on ‘Gothic’, they lend depth and atmosphere to this darker music, with lavish reverb applied to the snare drum and toms. Indeed, simplicity is the key here. But because of the aesthetic decisions that Samael have made – they have gone for dark and menacing as opposed to atmospheric and epic – they rely fare more on rhythmic unity between the guitars and the drums than many of their contemporaries were employing. This unity calls to mind the darker, ritualistic atmosphere that this style of black metal aims for. ‘Worship Him’ works almost like a summation of old school black metal up to 1991. On later albums Samael were to build on this platform and add more orchestral flourishes to their music. But rather than going down the synth metal route, they took their love of repetition to heart and went down the melodic industrial metal route instead, with varying degrees of success.
‘Worship Him’ remains an interesting cultural artefact. It is a perfect summary and reminder that black metal is not a Norwegian centric affair, both sonically and geographically. But in many ways it looks backwards, taking the best elements of black metal from the 1980s and blending them together seamlessly in this ritualistic, occult black metal. ‘Gothic’ on the other hand, is the beginnings of something new. Sure mid paced death metal had flirted with melody before this album, but ‘Gothic’ is so much more than a flirtation. Melody is the driving force of the music. For this reason it had more cross appeal than the obscure darkness of early Samael. At this time Paradise Lost were still abrasive enough for pure death metallers, but the fact that this was on more familiar ground for other music fans leant Paradise Lost a following outside of this scene. It led to many new hybrids with gothic rock and doom metal.
Although many of PL’s imitators produced unbearably stale cheese, for me the most important legacy of this album was making metal that relied on no other gimmick than writing good music. This is not particularly technical music, not the heaviest, the fastest or the slowest, the production is competent but leaves room for improvement. In short, there is nowhere for this music to hide. And as a result one can truly say that it stands on its own two feet as cohesive and engaging on its own terms. Such an approach was much needed in extreme by the early 1990s.