THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: An interview with Paradise Lost's Greg Mackintosh
Amidst the relentless bustle of normal human life, it’s often difficult to find space to reflect. However, with a global pandemic running rampant throughout the world and social distancing proving a necessary evil, pretty much all of us have holed up wherever we call home and begun to inhabit the inner world of our own minds. Bands that lean towards the introspective side of the metal spectrum can offer a kind of wistful solace in these strange and unsettling times, and the absorbing, pensive strains of leading Gothic doom outfit Paradise Lost are ideally suited to this deepening contemplation. Dark Matter were lucky enough to catch up with accomplished lead guitarist Greg Mackintosh to discuss their latest, highly anticipated release, the more thoughtful aspects of their music and how they are, resolutely, not like other bands.
The bleakly beguiling new album 'Obsidian', described by the group as ‘dark, reflective and black’ will no doubt prove perfect for whiling away those endless hours of quarantine while ruminating on the current crisis, the direction of our lives, and within the context of that, the nature of humanity itself. Greg explained the decision not to delay release as a valiant attempt to save everyone’s sanity. ‘Nuclear Blast did ask us if we wanted to put the album back to the end of the year but we figured its best to have it out at a time like this when people have nothing to do. I mean, why not? It might impact sales but… everyone needs heat and food and light and a roof over their head but art is the thing that separates us from the animals isn’t it, so I guess you need that to keep a sane head around these times. So why not bring it out now?’ Fans are no doubt thrilled Greg and co made this decision, despite the potential financial loss and missed opportunities for promotion. However, although plans for an immediate tour have been disrupted, there is hope on the horizon that it will go ahead eventually. ‘With the album coming out May 15th, we were due to do a release show on the same date but that’s been cancelled, pushed back to September, and festivals are out, so we’re talking end of this year, beginning of next year for a full tour.’
For these sombre Yorkshire doom merchants, the exploration of misery, gloom and heartache is a default mode – their exquisite, perfectly balanced soundscapes unfolding in rich, velvety layers of mournful melody. Judging by early accounts, much of the new album is about losing control, and life not turning out quite the way you’d wanted it to - a feeling that has become all too familiar lately. But while ’Obsidian’ was put together before Covid 19 unleashed hell, would it have been different had it been composed during the pandemic? ‘This all happened afterwards.’ Greg says. ‘But I think it’s a theme that runs through humanity anyway. Regret, self-doubt and reminiscing and all this kind of stuff and wondering if things could have been different. Personally I see it as a sort of wasted emotion. Hindsight is kind of pointless.’ For Greg, the album is much more on the level of personal reflection than a rumination on wider events outside of our control. ‘Whatever you’ve done has led you to the path you’re on now. So if you change one simple little thing it could be worse, it could be better. But it’s a very human trait, and it’s something people always have, and it’s even more kind of endemic because of what’s going on right now because people are more thoughtful about things at the moment. I’ve also been asked in a couple of interviews if I think its prophetic that this album is about all this stuff and this is going on and I said not really because we’ve been writing about very similar stuff for 30 years. If you do that, it’s bound to come true at some point in time.’ Our torment is more self-inflicted than anything else, and this comes across in the aching melancholia of Paradise Lost’s music and its attempt to probe how we torture ourselves and provide a kind of catharsis for those negative feelings.
‘I think in bygone eras people would have turned to religion in things like that,’ Greg explains, ‘but because we’re atheists it comes from a more human perspective of self-doubt and self-worth and all the rest of it. Not needing a crutch, just questioning those things. No answers either, just questioning why this goes on and what the result could be.’ Of course, its very much down to the reaction of the individual too. ‘I think it depends on whether you like this type of music or not. I like dark, sad music and that lifts my spirits. If I had to listen to high energy dance all day that would make me miserable.’ Obsidian certainly feels more meditative and gentler in tone than what’s been done before. ‘Lyrically that reflects.’ Greg muses. ‘On the last record (Medusa), the lyrics were a lot more nihilistic. And on this they’re far more inward looking, introspective, looking back on your life. When we came to do this one we wanted to do something a little bit more thoughtful with layers to it. Something different, something more to get your teeth into, something more to think about, and more textures on there. Compared to the last couple of records we’ve done, it’s far more varied, far more eclectic, I’d say. Albums are like snapshots – it just depends what you like at the time. I think there’s some new elements on there, I’m not even sure where they came from musically, it was just through messing around and it just came together. It’s good after all these years that you can still do something that can take you by surprise.’
As soon as Paradise Lost emerged from the steaming mire of early death back in the early 80s, it was clear there was something different about them. ‘We started out death/doom I guess, right from the very beginning, and then we incorporated a lot of Gothic elements from very early doors actually. We kind of coined the term ‘Gothic metal’ – and that’s been bastardized, there’s a lot of bands that are termed Gothic metal these days which are nothing to do with what we were intending. Our intention was just blending our own elements with classic Gothic rock.’ Shifting with mercurial ease through heavier doom to more uplifting beats, the band’s creative process is instinctive rather than planned and every album utilises a fresh approach. ‘We song-write in a very random way where we have many different versions of a song at one time and they’re all quite different from each other, and then we choose which path to go down. It’s far more intuitive that way and you come up with unexpected results. We do it in very little segments, it’s assembling the whole thing that’s the difficult part, but that just makes it more interesting.’
Paradise Lost have remained consistently popular over the decades due to their strikingly original sound, and Greg believes this is because they refused to compromise on their singular style or bow to trends. ‘I think our uniqueness comes out of being stubborn, because when we first started in a very extreme metal scene, the bands we were playing with, the first incarnation of Napalm Death, Carcass, Bolt Thrower, were fast paced while we were ultra-slow and miserable. All the audiences were shouting ‘Play faster, play faster’ and we were kind of playing slower – so it was pure stubbornness that made us stand out, and going forward throughout our career we’ve always railed against the trends and been slightly on the peripheral. Sometimes that works for a band and sometimes that doesn’t, it depends on what’s ‘trendy’ for that year. You go in and out of vogue, I guess, but we seem to have had a really strong core fan base over the years that have just kept us going and kept people buying records and wanting to sign us. You’re trying to play it by your own rules. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. We’ve had albums that have fallen between a rock and a hard place because it wasn’t the right time for it to be out and its years after that people start to appreciate it. At the same time, sometimes you’ll have an album that comes out right at the right moment and hits a nerve. But that’s the only way to do it for me, I don’t see the point in following trends. There’s no hard and fast rule or secret formula to doing that, it’s just what feels right at the time.’ Paradise Lost have always tried to resist being grouped together with other bands and movements, as Greg explains. ‘A lot of bands from our era, from the start, the late 80s/early 90s, have individual sounds, and I think as time went on, going into the late 90s/early 2000s bands were starting to get into little cliques where they all sounded like each other and lost their individuality. To me that would feel a little bit like being on a conveyor belt or something.’
What is certain is that Paradise Lost are like no other band on earth, metamorphosing through myriad forms, yet possessing a kind of dusky intensity that is immediately recognisable. Throughout the years they have evolved from the crusty Goth-synth sensibility of 1991’s seminal work Gothic to the spellbinding blend of lingering tempos, staccato riffs and brooding atmospherics of poetic post-millennium releases such as 2007’s standout In Requiem and 2009’s Faith Divides Us. More recently The Plague Within and Medusa have added yet more levels of complexity - bringing together heavy waves of animalistic, doomy bass with catchier riffs and lyrics. ‘It’s matured, I guess, in certain ways.’ Greg says of the music. ‘It’s just diversified. I wouldn’t say it has been one long change, I’d say some things came full circle and some things have completely changed. It just depends on what you’re into at the time. So what I’m 100% into at the time might not be what my thoughts are in three years’ time, which is usually an album cycle. You could say it’s become more refined over the years, the song-writing especially. But you can instantly tell a Paradise Lost song and it’s not because we try to do that, it’s just the way they turn out.’
Greg’s dislike for homogenised styles and genres manifests in the music he listens to - he adores bands that do their own thing. ‘It was always the very small sub-genres that used to really excite me in the early days. Even now I troll bandcamp for recommendations for new bands that excite me, that are doing something a little bit different. I like anyone that has their own sound, it could be grindcore, it could be doom metal, even black metal, anything like that. It has to have something to it, some kind of unique quality.’ He does worry, however, about the future of metal. ‘Unfortunately in mainstream metal that seems to be lacking. It’s funny because when we first started out in the late eighties there was very few bands, there was a handful of bands in each country that were involved in each different little scene, but each band had their own identity. It seems like now, everyone’s in a band, there’s almost no audience because everyone’s in a band.’ At the same time, there’s hidden nuggets of treasure that can still be found. ‘It’s just a sea of bands and it’s so hard to find any identity amongst it but when you do it’s fantastic. You’re kind of lost in this blandness until you find the right thing.’ There is hope for original music, however, despite its fall off in recent years as pubs and venues disappear. ‘In the underground it still seems to be bubbling away there as people try to diversify and do whatever they feel like doing.’
In fact, Paradise Lost can take a lot of the credit for inspiring new acts, some big names amongst them, and so helping keep metal alive and thriving. ‘Our second album Gothic sparked a whole glut of bands afterwards that classed themselves as Gothic metal who say they were influenced and started bands because of us – like Lacuna Coil, Katatonia – which is hugely humbling and extremely satisfying.’ Again, Greg believes their success is down to each artist’s originality rather than just an imitation of Paradise Lost’s unique style. ‘All those bands, after their initial releases, went on and did their own thing, carved out their own style, which is the way of the world, that’s what you should do. There’s loads of bands that we took out for their first ever tour and they’ve gone huge, like HIM, for example. I remember Ville Valo turning up with a demo cassette to a gig of ours in Helsinki and asking if he could get a gig with us. Ghost was another one, we took them out on their first gig. It’s great to see the development of a band just starting out.’
Despite having such a massive impact on the world of Goth-influenced metal, Greg remains humble about Paradise Lost’s own achievements and is continually counting his blessings. ‘You’re only as good as your last record. We’ve never looked past today really, it’s always been live in the moment, so I think the biggest achievement has been to come through tougher times, still warrant the attention, have a good audience and still feel the music is relevant in emerging new scenes and markets. There are little personal achievements that are great, like touring with Ozzy and Sabbath, touring with Sisters of Mercy or playing with your peers or people that you admired – it was always great to do stuff like that.’ Much of Paradise Lost’s success can be attributed to strong bonds within the team and their sense of continuing unity - along with their shared gruff Northern temperament which is perhaps responsible for the moody melancholy at the heart of their work. ‘It’s been the same four key guys that have been in the band since the start. I mean musically we have varying differences but that helps come together in creating the band. We’re kind of the same person almost, same sense of humour, same outlook. In fact there’s a good way of describing us that some American bands came up with actually, I can’t name names but we play festivals with them a lot, and someone from our record label said to one of their American bands, ‘do you know Paradise Lost’ and they said ‘oh that’s that miserable band that stand around in a circle talking to each other and not mingling backstage at festivals’! That’s pretty true, we’re not going to go around high-fiving everyone. We’re Northern English, we’ve got this downbeat, self-depreciating sense of humour and that runs right through us whether we like it or not.’
While inevitably missing his bandmates and the visceral thrill of playing live together, Greg is doing his best to keep busy during this period, and hints that we might even get some new material as a result of the quarantine - a silver lining if ever there was one. ‘I’ve been doing a lot of press, but I am thinking, depending on how long this goes on, whether to get back in the studio and start writing again, because you feel like you’re being unproductive just watching Netflix, it’s a little strange. We’ll see what happens, but hopefully this thing will go away and we’ll see each other on the other side again.’ And it’s worth remembering that even during the darkest of days, the full discography of Paradise Lost is there for us to indulge in. ‘Keep it together,’ Greg adds wisely, as a final message to fans. ‘Don’t go crazy, don’t go looting, chill out and listen to some music.’
'Obsidian' is out now on Nuclear Blast