Paradise Lost frontman Nick Holmes talks 'Draconian Times' 25th anniversary reissue
In a year that has been relentlessly hellish, music fans long denied the vital lifeblood of live gigs can’t help but feel a certain wistfulness for an era long past. And apart from the killer venues now gone the way of the dodo and the goth/alternative clubs and dive bars that were once a feature of every town centre, one of the best things about the wild, pre-internet heyday of alternative music was browsing record shops for albums and demos in their physical form. Of course wicked vinyl and CD versions of our favourites can still be found by the most determined, complete with shiny, pristine little booklets filled with listings, lyric breakdowns and little nuggets of insider info as well as glossy, brooding photographs of the band, but with the plethora of streaming platforms out there and much of it free to boot, owning hard copy music is becoming increasingly rare. Without physical records, it also takes a special effort to appreciate elaborately designed album artwork. And yet the most infamous designs from the height of heavy metal that range from the sophisticated and highly artistic to the amateurish and sloppily executed - while still somehow filled with naïve charm - persist with great fondness in our collective memories as much as the music itself.
Gothic metal luminaries Paradise Lost, who never offer anything less than the whole package, have tapped into these sentimental yearnings with a not unwelcome 25th anniversary reissue of their standout, genre-defining 90s classic, ‘Draconian Times’ which includes the original compelling cover. Catching up with Dark Matter to discuss the lasting influence of the album and the pleasures of revisiting the past, vocalist Nick Holmes reminisces tenderly about his love of artistry on record sleeves and how it coloured his experience of the music he enjoyed when he was young. ‘When I bought an album, when I saved up the pennies as a child, I would always stare at the artwork to help me make my mind up about the music, and my imagination would run away with the artwork.’ He is very aware that we consume music differently nowadays. ‘I don’t think people digest artwork the same as when we did when we were younger. Now it’s more about the instant hit of the music. I don’t think the album art is even that important to many people. But we come from the vinyl generation. When I was a teenager, if I saw that a lot of time and thought had gone into the artwork I would appreciate the music more. Even if I thought the music wasn't very good, I would give it a second chance based on good artwork, I wouldn’t instantly rush back to take it back to the record store.’
The original and vividly colourful, slightly hallucinogenic design that wraps around Draconian Times is intriguing and eerily esoteric enough to complement the rich complexities of the music, and for fans of the band looking for some bonus material as well as the sweet sugar rush of nostalgia this bumper gift to music lovers includes the full album plus bonus material never released before, as well as a 24-page artwork booklet with new liner notes, musings on lyrical themes and memories from the band. A real collector’s piece, it’s available as a special vinyl edition plus a deluxe CD. According to Nick, the importance of good presentation is not to be under-estimated and has always featured heavily in the band’s work. ‘A lot of it’s about the artwork and how we represented it - we were always really big fans of nice artwork and nice packaging. Anything linked to Gothic architecture, woodprints, etc. We always liked that and incorporated that into it. When you look at the artwork, straight away it gives you an idea of where the music’s coming from, where the band’s coming from. A lot of bands didn’t really care that much about artwork. But we were constantly on the lookout for good artists, a lot of the time who didn’t even normally do album covers for rock or metal.’ Nick certainly hopes the reissue will have fans salivating. ‘Look out for it - there’s some different coloured vinyl, there’s some unreleased demos which I hadn’t even heard until a few months ago. I had forgotten we did it! It’s exciting, there’s stuff we definitely haven’t released before on there.’ He adds, rather poetically, ‘It was like brushing the dust off my memory.’
Aside from gushing over the design, Nick recalls how the original release of ‘Draconian Times’ was a landmark moment for Paradise Lost. ‘We were kind of building up for hopefully quite a good album after the ‘Icon’ album because there was a good buzz about the band, we did a hell of a lot of touring with some big bands we thought we’d never play with and then we went straight into doing that album, and everything just kind of fit into place. Then it came out and it was a really big album for us, perhaps our most successful. The production is very much of its time, a very ’90s production, you can listen to a lot of releases from that time and they have a very similar kind of drum sound, and similar look in the photographs, so it just kind of fitted nicely in at the time. Everything just kind of gelled, it was a good one for us. But there was no internet then, so you didn’t have any way of judging how successful something was until you got on to a stage which was in itself really nice because if you walked on stage and there were a couple of thousand people freaking out it’s like wow, we didn’t realise it was doing this well.’ Strangely enough, the success of the album is perhaps also down to the way it coincided with a time when trends were led by what was picked up by TV networks. ‘We used to get a lot of European television coverage through the Headbanger’s Ball, there wasn’t a lot of TV coverage or channels then so people knew us even if they thought we were shit!’ Nick also believes the album got a lot of attention because of a persisting interest in the British music scene. ‘The UK has always had an influence, especially back then, a hangover from the new wave of British heavy metal perhaps. We were doing very well in the UK and I think that echoed over into Europe as well. The Germans in particular have always been very loyal to us. Germany has always been a great place for us to play, it’s always been the real place for heavy music.’ Not to mention the golden age of print journalism. ‘We were also in Kerrang quite a lot. We got some great support from the magazines.’
We would beg to differ but for the ever-modest Nick, the success of Paradise Lost, prompted in a large part by Draconian Times, is a happy accident. ‘We’ve been very lucky, we’ve been in the right place at the right time, and to have a certain degree of success you’ve got to have that. You can have the best songs in the world but if you don’t have the luck with it it’s not always going to work. A lot of good bands have fallen by the wayside who just haven’t been lucky.’ But it was a weird kind of alchemy rather than pure good fortune, the infernally ingenious fusion of a dusky and more deeply felt brand of death metal with some mood-drenched doom and a slightly more buoyant beat that ultimately paved the way for Paradise Lost’s gloomy gothic metal to explode in popularity. ‘We came around at a time when death metal was in its infancy really and we crossed it with a doom metal thing which again was in its infancy so we sort of combined the two and nobody had really done that before. So we were almost the first band to do that. It was at a time in the late 80s when no one else was really doing that stuff. We also threw in the gothic element which no one had done before.’
It also involved, to a certain degree, tapping into the zeitgeist. ‘It’s testament to the bands that went before us - we all listened to bands like Death and Candlemass - they were a few years before we were and they kind of inspired us to do what we do. The death metal stuff we liked initially - most of it was demo tape, not even on vinyl - so we were into that kind of music before it was picked up by the record companies - we were into it before it reached mainstream adoption so we got our foot in the door quite early with it. Same with bands like Carcass - similar kind of story.’ Nick doesn’t believe the album was that much different from what had gone before. ‘Everything went a little bit more up tempo, less downbeat, it just went a little bit further really. We got a new drummer, Lee Morris, he’s a very flashy player, he’s influenced by a lot of old classic drummers, obsessed with his instrument, he came in and added a new flair to the sound.’ Indeed, the distinctive, core quality that characterises Paradise Lost was always there - but on 'Draconian Times' it came to the fore and really began to flourish. Nick also acknowledges the impact of 'Draconian Times' on the industry. ‘There’s quite a few bands that sounded like us when they started, but it’s very much the same when we first started. Everything is influenced by everything else. There’s a lot of people who’ve taken us as an influence and they still have very fond memories of listening to us when they were younger. The music you like when you’re young is going to be with you all your life. You’re still going to go back to those days when you’re with your older friends and listen to those songs you like when you were younger. It’s great to have that.’
And that momentous burst of creativity and innovation is still bearing fruit. For Paradise Lost, 2020 has proved rewarding despite the pandemic, with this latest reissue and the highly successful release of their latest album Obsidian back in Spring, and Nick admits this difficult period might have had more of an effect on him mentally had he been younger. ‘I’m not at that age where it hits me that bad, although my kids are late teens, early 20s, so the socialising aspect is tough. For me I’m way past that! As long as I’ve got a TV and a kettle, I’m alright.’ However, not being able to play ‘completely sucks. We usually have long periods of time where we don’t do any shows and we just write and stuff, but this is the longest we’ve ever gone since we started the band 30 years ago. Basically, you get a little bit of validation when you get out of the house! But I do like my own company, always have, and I never really get bored either so in many respects it hasn’t affected me that much but I can certainly see how it affects young people.’ He acknowledges that getting back on the gig circuit is going to be insane. ‘It’s going to go mad when eventually we can get out there and do it!’ However, he can foresee a multitude of issues for the industry. ‘Depends on the vaccine, how it will affect borders, lots of issues with bands travelling now. Fingers crossed we’ll be out by next summer! We’d just come back from Russia when it started to kick off. I had a feeling it was going to be pretty bad. The vaccine is going to be a sticking point, I have friends who are in the music business and travel who are really against the vaccine, but you’re not going to be allowed into countries unless you’ve had the vaccine, and that’s going to be a standard I imagine. But there’s so much conspiracy stuff.’ Ultimately though, he is optimistic. ‘I don’t think it will be that long before it starts again. Maybe in some countries its going to be back to normal way quicker than the UK because we’ve obviously been hit hard by it.’
Many bands have tried to use the time creatively by producing new material, but Nick says, ‘With such a lot going on in the world, it’s quite hard to be remotely creative. Some people find being unhappy is creative - personally, it’s the opposite for me. I find the best things come from being happy. I don’t find being uneasy particularly productive, personally.’ However, he does offer a ray of hope. ‘As it’s gone on, we’ve started to get a little itchy with it. Initially there was so much uncertainty with what was going on I didn’t find it productive whatsoever. But now the last sort of month or two I’m starting to bounce ideas around. I don’t know where it’s going to go or anything but now things seem to be settling down, you feel better in yourself, it’s a nicer feeling and it’s more productive.’
In the meantime, we have ‘Draconian Times’ and the rest of the group’s extensive back catalogue to enjoy, although while Nick admits the band’s doom-filled melancholia chimes with our shared sense of despondency at the moment, he doesn’t always find listening to music as cathartic as most. ‘The thing about dark music is it’s always relevant. You don’t have to look very far to find something that’s going wrong in the world. You can translate it to anything, there’s always something not very nice around the corner. But I tend to listen to music when I’m in a good mood, weirdly enough. If I feel down, the last thing I want to do is listen to music, because I associate music with pleasure, even if it is miserable music. I don’t find it very therapeutic to listen to music if I feel down. I associate it with feeling good, like when I was 18 after a couple of drinks in a pub, that’s the feeling I like to have when I listen to music. When you’re knocking 50, nobody cares how miserable you are!’
When Nick does listen to music, he tends to go for drama. ‘I do like a lot of horror-themed music, I like soundtracks from horror films. I really like good musical scores.’ This can be heard in Nick’s sweeping, heartfelt vocals and the theatrical, weighted chords of many of the band’s tracks. At the heart though, like most of us, Nick loves the music of his youth. ‘I still like the bands I grew up with, when it comes to extreme music, metal. I do still think they are the best. They were the original.’ At the same time, he’s not opposed to the progression and natural evolution of genre and likes to explore and discover new music. ‘I like the black metal scene, it has changed over the years, its exciting. I always keep my ear to the ground. I check out new bands all the time, I’m constantly looking for new bands.’
Nick has certainly experimented in his own career, having also had a serious flirtation with brutal death metal as the lead singer of the wildly popular Bloodbath. ‘I joined the band nearly five years ago now and I’ve done two albums with them, it’s been absolutely brilliant. They asked me to join and I was quite shocked, quite flattered as well. The guys in the band have played in Katatonia and Opeth so they’ve all been around the block, they’re experienced guys. They live in Sweden so we only hook up for the shows but they’re really good friends of mine. It’s been a lot of fun. We’re planning another album at some point. I’m looking forward to getting out and doing something else with Bloodbath as well.’ The experience of singing with Bloodbath is certainly different. ‘The concerts are extremely intense. With Paradise Lost you can chill out a bit, but Bloodbath is just non-stop. I feel like a rabid dog for 45 minutes. It’s exhausting until you get used to the pace; the pace is way more aggressive and there are some songs where you just do not stop singing from start to finish. But I do love it, it’s a lot of fun, and the crowds just go berserk.’
The dreaded coronavirus and the creeping shadows of lockdown hang ominously over any plans anybody makes for the foreseeable future, even high profile metal outfits like Paradise Lost. ‘We have plenty of shows planned, but depends on if we can do them! We will have to write 2020 off and tour again like we were going to do this year. We’ve got a world tour pending, it’s just dependent on when the finger is taken off the pause button and we can get out there and do it. We haven’t promoted this album yet, once we’ve done a fair share of promotion for this we’ll think about the future. But it’s the same for every band, it’s not like everyone else is moving ahead. We’re all just waiting for the pause button to be lifted.’ But, referring to the much hoped for solution of a vaccine, Nick reflects, ‘there’s been good news lately so who knows…’
Ever the optimist, Nick adds, ‘See you at Bloodstock 2021, all being well.’
Let’s fucking well hope so.
Grab your copy of the 25th anniversary edition of 'Draconian Times' now by visiting www.draconiantimes.co.uk