Draconian Times is an album that never should have worked. By now Paradise Lost’s career trajectory has been discussed ad nauseam – from rotten doom-death to Depeche Mode-inspired dance rock to their current gothic metal resurgence – and Times was essentially that early transition album, a puberty-stricken adolescent with a new slicked-up hairdo and a European leather jacket that still fit a little too big. Released in 1995, the sound is essentially The Sisters of Mercy playing Load-era Metallica, with vocalist Nick Holmes doing his best James Hetfield impression through songs with soppy titles like “Forever Failure” and “The Last Time.” A cursory listen reveals some apparent missteps: “The Last Time” has one of the most lunkheaded choruses ever (“Hearts beating, hearts beating”) repeated over what is probably the first chord progression budding guitarists ever learn, and “Once Solemn” is likely the most straightforward rock song ever written by a band that once played doom metal. Whether or not Times was a true bid for commercialism is a mystery, but the music was certainly far more accessible than anything they’d written before.
This, of course, is where I say “despite these issues” – only I won’t, because Draconian Times doesn’t succeed in spite of anything. It just fucking succeeds. I’ve always maintained that the best albums work because of a certain feeling they exude – melodies, vocal lines, and riffs, no matter how catchy, all get old at some point, but when an album can truly pull you into its own world, listening to it is more an experience in being drowned in its aura than dissecting its actual notes. Take Gregory Mackintosh’s guitarwork: even though most of it could probably be performed by a second-year guitar student, his fretwork is both genuinely inventive and timelessly emotive, from the plaintive melodies of “Hallowed Land” and “Shadowkings” to the fist-to-the-sky lead that erupts from the opening chugs of “Hands of Reason.” Over the years, his guitar tone here has steadily become my definition of perfect, balancing dreaminess with balls and slickness with crunch, all while evoking mental images of raincloud-bloated skies, crooked cathedral spires, and depressed Englishmen watching their youth slip away.
One can’t even fault Holmes’ Hetfield-inspired vocals: his inflection and passion here show him at the pinnacle of his career, meshing perfectly with Mackintosh’s rocking climaxes, and made all the stronger with occasional forays into Type O Negative-style crooning. His performance is even more endearing due to the lyrics – esoteric, yet simple enough to remain universally accessible. Take the repeated croon of “All I need is a simple reminder” in keyboard-laced opener “Enchantment,” the catchy pre-chorus of “You want to live a lifetime each and every day” in “Hallowed Land,” or the infamous wail of “The feeling can’t avoid you!” in closer “Jaded.” I can’t provide a satisfactory explanation for the meaning of any of these lines, yet it feels like Nick ripped them straight out of the less embarrassing portions of my high school journal [Ha! You had a journal. — Steel Druhm].
For an album so compositionally simple, Times is one of the few records I own that has never become stale. Thank Mackintosh’s guitarwork, sure, but also the unexpected twists like the Charles Manson samples in the mournful “Forever Failure,” the reinvention of the chorus in the final minute of “The Last Time” (“Hearts beating FOR the last time!”), or the upbeat riding-into-the-sunset vibe of penultimate track “I See Your Face.” Draconian Times is the rare album where every track has the potential to be a favorite, where picking highlights is next to impossible because every moment is just as incredible as the one that preceded it – and yet even through straightforward rockers like “Once Solemn,” the entrancing atmosphere is never lost, it just takes a new form for a few minutes.
Listening to this makes me feel bad for people holed up in their compact SUVs and cookie-cutter houses, people who’ve never bothered to explore music beyond The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. It’s an album that stands alone in both sound and inspiration, a once-in-a-career masterwork that bleeds nostalgia and yet still sounds fresh 20 years later. A few years back, Nick Holmes stated he couldn’t even recall anything about the recording process – and maybe that’s the key to making a great album, is to just make it and let brilliance blossom on its own without straining for perfection. With a new Paradise Lost record out next month – apparently hearkening back to their doom-death roots – there’s no better time to look back and appreciate Draconian Times. I won’t say it’s perfect – wait, yes I will. Thank you, Paradise Lost. Because this album is fucking flawless.