For Fans Of
After a string of kick-ass singles in the ferocious shapes of ‘Wine And Lace‘ and ‘Imitate Me‘, with more recent cuts being the brilliant ‘Death Before Disco‘ and newly dropped ‘Silver‘, Pagan’s debut album is finally here. And I’m very happy to report that the band’s long-awaited full-length, inscribed as ‘Black Wash‘, is one hell of a captivating and consistent witches brew.
This record takes what we already musically know of Melbourne’s Pagan with their blackened rock’n’roll sound and pushes it further. Whether it’s doubling down on their rocky-cvlt sound, hooky punk rock moments, subtle and not-so-subtle open hi-hat disco beats, or the quartet’s eruptive blast beating drums and black metal guitar riffs; it’s a tasteful and potent mixture. One that’s guided straight from the pulpit, as frontwoman Nikki Brumen pushes the record along at a fiendish pace with her raw vocals, confronting screams and lower, almost-guttural growls.
Now, while releasing a third of your album before it’s actual release is a conversation for another time (in particular here, ‘Wine And Lace‘ is two years old, and ‘Imitate Me‘ turned one back in April), Pagan have definitely found their sound and what works for them. And they’ve stuck right to it on this debut LP to craft a solid all-rounder. That being said, Pagan provide new elements to their sonic framework at various points on ‘Black Wash‘ to really spruce things up.
For instance, there’s the bright, shinning lead synths during ‘Year Of The Dog‘ – a first for Pagan if we’re keeping score. There’s those delicious “oooh” vocal harmonies that dress up the background of ‘Death Before Disco‘ in the choruses; which are only used on this song to give it more weight and character. There’s the fact that amidst the riffy, bittersweet and 90s-sounding gem, ‘The Greatest Love Songs‘, we get the closest thing to having proper clean singing on a Pagan track in the verses. We also find the most “black metal” section of any Pagan song yet with the heavy and absolutely savage bridge of ‘Fluorescent Snakes‘. And then there’s bassist Dan Bonnici lending some strong melodic punk vibes with his gruff backing vocal shouts throughout; complimenting Nikki’s performances for a solid contrast. In tandem, this all works superbly well to make Pagan’s “black’n’roll” sound on this debut LP grossly addictive.
At it’s darkened core, ‘Black Wash‘ is an album concocted for dance-floor shakers, drink spilling punks, and corpse-paint headbangers all the same; arms wrapped around one another in holy communion. However, it’s also quite clear from the lyrical content that this is a deeply personal experience to Nikki Brumen. On the album’s short-lived foreword, ‘Il Malocchio Si Apre‘ (The Evil Eye Opens), we receive a mission statement of grief and woe: “As the light shines through the stained glass/And lands a streak across my blank face/And inside this church of Black Wash/We will never ever escape“. A grim testimony of cultish and religious imagery, and the record only dives deeper into the bowels of her personal hell from this point onward.
‘Death Before Disco‘ is a third-person story about love gone completely awry, with more blood to be found in the gingerbread than you’d once thought (“Even though he fucked it up, she never dragged his name through the mud“). The surprisingly catchy ‘Silver‘ continues that theme of toxic relationships; a direct addressing of the ugliness that’s fueled the creation and themes of this album more than anything else. Elsewhere, ‘Imitate Me‘ seems to be a severe and bloody wound ripped right open regarding old relationships and past friendships, and how Nikki turned such interpersonal dramas inwards on herself (“…an expression of self-hate“).
The melodic dance-punk vibes of ‘Holy Water‘ sees Pagan’s energetic vocalist recalling childhood nightmares and sleepless nights (“It started when I was young and couldn’t sleep in bed/I hauled my mattress down the hall and slept all night instead“). This song then shifts into her young adult years and presents the singer’s spiteful opinions of the church, specifically of the Catholic variety; all with hopes of smashing a creepy relic of the old-world. ‘Holy Water‘ also gets super specific about her Catholic upbringing, the role of priests, and the ceremonies and out-dated values that go into not just the Catholic Church, but also into the schooling and education under such religious institutions as well. Basically, if you ever wanted to know why Pagan play up the mock-religious element of their music and aesthetic, as well as where it all originally comes from, then this standout track is your answer.
The instrumentally brooding and lyrically hateful ‘Blood Moon‘ is as bitter as it damn well gets; speaking of betrayal, being wronged, and ensuing personal isolation. Also, I’m not sure if Pagan or EVP Recordings planned this album’s release to happen right before the world’s longest blood moon cycle in almost a 100 years, but the timing couldn’t be more perfect! Oh, and the irony of a song being called ‘Year Of The Dog‘ is not lost on me given how much of this record is about experiencing zero honesty and loyalty from those who you thought were your closest allies. There’s a reason dogs are man’s best friend, after all. (2018 is the year of the dog in the Chinese calendar too).
Cycling back around to the how this record first began, we have the closer, ‘Il Malocchio Si Chiude‘ (The Evil Eye Closes). Here, things get incredibly harrowing, as just under a minute-in we hear Nikki become super vulnerable, passionately screaming “someone, someone please save me“; all before the song’s mid-tempo pace and crashing instrumentals take over. The final moments of ‘Il Malocchio Si Chiude‘ sees Nikki reprise the lyrics from the album’s opener just ten tracks earlier, as she digs deep and gives her heaviest vocal performance to date in order to repeat the lines: “As the light shines through the stained glass/And lands a streak across my blank face/And inside this church of Black Wash/We will never ever escape“. All of which creates a feedback-loop of personal anguish, further hitting home the immensely bleak, cyclic vibe here that there’s truly no escape within this album’s blackened universe.
Of course, Pagan’s brilliantly dark roadshow isn’t just about Nikki and she isn’t the only star here. To talk about the rhythm section of Pagan quickly, the groovy and driving duo of grumbling bassist Dan Bonnici and drummer Matthew Marasco is an air-tight pairing. These two dudes just lock into one another’s playing so well, but in a genuine and fun way too. They’re a huge part of why this band is so great to watch live.
One thing I’ve found really disconcerting to see from recent Pagan coverage in the media is the lack of love towards guitarist, Xavier Santilli. His rollicking guitar output across these 11 songs isn’t just commendable or good – it’s great! Seriously, on every single song, old mate just dolls out a delirious number of wicked, memorable riffs like they’re going out of fuckin’ fashion. There was no point when listening to this album that I thought to myself, “Where’s the riffs?” or “Oh, that’s a bad riff“. This isn’t even counting the slick, suitable and well-done solo he rips through to close out ‘Silver‘ either. Black Wash? More like Riff Wash!
And one cannot talk about ‘Black Wash‘ without giving some kind of special mention to the album’s producer and engineer, Mike Deslandes. (Who also plays guitar in Melbourne’s mightiest, High Tension and who recently made Outright sound the best they’ve ever have as a band). His in-studio work here is damned impressive given the fact he’s been able to reign-in and control but also bolster and clean up such an explosive band like Pagan. Plus, the guy’s redux version of ‘Wine And Lace‘ has given a live favourite brand new life and the fresh mix and master behind ‘Imitate Me‘ is infinitely better too. Fingers crossed this pairing between Mike and Pagan doesn’t end anytime soon. It’s a match made in hell.
If you couldn’t tell already, I am all about Pagan’s debut album! There’s just so much to peel back here, and that often makes for the greatest listening experiences. ‘Black Wash’ more than lives up to the fast-rising local attention this four-piece have been gaining swiftly over the past 18 months; filled to the brim with great songwriting, authentic performances, awesome guitar riffs, palpable emotional lyricism, and a demonic blackened rock sound that needs to be heard and loved. A tidal wave is coming, and it’s time for you to dive in.
1. Il Malocchio Si Apre (‘The Evil Eye Opens’)
2. Death Before Disco
4. Imitate Me
5. Holy Water
6. Blood Moon
7. Year of the Dog
8. The Greatest Love Songs
9. Wine and Lace
10. Fluorescent Snakes
11. Il Malocchio Si Chiude (‘The Evil Eye Closes’).
‘Black Wash’ is out Friday, July 6th via EVP Recordings. Stream it below!