Belfast's New Pagans bombastic debut delivers a rich, gothic tapestry of intelligent, indie-rock energy. It's been just over twelve months since the release of the Glacial Erratic EP by New Pagans. That project was unleashed literally days before the world changed for everybody, no more so than those at the sharp end of the music industry - the musicians.
However, New Pagans have not sat around, waiting for better days to arrive. In that time, they have won 'Best Live Act' at the 2020 NI Music Awards and dropped three singles in support of their debut album - The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots and All. They have also secured some impressive airplay and acclaim from the likes of Stereogum, BBC Radio 1, Radio X & Kerrang, as well as a regular spin on Steve Lamacq's BBC Radio 6 playlist. All six of the tracks from that 2020 EP also make an appearance on the new album.
New Pagans are an unusual concoction of creativity, blending a mix of established musicianship in the likes of guitarist/vocalist Cahir O'Doherty (ex Fighting With Wire & Jetplane Landing) and the Celtic artistry of lead singer Lyndsey McDougall. Claire Miskimmin completes the line-up on bass, Allan McGreevy on guitar and Conor McAuley on drums. Yes, it’s a debut album; however, the collective unit brings together a maturity of performers that have been committed to the musical path for some time now. The eclectic themes on The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots and All range from a confrontation at a party ('It's Darker), a dedication to an Irish embroiderer ('Lily Yeats'), to McDougall's experiences of childbirth. ('Harbour'). Nothing on this album is predictable.
Let's start with the latter - the current single from the album. 'Harbour', with its screaming guitar reverb and McDougall's recollections of becoming a parent, oscillates between extreme joy, pain and the respite of somewhere in between - "Recoil, suffer / Silence for a minute / It's just you and me."
The album's first single, 'Yellow Room', released last summer, draws on the literary works of the acclaimed feminist short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. McDougall found comfort in this novel during those early days and nights of being a new mother. The book and the song explore postnatal depression. This often lonely and surreal experience is captured eloquently by McDougall - "Trapped in a yellow haze / Creeping in the morning light."
McDougall continues to shine a defiant, feminine light on ‘Lily Yeats.’ I can’t recall a song by any band about a pioneering Irish embroiderer, yet we have such a leap on this track. Susan Mary ‘Lily’ Yeats was the younger sister of the legendary Irish poet and writer WB Yeats. Under-valued in historical terms, due to her brother’s popularity and in part a sign of the male-biased society she was part of. Lily was at the heart of the Irish Arts & Crafts revival of the early 1900s. McDougall, a PhD student herself in Irish women's history through embroidery, appreciatively sings, ‘Lily, we’re proud of you. You can do anything.’ The screeching, melodic guitar licks throughout are a brilliant juxtaposition against a story that has its origins from over a century ago.
The album maintains a driving intensity and ferocity throughout. One of the few delicate moments is a brief, tingling guitar intro on 'Ode to None' before giving way to the unapologetic maelstrom of the New Pagans sonic blast. ‘Natural Beauty has a tongue in cheek swagger to it - "She's mean, ambitious, ...she's a serious artist." There are shades of Black Sabbath guitar riffs on ‘I Could Die’, dove-tailing nicely with McDougall’s tortured vocals.
Perhaps, the biggest statement is saved until the last. The final track on the LP is 'Christian Boys', written after hearing the story of a close friend of McDougall who was having an affair with a church leader shortly before the white-wedding marriage to his future bride. McDougall does not hide her disdain towards this act of male, manipulative hypocrisy - "Christian boys are the worst I know / Christian girls should take it slow." As the band elaborates, “This song calls out the people who blame others for their mistakes and don’t take responsibility for their own actions."
Despite the fearless, electric chemistry of the New Pagans sound, there is something deeper to be found here amongst the chords and the lyrics. Yes, there is a machismo to the alt-rock tones. However, as the album title reveals, there is undoubtedly a clear connection to the earth, nature, and the power, graciousness, and receptiveness of the feminine. The band has shown great resilience in a write-off of a year; however, 2021 could be the period that New Pagans take things to another level.