When I walked into a second hand store back in 2000 and by pure chance saw a CD titled “Infinity Divine” by a to-me-yet-unknown band named PAGAN’S MIND, buying it on impulse and the cover artwork alone, I would never have thought that these Norwegians would make it into the spot of one of my favourite Prog/Power Metal bands ever. Throughout the years the band from Skien delivered a string of high-class amalgamations of the two styles until 2007’s “God’s Equation” ended the almost unanimous praise of the Scandinavians’ output, with a few sour notes and I must admit that to date it has been my least favourite effort. Since then four long years had passed by and I was quite frankly wondering, if the mixed reactions they received had caused them to call it quits or put the band on hold or something.
Despite the hiatus, they are back with “Heavenly Ecstasy” and the title seems like a very big promise, raising the hopes that they may have regained their magic, and I was hoping that their very stable line-up (last line-up change was in 2003) would contribute to that, so let’s see. First major change is evitable even before you plop the CD into the player – no blue colours and hues on the cover! Now how’s that for a departure? And at the same time it also kind of puts into your head, if they make such a change on the visual side, does it translate into the music as well?
Well, after the obligatory spacey intro “Contact”, “Eyes Of Fire” quickly disperses any doubts about PAGAN’S MIND anno 2011 having changed styles, because they emerge from the ashes with style and flair and once more masterfully combine the trademarks of their sound, semi-progressive structuring of the song with a very nice basic heaviness interspersed with atmospheric passages, crowned by Nils K. Rue’s inimitable facetful voice and an almost criminally catchy chorus, which is one of the things that had originally drawn me into their sound with the song “Caught In A Dream” from their debut album. While returning more towards the approach of their earlier albums, “Heavenly Ecstasy” is in no way a carbon copy or a step back in the band’s evolution, because they have continued to go forward by incorporating some of their old strengths into an overall more modern sound (which had already been showcased on “God’s Equation”). Something that took me by absolute surprise, though, is the main riff of “Intermission”, which reminds me of good old Rockers TNT, showcasing more of a melodic side of the band, maybe a little to the disdain of the fans of the more progressive nature of the Norwegians.
Another thing that might bring a frown to the foreheads of the fans of old is the decidedly more modern guitar tone on several of the tracks, such as “Into The Aftermath”, where we also are treated to some of the dreaded distorted vocals, but the once more insanely catchy chorus more than makes up for that, since it sweeps you away, again borne by Rue’s stellar vocal performance. So you can see that the guys have actually expanded their horizons even further and can cover regular Hard Rock groove (of for example “Walk Away In Silence”) all the way to frenetic double-bass, heavy riffing and aggressive vocals of “The Master’s Voice” and the many different steps in-between, with the progressive side having been toned down overall in favour of an often straighter, more melodic approach, but do not worry, this is still no mainstream fodder for the easy-listening crowd, even the semi-ballad “Live Your Life Like A Dream” with its AOR appeal in the chorus works, at least for me.
While less progressive in nature, “Heavenly Ecstasy” is the most varied album so far in terms of influences processed, if you’ll view that as something positive or negative, well, that’s completely up to your standpoint, I for my part thoroughly enjoy the album, even though it is somewhat surprising in some aspects, there still is plenty of highly recognizable PAGAN’S MIND to be found and while the newly emphasized catchiness may rub a few people the wrong way, I find that it is a welcome expansion of horizons, something that many so-called “progressive” bands steadfastly refuse to do, ironic, isn’t it?
(Online August 25, 2011)