Judgment of the Dead: Some Thoughts on Terry Jones

I remember May 15th, 2015 quite vividly. It was a pretty typical morning at the end of the semester for my second year of my Masters program. It was the year I was supposed to graduate but ultimately I had to spend another year in the program. My drive to complete my education was waning, especially after I had to decline an offer to attend a doctoral program at another university. Needless to say, my self esteem was at an all-time low. It was around this time when I started to notice an increase in my drinking, but that is another story for another day. The first thing I do after waking up, like many of us these days, is grab my phone and check my facebook notifications. I don’t recall if there was anything interesting there, but as I started to scroll through my news feed I saw a post by Annick, the lead singer of Canadian metal band Cauchemar, that announced the death of Terry Jones, vocalist of the legendary English doom band Pagan Altar.

People that know me know how much I care about Pagan Altar. I listed their album “Volume I” (AKA Judgment of the Dead) as my favorite doom metal album of all time. I traveled 800 some miles to see them live in Baltimore for their first-ever live performance in the US where I headbanged and screamed along to every lyric with Annick and my friend Sarah, both of whom I just met moments before their set. For fuck’s sake, I have a portion of their logo tattooed on my shoulder. Aside from a few other bands, Pagan Altar are one of the bands that I can listen to over and over again without ever growing tired of them. Nevertheless, I was not shocked to read this news. I knew that Terry’s health was wavering for a while, but like any death of a musician, it hurts. I remember sulking away to the basement of the greasy college townhouse I was living at the time and immediately started crushing Hamm’s while the first few notes of the song “Pagan Altar” started playing on the speakers. Everything that I had planned on doing that day was gone and this was what was most important. But I don’t want to dwell too much on my own personal feelings that day and instead talk about what this article was meant to be about: Terry Jones.

Without going too deep into the history of the band, Pagan Altar are one of the oldest and revered doom metal acts around. Metal Archives shows that they initially got their start in 1978, roughly the same time as other legendary doom acts like Pentagram, The Obsessed, and Saint Vitus. But while Pentagram were blues and hard-rock influenced and Saint Vitus were punky, Pagan Altar had this sense of vastness that really set them apart from other bands of their ilk. Their compositions are typically longer than most Pentagram or Obsessed songs and feature more lead guitar flourishes instead of having an extended solo section while at the same time being extremely dark. It is a little difficult to describe in words, so I would just encourage everyone to go blast these bands immediately and see for yourself.

Perhaps even more defining than the song structures are Terry’s vocals. In the early recordings, Terry and his son Al admit to being sick at the time of recording and what resulted is this extremely eerie, Sabbathian-esque wail. Terry’s vocals perfectly complement the dark, ritualistic atmosphere of the music and increases the the listener’s experience. While listening to “Volume I” I find myself sucked into Pagan Altar’s world. I can feel myself attending a black mass in some dimly lit medieval church in the middle of nowhere England. That transportation is the real appeal of the band, Few other traditional metal (by that I mean non-extreme) bands can achieve this effect and Pagan Altar might be the best example of total immersion in the concept of an album.

I should also mention the lyrical content of the band. At least in their early days and on “Volume I” Pagan Altar wrote heavily on the occult and Satan. These concepts were nothing new to the metal community, but were primarily featured in the more extreme styles of metal, generally speaking. With “Lords of Hypocrisy” and “Mythical & Magical” the band evolved their sound and pursued more folk and fantasy concepts into their music. Those albums are equally amazing so I don’t want to sound like I am favoring “Volume I” but I think the lyrical content of that album really makes it stand out. There is just something about the way the darkness of the music works with the darkness of the lyrics that makes the album downright evil sounding. There is a line in the song “Judgment of the Dead” that mentions “Judge Satan” sitting at the head of the courtroom wearing “a cloak of black, that hangs to the ground” and passing judgment on the dead “without even a sound” that is so evocative that it would be possible to paint this scene. And that’s just one line from the album! This juxtaposition between lyrics and music would require an explanation that is beyond the boundaries of this article, so before I start babbling like a mad man just keep an eye out for an article by me coming out that explores this topic more and includes a discussion on the band’s connection with England’s greatest poet: John Milton.

I want to conclude this article by talking about myself again. Back at their performance in Maryland, I left the front row to grab a few pints of Yuengling for a buddy and myself and ended up losing my position a few feet back. Not a big deal when I ended up having such a great time with my new friends Annick and Sarah. After their set, I remember making my way to the barrier and shouting at Al while he was packing up his gear. I managed to get his attention and I proudly rolled up my shirt sleeve and to reveal my newly acquired Pagan Altar tattoo. His eyes bulged and he shouted at Deano, the drummer, who shouted something and proceeded to come down to the barrier to talk to my buds and I. I can’t remember the extent to that conversation, but he showed me his own tattoo that was of the same Zeus/Wizard face that adorns several of their covers. I ended up getting a personalized drum stick from him which I have sitting somewhere in my closet back at my parents place (I should probably frame that or something). He did mention that the band would be around later that night and he would meet up with us to do a sort of “meet and greet” with the other guys in the band. The day’s festivities carried on. In fact, I believe Pentagram played that night as well, but I failed to find any of the members of the band. After four straight days of treating your body like garbage with too many beers to count and real shitty 3am walks to Subway, your body starts to get mad at you. After the night was over and all the bands were done, I walked back to the hotel to rest. Shortly after, my friends texted me to come back to the venue but I refused, as I was currently straddling the porcelain throne of the Holiday Inn. Moments later and much to my chagrin, I received a photo from my friends with Al and Terry themselves. They were at the bar just shooting the shit with the fans. To this day, I regret not wiping my ass and racing back to the venue to fanboy gush all over the band. I guess I hoped and kinda assumed that I would see them again one day before they disbanded, and yet the worse happened.

But I DID see them live. That is something that I will never be able to do with the likes of Ronnie James Dio (who passed away a day later in 2010), or Lemmy (whom I wrote about in the past) and I know plenty of my friends that worship the band just as much as I do that cannot say the same. And I think it is really telling of the integrity of a musician that willingly meets and chats with their fans. That, is the type Terry Jones was. Honest, humble, and most importantly, friendly.

R.I.P. Terry Jones Aug 24th, 1945 – May 15th, 2015.

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