On their seventh album, released a decade ago, Paradise Lost tried to break out of their narrow confines, redefining their sound by stripping it of unnecessary ostentatiousness while increasing its sophistication. But as every agnostic yearning for something tangibly real experiences, breaking the bond with the firm believers in one's wake is no easy task. In the 26 years since the release of Black Sabbath's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, one of the first and most successful attempts to widen Heavy Metal's musical palette with complex orchestral arrangements and synthesisers, the genre's audience had grown decidedly more conservative, becoming ever more insular despite constant rejuvenation of its ranks. So while Black Sabbath's album became their fifth consecutive to sell half a million copies in North America, its distant descendant which is Paradise Lost's Host was practically branded a betrayal.
Such a reception seems to have been anticipated by the band, as vocalist Nicholas Holmes' lyrics reflect not only on the inevitability of change, but also the backlash that challenging the established view - and the consequential loss of the esteem in which Paradise Lost had been previously held - would provoke: "Sit alone and celebrate good time of change / Sit alone, annihilate all words of praise / When it all seems to spell disaster / words of wisdom have no meaning / in all honesty / It's just fiction, your religion / No apology." Words that could be interpreted considering belief in general, but could just as well be specifically aimed at entrenched fans and critics alike: "See no life behind your weary eyes... It's much too late for you to aim / You only miss."
There is a conviction, particularly strong on the fringes of popular culture, which maintains that artists are indebted to those who've supported them "from the very beginning," and therefore obliged to "stay true to their roots." It's sheer nonsense though, as artists are only obliged to be true to themselves. Yet, when they are, and allow their art to reflect their growth, development as individuals, and their current interests, a portion of their audience inevitably feels deceived and experiences a sense of loss - more often than not brought about by the fact that the changes evident in an artists work reminds them of time's passing and, by extension, their own mortality. Conservatism is a crutch for those who cannot handle change, and therefore one that everyone sooner or later leans on - rendering advocacy of change one of the most difficult undertakings.
Though Paradise Lost begun their career as a Death Metal inspired Doom outfit, they also occasionally claimed to find inspiration in such - comparatively - "lightweight" sources as the "gothic" rock of Dead Can Dance, or the electronic pop of The Human League. Which possibly appeared to reflect some of their fans' own informed, eclectic attitudes, but (literally) spelled doom to others as Paradise Lost decidedly veered towards more melodic and more electronic music as the 1990s progressed. The band's decision to record Host with Steve Lyon producing must've seemed like the final nail in the coffin, given Lyon's reputation as the studio squire of Depeche Mode's former master arranger Alan Wilder on recordings with Depeche Mode, Nitzer Ebb, and Recoil. Not that Lyon's influence simply turned Paradise Lost into a Metallica with synthesisers.
Vocalist Holmes' inflection had already changed considerably from the hoarse growl he used on the band's 1990 debut Lost Paradise, and the band's instrumentation had expanded beyond that of traditional rock. Lyon's presence certainly contributed to making Paradise Lost's application of samplers and effects appear less casual than the slapped-on efforts of their previous album, 1997's One Second. But the majority of music on Host was performed in a traditional manner, stylistically true to Heavy Metal - albeit processed to sound like something other than guitar, bass, and drums. Like every electrically amplified instrument, the electric guitar can be made to produce virtually any sound in the hands of a sufficiently skilled and technologically sophisticated musician. However, such technicalities were not perceived by - nor did they appeal to - fans and critics solely attuned to the modalities of "classic" rock.
Furthermore, Paradise Lost employed real strings for the parts of Host where most rock bands would've preferred the cheaper and more straightforward alternative of electronic keyboards. And not just any merry band of fiddlers either: Host practically reunites The False Harmonics String Ensemble, some of the most accomplished string musicians in British popular music of the 1980s. There's cellist Dinah Beamish, violist Claire Orsler, violinists Virginia "Gini" Ball, Julia Singleton and Anne Stephenson (now known as Brilliant Strings,) cellist Audrey Riley, violist Susan Dench, and violinists Leonard Payne and Christopher Tombling (then of The Hope Blister,) as well as violinist Jocelyn Pook, augmenting the advanced electronics with arrangements the band's guitarist and principal composer Gregory Mackintosh composed with former Communards and Banderas violinist Sally Herbert, and the aformentioned Audrey Riley.
These seemingly drastic changes were also reflected in the album's modest artwork. Instead of a logo that could double as a tattoo, incorporating a pentagram or some other illusory symbol, superimposed on fantastical imagery, the previously rather camera shy band pose in a vast, empty room. Though vocalist Holmes had already opted for a short crop at the time of the previous Paradise Lost album's release, the entire band now sported a short shorn and smartly attired look, more reminiscent of the alternative rock bands (like Blur) that photographer Paul Postle normally worked with. To have abandoned not only the hallmark sound but also the prerequisite Heavy Metal look, was perceived by the band's more reactionary fans as indisputable proof of Paradise Lost succumbing the the demands of their new, "major" recording company. Or what is referred to in the vernacular as "a sellout."
Having previously worked with independent companies Peaceville and Music For Nations, Paradise Lost released Host through EMI Electrola - the German subsidiary of the much larger British company - in what in fact was a conscious effort to broaden their mainstream appeal. While this worked in their favour in Germany itself, where practically anything labelled "gothic" is generally well received, and audiences had been successfully primed for a fusion of electronic pop and Heavy Metal by the likes of Die Krupps et al throughout the 1990s, Paradise Lost's new partners hardly exerted themselves in promoting the album outside their traditional markets. So, while Host claimed the fourth spot on the German album chart, in the band's native Britain - where it was released through EMI's subsidiary Chrysalis - it only managed to reach the lower sixties.
A benevolent guess would be that EMI were as surprised by the band's new sound and look as many longtime fans. Guitarist Mackintosh, bearing the brunt of the blame as it was he who brought in all those samplers and computers, has on several occasions since refuted claims that the recording company demanded Paradise Lost get a haircut and ditch the guitars. Expecting a "heavier" effort, EMI were perhaps equally bewildered by this pioneering "Gothic Metal" endeavour. Looking back, even more traditionally inclined fans and critics now admit - despite the initial hostility - that, musically, Host remains one of the band's best albums. It was a brave, imaginative experiment, which yielded excellent results - the closing title track being one of Paradise Lost's finest recordings - but was squandered by the recording industry's inability and general unwillingness to disseminate innovative popular music.