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Interview: Paradise Lost Guitarist Greg Mackintosh Discusses 'Tragic Idol'

You'll find no rose-tinted anthems of euphoric triumph on Paradise Lost's 13th studio album, Tragic Idol.

"There's a lot of cynicism, but then again we're kind of known for that," Greg Mackintosh says with a laugh, referring to the overarching sense of melancholy that pervades Tragic Idol — and indeed most of the band's back catalog.

As the band near the 25-year mark in their storied career, the stark change in music direction from their early days of doom-laden death metal to the synth-metal of Host to today's melodic brand of gothic metal tends to obscure the fact that they've been one of the most consistent acts in heavy music since the late Eighties.

Melodic can be a four-letter word to many metal fans, a death knell to the crowd that prefers dark and solipsistic to uplifting and — dare I say — euphoric. But the melodies that can be found on Tragic Idol are far more plaintive than soaring, and in places even downright sinister.

But that darkness belies an almost serene acceptance of life and death — "Calm as a Hindu cow," as Tyler Durden might say.

Perhaps vocalist Nick Holmes best frames the outlook of Paradise Lost on the track "Theories from Another World" when he sings, "In death in remorse, in this we celebrate."

GUITAR WORLD: Let's start with the songwriting process for the new album. When did you begin work on the songs for Tragic Idol in relation to the Vallenfyre record? Was there any crossover during the writing process?

GREG MACKINTOSH: There was no crossover point. I finished recording the Vallenfyre record in March 2011 and immediately started writing the new Paradise Lost record in April 2011.

I think the Vallenfyre record did have an impact on the new Paradise Lost record, but it didn't influence it in any way. It helped me focus on what should and should not be in the new Paradise Lost record. It helped me draw a line in the sand so I could see clearly what I wanted to do with the new Paradise Lost record.

The Vallenfyre album certainly seemed to be a different, more intense kind of emotional outlet for you. Did you feel refreshed after that?

Yeah, kind of. I definitely felt more focused, I guess you could say.

The Vallenfyre record was more of a chaotic outpouring where I was just letting everything out onto the record. As soon as it was all recorded and in the bag I instantly calmed down. Then I thought, Alright, where do I go from here?

As far as themes go, there seems to be a lot of religious imagery present throughout the album.

The religious elements ... they're not really religious elements, but they're more euphemisms for bigger society. Even the album cover looks a bit religious, but it's not necessarily. It's loosely connected, but it's also about the big society and our outlook on life in general.

"Tragic Idol" is more to do with "all that glitters is not gold." That's basically it. That could represent religion, or it could represent consumerism, or it could represent the public's obsession with idolizing celebrities who have nothing in particular to add to society.

Where this record different from the last record [2009's Faith Divides Us – Death Unites Us] is that it's a bit more introspective. And that's purely because when you get older, your viewpoint changes. It's inevitable that as you grow older your priorities change, your points of view on certain things change. That inevitably shifts the lyrics and to some extend the music on the record.

One of the most poignant tracks on the record is "Honesty in Death," which has a very visually intense music video to go along with it. How closely did you work with the director on the concept for the video?

We were very closely involved with it. At first the label wasn't too happy with us because they wanted more of a semi-performance video. But we just said, have you seen how many videos like that there are on YouTube? Basically every metal video is like that.

So we made a compromise that made me laugh quite a bit, because we made a cameo for about two seconds. That was our pleasing the label part. [laughs]

We were pretty hands-on with it. It's the same guy who did the video for Vallenfyre for me, and I liked what he was able to do within the budget. He's kind of an outside-the box-thinker. He doesn't care whether it gets shown on TV, the same as we don't.

Obviously labels and management are different, and they're nagging at you saying, "Can you edit this? Can you edit that?"

But It's my favorite video we've ever done. It's up there with "Faith Divides Us." and "Forever Failure" as my top three.

Why is that?

Purely because it provokes emotion. Whether you like it or not, it does. Whatever emotion it provokes — whether it's, "What the fuck is that?" or, "Yeah, that's really cool" — I don't care really, because I just don't want to be part of the pack, you know?

It is pretty grim. And I love grim videos. They're probably right. It's probably never going to get shown anywhere but YouTube because a guy hangs himself, but there you go.

So where does a Paradise Lost song begin?

I usually come up with a couple of melody lines on guitar. You would think it would be riffs — and sometimes it is — but on this record especially it was really melody lines. I would hum the tune in my head, almost like a vocal line, and then I translate it to guitar and send it to Nick [Holmes, vocalist] who gives me almost an answer line.

When you hit the studio to record Tragic Idol, were the songs more or less completely written?

Yeah, I think you have to these days. Gone are the days 15 or 20 years ago when the music business could throw hundreds of thousands at you and let you stay in a mansion for two months or something. It's just part of the industry now, you have to be more well-prepared.

I guess the recording techniques allow you to record faster, but we're a particularly well-prepared band. We don't write in the studio. The only parts that kind of off-the-cuff are the lead parts. Those are only roughly written so that you can have a few gos at them and compile the best parts and then replay.

Apart from leads and lyrics it's all there before we go in.

One thing I've always loved about the band is how the lead guitar lines are never out of context in the song. There are no solos in the sense of a spot where the guitar player just has a free-for-all over a rhythm track. "Crucify" has some pretty blazing leads, for example, but they serve the song well.

I never really liked guitarist who had that "stop here, it's time for the guitar solo" attitude.

I guess I started off with guitarists like Hendrix; everything he played was relevant to the song. Then it carried through into a love of songwriters, and how melodies intertwined to make a song, and the light and shade of the song.

I don't see the point in just slapping stuff in there for the sake of it. Especially for this record, I went back to a songwriting style that more prevalent in early metal stuff, where once a vocalist finishes, the guitarist comes in and kind of does an answer melody that builds up to the next part. That way you get a lead guitarist and rhythm guitarist that never really play the same thing at any point on the record. And I find that really interesting.

Paradise Lost has been recording music for more than two decades now. How have you seen things change in that time? In a piece you wrote for Guitar World, I remember you remarking on how things are gravitating more toward producers having a signature sound and not bands.

It's something that's become very prevalent in the past five years. Actually it's probably been more than that, but definitely I've noticed it a lot more in the last five years.

It seems more important to have a certain producers stamp. It's sad to me because there are a lot of good bands out there that sort of lose their identity. Producers should really just be pulling the best performances out of the musicians, and the musician should be the one to put their stamp on the record, not the other way around.

Would you consider Tragic Idol a response to that?

This record is certainly almost a backlash to that. It's just so annoying that the most refreshing records in metal were made 20 or 30 years ago. It's kind of sad. Ive seen a little bit of backlash to it — not just us but quite a few bands here in the last year or two.

Hopefully that trend will continue and the producers will become what they're supposed to be — producers, and not shapers of destiny, you know? It's just restraining for a musician.

You said it had a lot to do with musicians not believing in their own abilities . . .

You should have total belief in what you're laying down. Belief in the sound, belief in what you're playing. You shouldn't have to have DI guitars as fail safes. You hear about this all the time — bands just emailing clean guitar parts to producers, who then re-amp them. I mean, that's just soulless.

Some of my favorite guitar sounds ever were recorded on 2-inch tape, and they still remain some of the best guitar sounds around. So what's that say? Musicians should just have more faith in their abilities to notice good sounds and good songs and go with it.

A lot of young musicians seem very intimidated by the studio, particularly from the angle that they're creating the version of a particular song that's going to be the permanent record of that song.

True. And no one can blame them for that, because that's the way it's been headed for a while now. Things just became more and more and more perfect. But it's perfect to the point where everything's sterile, and the only things that stand out aren't sterile.

This is your second record using Jens Bogren [Opeth] for production. How does he approach producing? Is he fairly hands-on or does he stay in the background?

He's pretty hands-on. He's a Swedish guy, so he's pretty methodical. You spend more time tuning than you do playing! [laughs]

But what I do like about him, and the reason we used him again this time, is exactly what I said. He's just getting the best performances out of us. He wants to make a good Paradise Lost record, not the best Jens Bogren's version of Paradise Lost.How did you approach creating your guitar sound for the album?We took quite a lot amps in with us. We initially started off thinking we were going to use some kind of vintage Marshall head, because a lot of the guitar sounds we were thinking of in our heads were from the old-school doom stuff — maybe the first couple of Trouble albums, early Saint Vitus. We ended up dealing with Blackstar, and they sent us a bunch of heads and we tried them all out. We settled on these Blackstar heads with the 6L6 tubes — just great sounding amps with loads of weight to them. We also used a Keeley-modded [Ibanez] TS9 on the head to give it a bit of a bite on the top end.One of the biggest differences though was changing cabs, It's something I never really gave much thought to. The owner at Chapel Studios in England has a '60s Marshall cab, and the second I heard that, it all kind of fell into place. This cab really sort of pulled it all together. The pickups were pretty important as well. This is the first record we've used the Aftermath pickups by Bareknuckle, which I guess give us as much or more output than an EMG but with a much wider sonic spectrum. You can hear the hitting of the strings and all the other little nuances better.Tragic Idol is out now via Century Media. Head here (opens in new tab) to buy it on iTunes.

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Josh Hart is a former web producer and staff writer for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado magazines (2010–2012). He has since pursued writing fiction under various pseudonyms while exploring the technical underpinnings of journalism, now serving as a senior software engineer for The Seattle Times.