Album: Black Wash
Label: Hassle Records / Rough Trade
Many old mouths will tell you that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. Maybe there is some truth to this worn out sentiment, and if that’s so, you could say that the four individuals in PAGAN were brought together by some sort of higher power.
To the uninitiated, Pagan - Nikki Brumen (vocals), Xavier Santilli (guitar), Matthew Marasco (drums) and Daniel Bonnici (bass) - bare some resemblance to a rock and roll band. They make loud, emotionally scathing and blisteringly raw music that is born somewhere in the rumblings of the lower ventricle. They lace it in sweat and recreate it, time and time again in euphoric and ritualistic displays that make up their crazed live shows, in points where it seems like they’re in slow motion. No, you certainly wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Pagan are a rock and roll band, but kidnap any member of the quartet, tie them to a chair, blindfold them, and they will tell you that Pagan is a family.
There are a few things you should know about the members of Pagan, and how they came together. They were each brought up in (separate) humble households built on European migration. They each spent their formative years surrounded by similar family traditions only to later rebel against many of these customs once they began their own, and eventually volatile, love affairs with punk rock in their teens. Despite growing up in separate corners of Melbourne, each of them spent much of their teen years trying to hide their European heritage, out of fear of suffering some sort of cultural crucifixion. Ethnic animosity was ripe in the suburbs, so let’s just say that when your friends are the many Anglo kids that seemed to dominate the scene, it wasn’t very punk rock to bail on a Mindsnare show because your mother was making you go to your cousin Bruno’s birthday lunch at the Veneto club.
But as we all know, you can only run away from something for so long before your legs give out. In the case of Pagan, this would take place in an espresso bar on a rainy Northcote evening in 2014. The four of them, who had each kept an eye on the other’s previous bands, began to talk and realised they were all haunted by inner-conflicts with ethnic and punk rock guilt. They decided to start a band and, in turn, made a pact to channel these same cultural traditions they once tried to hide. The thing is, this pact was made was without them realising, and it went on to influence their blackened rock and roll in ways they never expected.
Pagan’s debut album Black Wash is a collection of songs (‘spells’, in Pagan speak) by four people who have each experienced their own individual Hells but walked through the flames together, hand in hand. Being able to write this cohesively together requires a lot of trust and unconditional love, and that is exactly what makes Pagan what it is. Brought to life by producer Mike Deslandes, in part at the Aviary in Abbotsford and Holes and Corners in South Melbourne, Black Wash is their fully realized opus. One that not only pays homage to their punk rock and heavy music ethics (‘The Greatest Love Songs’), but also draws inspiration from the dancefloors of neon soaked discotheques (‘Year of the Dog’) and back-alley rock and roll clubs of old (‘Death Before Disco’ and ‘Silver’), rebelling against the rules and nostalgic romanticism that seem to plague underground music to this day. It could be argued that Black Wash is an album of pop songs, only written and played like the band is at war.
There are two main narratives, (‘curses’, in Pagan speak) that run parallel through the album. The first is of a church and its tyrannical leader. A supreme manipulator who preys on the vulnerable with empty promises, Convincing his followers that without the ‘Church of the Black Wash’, they are worthless. The “black wash” is symbolic of the final step to becoming a permanent adherent of the church: a baptism of muddy and murky holy water. To receive the black wash is to suffer a hex that no tonic can rid. Once inside, there is no escape.
As a contrast to its fantasy draped, metaphorical twin, the second narrative is a far more real and sinister tale of being coaxed into an emotionally manipulative relationship. Gaslighting is a theme that runs deep through the album’s 11 songs, a tool of power and control that causes the gaslighter’s prey to form an irrational dependence on their significant other, through constantly being forced to question their own sanity to the point that they think they are nothing without their partner. This album offers a rare kind of reflection of being dragged so far deep into this level of self-doubt by a romantic partner, a reflection that can only be had once you’ve clawed your way out of it.
From the album curtain raiser ‘Il Malocchio Si Apre’ (‘The Evil Eye Opens’) Nikki bares her soul, her ferocious and haunting howls navigating swiftly between the theological world the band have created through striking imagery and lyrical symbolism, and the real world in which she has lived and survived. Her emotional landscape as a woman is addressed by references to the earth and the moon, light and dark (‘Death Before Disco’), two forces which seem to play the role of the chorus in this story – the ever-important voice of reason in all great tragedies. Despite the complex thematic nature of Black Wash, the drama plays out over the backdrop of a very organic, dynamic and fluent rock and roll soundtrack that bravely walks a tightrope between pretty and delicate restraint, catchy-as-hell dance rhythms and monolithically heavy walls of sound and fury, all meticulously crafted and agonizingly arranged by Daniel, Matthew and Xavier, culminating in Pagan’s deathblow, ‘Il Malocchio Si Chiude’ (‘The Evil Eye Closes).