11 Mar 2016
Paul Roland - In The Opium Den: The Early Recordings 1980-1987
Reviewed by Nathan Ford
There's been a flurry of activity from Paul Roland over the last few years, with a new album or archival release surfacing every six months or so. Our Grey Malkin is something of an obsessive when it comes to all things Roland, but in something of a coup, I've managed to beat him to the punch and cover this latest archival wonder myself.
"House of Dark Shadows" hasn't had a chance to gather dust on the shelf, yet here's another archival release covering the same period, but they're two very different creatures.
"House of Dark Shadows" was the first exposure to Paul for many, and it makes sense to give people the chance to revisit the songs featured therein the way they originally discovered them.
"In the Opium Den" on the other hand stretches out the timeframe a little, covering recordings made between 1980 and 1987. Where "House of Dark Shadows" was a carefully compiled selection, this is a more complete overview, with two full albums, a generous mini-album, various singles, b-sides and EPS, and a few tasty outtakes from a never released second album. It also includes all eleven tracks from the original release of "House of Dark Shadows", although the five archival bonus tracks on the new version of "House..." are still unique to that release.
"In The Opium Den" is presented in reverse chronologcal order, so that the first disc kicks off with 1987's "Danse Macabre", which many rate as Roland's finest album. It's certainly a great album, which I'll discuss further a bit later on, but one gets a better idea of Roland's progression by starting off on disc two, so let's go ahead and do that.
Roland's 1980 debut "Werewolf of London" (originally credited somewhat anonymously to Midnight Rags) has quite the reputation, but has been hard to track down a legitimate copy of up until this point. Originally released in a limited run of 300 copies by a nineteen year old Roland who was unhappy with the end result, it was then picked up for wider release by Armageddon Records, giving Paul the opportunity to resequence and rejig the album into its ideal, finalised form, which is how it appears here. Its presence is enough to make "In the Opium Den" an essential purchase itself, and for those who are only familiar with the Edwardian Syd Barrett's later psychedelic pop opuses, this may prove to be a real surprise. Lashings of neo-psychedelia are already to be found here, but there's also a distinct new wave edge apparent on a number of tracks, not to mention the Gary Numan style synth-pop of "Brain Police". Roland's lyrical pre-occupation with the macabre (which has earned him a reputation as the psychedelic Edgar Allan Poe) is already well established here, as is his ability to augment even the most unlikely, literary references with irresistable pop hooks.
Disc two is appended with a further twelve tracks, including the marvelously spooky "The Old Dark House" (intended for a second album), and a number of excellent single / EP tracks. Particularly interesting here is the "Hot George" / "Oscar Automobile" single which is the purest expression of Paul's well documented Marc Bolan obsession - definitely Paul at his most glam.
Moving forward in time, the bulk of disc one is split between 1987's "Danse Macabre" and 1985's "Burnt Orchids". Dealing with these in chronological order "Burnt Orchids" sees Roland dealing in a much richer tapestry production-wise, bringing in a number of baroque instruments, providing an ideal match for Roland's historical lyrics. And finally, the "Danse Macabre" album consolidates all of the styles that Roland has previously dabbled with, along with a much stronger sense of neo-psychedelia. It's most likely his strongest set of songs too, with "The Great Edwardian Air-Raid" being credited in many circles as one of the earliest attempts at a steam-punk lyric, while "Gabrielle" and "Still Falls The Snow" have untapped chart-topper potential (although "Gabrielle" did rather well in some parts of Europe). Elsewhere, Paul shows an aptitude for prime keyboard-led psychedelia with an excellent cover of Pink Floyd's "Matilda Mother" and the sublime, opiated gem "In The Opium Den".
There's a lot of music to digest here - 42 tracks spread over two packed discs - and it's rarely sounded better. An ideal Paul Roland primer and a total bargain - especially at the UK price.
Available here (UK/EU), or here (US).
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