“Pagan is really just a summation of the human beings that work together to make it what it is,” says bassist Dan Bonnici, explaining the unconventional nature of his band’s sound and image. The band, completed by vocalist Nikki Brumen, guitarist Xavier Santilli and drummer Matt Marasco, have made quite a name for themselves with this year’s Black Wash, an album that traverses a number of different styles to offer something that stands out even in a year awash with musical creativity. This mix of styles makes the band’s sound hard to pin down. The influence of black metal is clear, but Black Wash is not a black metal album. The raw power that adept usage of a blastbeat brings is evidently well-known to the group, but they’re also aware of the limitations that go along with having just the one string to your bow. As such, Black Wash is teeming with varying styles, offering a punky-but-accessible energy reminiscent of early Marmozets as well as loftier, heavy-but-poignant moments that the likes of Møl and Svalbard have also showcased this year. It’s an album that’s able to offer those moments of white-hot aggression and head-banging mayhem that every metalhead craves as well as those of rock’n’roll fun and emotional sensitivity, meaning you’re never quite sure what’s around the corner.
“I think the album will be a lot more enjoyable to a new listener if they approach it with no real idea of what’s coming,” emails Dan, as the band gear up for their first UK tour. “I think that has always been the reason that people might find our band interesting, because I don’t think anyone can really ever anticipate what our next move will be. Sometimes I don’t even think we know what our next move will be. All I will say is turn your stereo up loud and get ready to move!”
That desire to dance is inescapable when listening to Pagan, so much so that it’s tough to consider Black Wash as an extreme metal album. It certainly takes from a host of other styles (most notably hardcore but also rock’n’roll, post-metal, punk, and even disco) and is a far sight more “fun” than many of its contemporaries, but it also boasts a sound that’s a bona fide whirlwind of aggression, with razor-sharp riffs capable of holding their own against any of the legends of the genre. “It’s a very worn out old sentiment,” Dan begins. “But I think it’s important to stay true to yourself. If your music is a true reflection of you as a human being with your own unique personality, interests and influences then it can’t possibly sound or come off similar to anything else. I think that applies to any art form, really. The way the four of us write music is very much an instinctual and reactionary thing for us. The second you intentionally try to do something to stand out or receive a certain kind of reaction, you’re bound to fall in line with preconceived conventions of some sort.”
That willingness to defy musical conventions and treat genre as a now-redundant proposition is something that the most innovative artists of recent years have in common, and yet there are still those who remain hesitant at best to accept new variations on the established sounds. Given that metal is often hailed as a space for outsiders to be themselves, this rigid devotion to aged tropes can come across as strange to those of us who are always eager to hear something new. “It’s totally bizarre to me [that metal is still tied to tropes]. But that’s exactly the thing!” Dan begins. “Alternative subcultures are a place for ‘outsiders’ to run to when they feel alienated from what has historically been defined as mainstream culture, and I can absolutely relate to the feeling of finding something that feels like yours and gives you a sense of belonging, and becoming defensive over it when someone comes in and tries to shake shit up a little. But what you then begin to create is, in essence, a new mainstream that ultimately just ends up alienating a whole new strain of people who become these new outsiders. I think that’s where the four of us have felt we exist for a very long time!”
For Dan, his musical awakening came in the form of a certain Swedish outfit who would set out to define the shape of punk to come. “Refused were a really important band in terms of shaping my mindset on aggressive music,” he explains. “I remember reading an interview with Dennis Lyxzen in a zine where he said something about how funny it was that a community that prides itself on individuality seems to have so many rules. That sentiment has always stuck in my mind, but I don’t think I was really able to find the confidence to rebel against those rules until Pagan started.”
For Dan and his conspirators, Pagan is an avenue for exploration, but the band have managed to find a distinct style that finds a middle ground between their varied influences without coming across as jarring and incoherent. “Because we’ve all been playing and writing music for song long, even before Pagan was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, I think we have all developed our own styles and bags of tricks. So even though we do try to branch out and draw from a lot of different places, everything we write will always have our own spin on it which makes it pretty easy to keep a constant vibe through the songs. In my opinion, if you look at our songs like ‘Holy Water’ or ‘Silver’, and then look at songs like ‘Blood Moon’ or ‘Il Malocchio Si Chiude’, they’re very different types of songs, but it all belongs together. I think Nikki’s vocals really act as a great rope that ties everything together really well too.”
This coming together of minds has allowed for a jumping off point, of sorts, that will surely only allow the quartet more room to experiment. “Progression is so important to us,” Dan confirms. “Not just as a band but also as individuals. I love the record that we made and I’m so proud of the songs, but I would hope and pray that what I’m writing now sounds nothing like what I’m writing in three or five or ten years time! I was actually speaking with Matt on the phone this morning, and we kind of had the first proper conversation about album number two and some of the things we want to try. Though I don’t think it’ll be a complete departure from Black Wash, there’s definitely already some really cool ideas for new curveballs and things to try. We’ve been getting really into jazz and classical music, and I’ve been exploring synths and electronic music a lot too, and this is all stuff that will no doubt come into play as we continue to develop as a band.”
It’s clear, then, that Pagan take their music seriously. In fact, Black Wash could even be considered as somewhat of a concept album. A fictional story of a person succumbing to the wills of a cult or religious sect (AKA The Church of Black Wash) only to find there is no way out is, in truth, a metaphor for a relationship that Nikki was in for a long time. But, whilst the band fully embrace metal’s theatrical side, they’re not averse to having fun with the established order, as shown by their bright pink gig flyers and promo shots in front of neon pink inverted crosses.“I think we almost take it as seriously as much as we don’t, to be honest,” Dan admits. “I’d look at Pagan as being pretty dark and theatrical haha! I think the witty and fun side of the band comes more from the fact that as people away from music, that’s just kind of who we are and again, Pagan is really just a summation of the human beings that work together to make it what it is.”
“Our mentality from the very beginning was that we wanted Pagan to be a bigger project for us than just writing a few songs,” he continues. “We wanted everything from the visuals, to the social media presence, to the music videos and the live show to all be a part of a body of work that people – us included – can get really immersed in and become a part of. We have been able to create this language, identity and world that kind of exists around the band and it’s been really fun and interesting for us. I know that that’s not for everybody, though, and some bands are quite happy to just shut up and play, and that’s cool too if that makes you stoked!”
This initial concept took some time to iron out (“it took a little while for us to get comfortable”), and Dan is now a tad critical of some of the band’s older work; a band “still trying to find its feed”, he suggests. But, once the band got past the initial stages and, as Dan puts it, said “fuck it, let’s just do what makes us happy”, the result was the uncompromising album that saw the light of day back in July – an album full of blistering blastbeats but also more ambitious flourishes; a quietly progressive masterpiece that’s a far sight more listenable than any of the second-wave-BM imitators out there who would rather stick De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas on repeat than listen to anything new out of fear of comprising the genre’s nihilistic integrity. Black Wash is an album “for outcasts, by outcasts”, a fuck you to your preconceived ideas about how a metal band should look, sound and act, but it’s also just a really fucking good album.
Black Wash is out now on Hassle Records. Purchase here. Catch Pagan on tour in the UK and Europe this winter.
Words: George Parr