Was there ever a more aptly named band than Paragon? Oh, I know the Hamburg, Germany-based quintet have acknowledged in past interviews that they’re not entirely fond of the moniker, but it fits them well. The dictionary definition of paragon is “a model or pattern of excellence or of a particular excellence.” For a quarter century and 11 studio albums, Paragon have steadily inscribed their own pattern of particular excellence in the book of heavy metal. This is so despite numerous lineup changes over the years, with vocalist Andreas “Buschi” Babuschkin being the only constant, although most of the time founding guitarist Martin Christian and bassist Jan Banning have also been right there by his side, as they rightfully are today. There have also been numerous record label shifts, from B.O. Records to Remedy Records to Massacre to Napalm and now back to Remedy. Yet through it all, Paragon have consistently, unfailingly flown the flag for genuine, tough-as-nails, pure, pounding German heavy metal. Sure, the earlier albums were a bit on the rudimentary side in terms of both songwriting and performances, and a couple of their more recent albums (mostly 2008’s ‘Screenslaves’) take a bit of flak for sonic quality and production values; however, the band have been remarkably steady in terms of delivering high-quality Teutonic steel with each and every album.
I guess Paragon are most famous for 2002’s ‘Law of the Blade’ (and its predecessor, 2001’s ‘Steelbound’), but to me the overall trajectory of the band has been upward throughout their existence, with only the occasional aberrational blip. Thankfully, that onward’n’upward pathway has persisted on their new album, ‘Hell Beyond Hell.’ The way I look at it, Paragon are skilled craftsmen who have relentlessly, doggedly honed and refined their craft over the years, upping their game and becoming better songwriters and musicians with almost every release. Just listen to Buschi’s vocals on ‘Hell Beyond Hell,’ for example. In the early days, he was something of an acquired taste but now I’d rate him as a top-notch singer, with power, melody, emotion and charisma to spare. Check out the intricate arrangements on the nearly 8-minute “Heart of the Black” and the nearly 9-minute “Devil’s Waitingroom.” I daresay few power/speed metal bands could pull this off convincingly, but Paragon make it look easy. (Okay, the latter song drags just a bit, but it’s still very cool and unlike anything else in Paragon’s discography.) Equally impressive, if not more so, are the sub-5:00 smashers like “Rising Forces,” “Stand Your Ground” and “Buried in Blood,” which are simply monster songs boasting compelling riffs, memorable hooks and killer choruses. Also, on ‘Hell Beyond Hell,’ as in much of their career, Paragon have collaborated with Iron Savior mainman (and fellow Hamburg native) Piet Sielck in the studio for recording, production, mixing, mastering and even a couple of co-writes. He’s really their secret weapon. Working in tandem, Paragon and Sielck make the band sound massive, with a crushing guitar tone and those majestic choirs that are Sielck’s calling card, his own distinctive voice being clearly discernable in the mix.
What makes ‘Hell Beyond’ truly special in my mind is the absence of filler. Each of the eight songs on the album properly deserves its own highlight reel, as Paragon move confidently from strength to strength. There’s nothing remotely skipworthy on display here, which is a rare occurrence in today’s world of bloated, self-indulgent releases (cough, ‘Book of Souls,’ cough). I also love the care that was given to the sequencing of the album, as tracks 1-4 are billed as “Side Hell” and tracks 5-8 as “Side Beyond Hell.” Just like a vinyl record in the old days, each side kicks off with a true ass-kicker and ends with an epic, sandwiching a pair of monster cuts in the middle. The flow is optimal and totally enhances the experience. I wish more bands paid attention to sequencing, even in this age of digital downloads, streaming services and YouTube clips. The two bonus tracks on the digipak version of the CD are a worthy edit of “Heart of the Black” (stripping away the epic bits and leaving the heart of the song intact) and a Sielck-penned tune, “Thunder in the Dark,” that’s very much in the Judas Priest / Iron Savior vein. They’re good, but I find myself wishing that Paragon had kept their tradition of bonus cover songs (they’ve recorded some doozies over the years, from Accept, Saxon, Warrior, Exciter, Overkill, Manowar and others).
Ultimately, ‘Hell Beyond Hell’ has to rank among Paragon’s finest works, and quite possibly their best, which is hugely impressive when you consider how many bands with such a protracted track record and extensive discography are more or less treading water at this stage of the game. Paragon fans should move ‘Hell Beyond Hell’ to the top of their shopping lists. And fans of high-quality heavy-duty German metal (think Grave Digger, Wizard, Mystic Prophecy, Iron Savior, Rage, Stormwarrior, Rebellion and the almighty Accept) really owe it to themselves to give ‘Hell Beyond Hell’ a listen. To paraphrase the late great Lemmy, it’ll raise your roof. It’ll ring your bell and that’s the truth.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~