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New Pagans’ recent single “There We Are John” is an unusual mash-up of source material. The central guitar riff could have been lifted from a song by The Rakes, a mid-range 2000s post-punk/landfill indie band that at least a few of us loved. Lyndsey McDougall’s punk-slap vocals are a Debbie Harry-meets-Republica singer Saffron blend (you remember 1990s hero Saffron, right? “Yeah, yeah, but he’s drop dead gorgeous!”). And the final stretch is doused in a haze of feedback, a hard-rock epilogue to the four-minute track.
All this could lead to accusations of New Pagans making music that’s a patchwork of better bands, derivative in so many ways. But “There We Are John” is an exciting song, one inspired by artist and gay-rights activist Derek Jarman, whose famous residence Prospect Garden brought McDougall, in her own words, “great serenity and hope”. On first listen, I experienced a ping of what I felt the first time I heard Wolf Alice and their grungy, melodic hit “Moaning Lisa Smile” back in 2014.
Similarly, New Pagans know how to synthesize their influences, which seem to be all of good vintage. McDougall has even named Sonic Youth’s underappreciated 2006 project Rather Ripped as the one album everyone should hear. So there’s that.
I never actually liked another Wolf Alice song as much as “Moaning Lisa Smile”, but New Pagans already have a body of work full of gripping numbers. Hailing from Belfast, McDougall is joined by Cahir O’Doherty (guitar, vocals and McDougall’s husband), Allan McGreevy (guitar), Claire Miskimmin (bass) and Conor McAuley (drums).
While they can still be considered an emerging band, New Pagans’ members are older than most that meet the descriptor. McDougall – who tends to be put forward for interviews – is in her mid-30s and the rest, at a glance, look roughly of the same generation.
They released their first album, The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots and All, back in 2021. The inspirations were interesting. McDougall channelled a passion for embroidery into the song “Lily Yeats”, named after the embroiderer associated with the Celtic Revival and sister of William Butler Yeats. “Yellow Room” is based on the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a seminal piece of early American feminist literature.
Most striking was the closing track “Christian Boys”, inspired by an affair a friend of McDougall had with a much older religious leader. “It just made me so angry — he was in a position of power and she was a very vulnerable, young woman at the time,” McDougall has said. “He definitely took advantage of her, and of the situation, and in the end, decided it was her fault, and that she was the sinner, leading the Christian man astray. I just realised that I’d heard that story so many times, from so many women, and that we’re all scared to talk about it.”
Now, there is second album, Making Circles of Our Own, released on 17 February, and home of “There We Are, John”, a good song but not exactly an indicative one. New Pagans incorporate various styles, tones and flavours throughout. Most dominant is a feeling that this is music that could appear in a 1990s Hollywood teen comedy and/or teen slacker flick: upbeat power pop opener “Better People” feels like the third act of a awkward kid’s coming of age narrative: “You’re in the right time/ In the right place/ Setting our heads/ Mending your thoughts.”
While New Pagans’ lyrics draw from unusual sources, they’re not always apparent as the writing isn’t loaded with specificity. On “Fresh Young Overlook”, “Grief is pouring through this storm”, but you fill in the blanks as to why.
More distinct are the little sonic surprises rthroughout the album. McAuley’s atypical drumming on “A Process of Becoming” invokes the math rock genre, matched with what sounds like unusually tuned guitar riffs. But for all the experimental moments, there are choruses on this thing too: the sing-along hook and power-stance riffs of “Bigger Homes” aim for bombastic stadium rock, the kind of tune you hear from bands hoping to one day open for someone very famous at Slane Castle.
It ends with “The State of My Love’s Desires”, a song that for most of its running time drops the drums for George Martin-style strings, with McDougall saving her best vocal until last. It feels like a genuine moment, not shoehorned in for the sake of stylistic diversity. To the end, New Pagans defy easy categorization, rendering Making Circles of Our Own a cool-hand display of pan-genre guitar music.
New Pagans headline The Sound House on 13 April.