Although her bandmates cut their teeth playing in various outfits in Northern Ireland’s music scene, Lyndsey McDougall had never been in a band until she formed New Pagans. “To be honest, I am so sick of young, male bands who look like they don’t care about anything,” she told us in our recent Band To Watch interview. And so her band is the opposite of that: three men and two women who care a lot. McDougall and New Pagans care deeply about many things: music, art, religion, history, motherhood, reproductive rights. And that care is more than evident in their debut album The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots And All, which is full of noisy, catchy indie rock with sticky pop-punk melodies and a biting punk-rock edge that never sounds anything less than urgent.
In addition to fronting New Pagans, Lyndsey McDougall is a scholar and artist whose PhD research focuses on embroidery, examining female artists’ forgotten role in history through their needlework for organizations like the Irish Church and the Freemasons. Her work with New Pagans shares a similar agenda: amplifying marginalized voices, especially those of women, and interrogating how history decides whose stories are remembered and whose remain untold. One of the band’s earliest songs, “Lily Yeats” — which, along with five other tracks on The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots And All, previously appeared on last year’s Glacial Erratic EP — was inspired by the much less famous embroiderer sister of esteemed Irish poet W.B. Yeats. “Tell them we want to know/ What the sisters wrote and made/ My daughter needs to know/ That she can do the same,” McDougall sings on the track, a scratchy guitar line mirroring her voice. “I don’t want to be,” she spits as the song careens toward its cacophonously noisy conclusion, melodic backing vocals finishing her sentence for her: “servant, Lily.”
The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots And All‘s towering closing track, “Christian Boys,” is another emphatic rejoinder to the silencing of women — and the sexist hypocrisy of the Church. It was written about a friend of McDougall’s who had an affair with a prominent Northern Irish Christian leader and was blamed for leading him astray. The longest track on the LP by a solid minute, “Christian Boys” takes its time, suddenly exploding from a simmering groove to jagged riffs before settling back down again. “Christian boys are the worst I know/ Christian girls should take it slow,” McDougall repeats in the song’s climax, leading into a cascading squall of ringing noise. “I’m not your guilt after all/ And I’m not your sin anymore/ And I’m not your guilt anymore/ And I’m not your vice when you fall/ And I’m not your sin after all.”
There’s a preoccupation with sin threaded throughout the entirety of The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots And All. Although “Christian Boys” makes it clear what McDougall thinks of the Church as an institution, she was raised in a religious household, and there’s a subverted moral theological framework embedded deep within the album’s worldview. “You don’t have the answers/ Blowing gales on our daughters/ Perish the sinners/ Colder the winters/ Open the sores/ Bleed at the doors/ Cut out the cancer/ It’s guilt for the guilty,” McDougall sings on “Ode To None,” her clear melodic voice contrasting with the gathering storm of guitar and drums behind her, before repeating, “Wicked men repent/ Without sin ascend.” It’s a reframing of classic Old Testament justice as explicitly feminist, a violent, biblical flood-style purging of misogyny. “We’re the New Pagans/ dedicated to nurture,” McDougall continues, before concluding, “Let’s burn the scrolls/ Rewrite our own/ Nothing holds the truth/ It’s guilt for the guilty.” Her stated aim is to tear down male-dominated history, the literary and artistic canon tainted by toxic masculinity — and those who upheld it as sacred, replacing them with something truer and more just.
Just as a root system tangles around itself, McDougall’s notions of sin and justice are inextricably entwined with the natural world. “That’s his shame/ Written in his roots,” she says on “Christian Boys.” On “Bloody Soil: “I’ve watched, the rise and fall of bloody soil/ Sowing, autumn veins into the earth/ Telling, a tale of planting/ Muddy hearts into the dark.” And on “I Could Die,” the track that gives the entire album its name: “Stone and gravel by the root/ The first leaves are numerous in the fall/ Beautiful girl standing, on the tops/ The seed is dark, it may be ruled, it may be used for all/ Bloody.” Blood and conflict are part of the landscape in Northern Ireland — as are hope and renewal, the promise of new growth. To McDougall, history is not a fixed object but a living organism, something that can be planted and replanted or torn out by the root if necessary. “We strive for victory, so lovely things can grow,” she sings at the end of opening track “It’s Darker,” offering a kind of mission statement for the band.
While admirable, none of this symbolism and metaphor would land if the actual music didn’t sound as cutting and immediate as it does. McDougall came of age in the ’90s, listening to forbidden secular music like the Pixies and the Smashing Pumpkins while her parents slept. Those strains of muscular but radio-friendly alternative rock are easily identifiable in New Pagans’ righteous racket — along with echoes of guitar noise heroes Sonic Youth, whose Kim Gordon is a musical and personal icon for McDougall. Consider the way the slithering, serrated post-punk groove gives way to the anthemic pop-punk chorus on “It’s Darker,” with McDougall’s voice joined by subtle backing vocals as it slips fluidly from declamatory sneer to melodic sweetness: “I’ve got this hope inside me/ And everyone’s looking and I’m upset/ It’s dark, it’s darker.”
Later in the same song, McDougall seems to speak directly to the listener. “Let’s refer to the others that are listening/ Sufficient numbers they are young, are you with me?” she sings. “They’re trying to get you, they’re trying to push you/ There’s nothing else left for us to say/ Time will tell if it matters anyway.” From the tone in her voice, though, the answer is clear. They say that the history books are written by the winners. If that’s the case, New Pagans should undoubtedly have a say.
The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots And All is out 3/19 on Big Scary Monsters. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club.
• Justin Bieber’s Justice.
• Loretta Lynn’s Still Woman Enough.
• Sting’s Duets.
• Middle Kids’ Today We’re The Greatest.
• Chad VanGaalen’s World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener.
• Too Much Joy’s Mistakes Were Made.
• A.A. Williams’ Songs From Isolation.
• Real Numbers’ Brighter Then.
• Ghost Of Vroom’s GHOST OF VROOM 1.
• Year Twins’ Perfect Forever, Forever Perfect.
• Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin’s $mokebreak EP.
• Serj Tankian’s Elasticity EP.
• Show Me The Body’s Survive EP.
• Benny The Butcher’s The Plugs I Met 2 EP.