Satan – Life Sentence (Listenable Records, 21 May 2013)
Hello, readers. As I mentioned a few days ago when I published my list of year-end lists (if you missed it, the collection can be found right here; my own personal list of 2013’s best releases can be found by scrolling all the way to the bottom), and as you could certainly tell yourself just by poking around a little bit, I really dropped the ball when it came to getting much writing done last year. And consequently, I neglected to share a great deal of music with you folks. Believe me, I feel bad about that, because there’s so much of it that I’ve been really enjoying listening to, and it’s pretty unfair not to pass that along. So on that note, let’s talk about Satan.
Naturally, I’m referring to the recently-reformed New Wave of British Heavy Metal band from the early 80s. Now admittedly, given the fact that the band had formed in the same year I was born, and they essentially ceased to be (through a series of line-up changes and name changes) after releasing their second album around the time I was in second or third grade, I hadn’t heard them until they signed to Listenable Records in late 2012 and announced that they were planning to release an album of all-new material the following spring. In my defense, though, Satan had never quite achieved the acclaim of some others in the NWOBHM movement such as Iron Maiden or Saxon, or even fellow Novocastrians Raven.
I don’t honestly know the reason for that. Perhaps it had something to do with their decidedly non-mainstream-friendly moniker (which may also have played a role in the members’ decision to release albums under a few other names, including Pariah and Blind Fury, after and even in between Satan albums)? However, that doesn’t quite add up, considering the level of infamy associated with another of their contemporaries, Venom — and in contrast with the cartoonish occult image embraced by this other group from Newcastle, Satan has always been more centered around the judgement of evil (as evidenced by their lyrics as well as the devillish figure wearing a judge’s wig that graces all three of their album covers); for example, the evil of those who abuse positions of power over other people. Perhaps, rather, they were simply ahead of their time — after all, the band’s proto-speed metal style is considered to have been highly influential by many people, while being fairly advanced for the early 1980s.
In any case, after some underground acclaim, followed by years of inactivity, some of the band members reunited under the name Satan for a single gig at W:O:A in 2004; later, the line-up from 1983’s debut album Court in the Act had assembled to perform at the 2011 Keep it True Festival. Blown away by the reception for that performance (it’s been reported that the crowd continued cheering and chanting for Satan as much as ten minutes into the next set, that of headliners Crimson Glory. As a result, the band went on to play several more festivals in Germany and the rest of Europe throughout 2011, 2012, and 2013 with that line-up — including vocalist Brian Ross (also a founding member of Blitzkrieg, best known for recording the original version of the song “Blitzkrieg” which was covered by Metallica, who also has cited them as a main influence); bassist Graeme English and guitarist Steve Ramsey (both of whom later founded the seminal folk metal band Skyclad); guitarist Russ Tippins; and drummer Sean Taylor (also a member of Blitzkrieg at one time). While working together and performing together, this line-up of the band also began writing and recording material for a brand-new full-length, which would ultimately become Life Sentence, released thirty years after their classic debut.
The album opens with “Time to Die,” setting the stage for an album filled with — for lack of a better term — jaunty, up-tempo riff- and hook-laden tracks. The energy and vibe here, and the acrobatic vocal melody that often follows the guitar lines, brings to mind “Phantom of the Opera” from Iron Maiden‘s first album. And like that song, much of Life Sentence features high-endurance speed guitar chugging that seems heavily influenced by Blue Öyster Cult‘s timeless instrumental (and perennial live staple) “Buck’s Boogie,” illustrating how — in addition to being (accurately) saddled with the term “NWOBHM” — bands like this clearly also serve as a sort of evolutionary “missing link” between early pre-metal hard rock like that of BÖC and the speed/thrash metal that would explode just a few years later.
Like most NWOBHM or traditional heavy metal bands, Ross exhibits an impressive vocal range that can leap from a normal speaking tone into a high-register falsetto absolutely seamlessly. One main difference, though, is that this vocalist seems to prefer showing a bit of restraint — unlike some others that suffer from what might be called Mariah Carey Syndrome (or perhaps King Diamond Syndrome, if you prefer). That is to say, too often a vocalist will mistake an ability to perform such vocal histriònics with a duty to do so as frequently as possible. Instead, here we find a tendency to employ the soaring vocals only on occasion, such as at the end of a song or a particular point in a song’s chorus — which tends to increase the dramatic effect. As they say, less can often be more. Another interesting vocal highlight occurs in an interlude with operatic harmonies, about midway through the song “Twenty Twenty Five” (not to be confused with the similarly-titled pop hit by Zager and Evans) — this tale of an ancient prophecy foretelling what sounds like a Biblical-scale flood is without question, along with “Time to Die,” one of the more catchy and memorable songs to be found here.
Other highlights include the penultimate “Personal Demons,” whose portrayal of damnation is accompanied by a frenzied and almost carnivalesque chorus, and the somewhat middle-eastern-sounding vibe of “Incantations,” which emphasizes that song’s references to Ra the god of the sun, the Valley of the Kings, and the curse of the pharaohs. However, I would be hard-pressed to identify any weak moments throughout the 45+ minute running length of these ten tracks. Achieving the difficult balancing act of staying true to a decades-old familiar style, while never coming across as tired or sounding dated, I couldn’t help but include Life Sentence in my list of the year’s top releases. If you aren’t already acquainted with Satan, I’d highly suggest you get started.
Life Sentence can be streamed at the Listenable Records Bandcamp page (here)
You may buy a copy on CD or MP3 download from Amazon.com here.