“Nine out of ten lead singers agree that the vocalist is the most important member of the band.”
It’s a variation upon the age-old joke about singers, but there is some truth to it. Sure, a band is ultimately the sum of its parts – no one can deny that, although some singers always try. For better or worse, in most examples, the singer is the literal mouthpiece of the band, the frontman, the focal point. It’s true that even a great vocalist can’t salvage a total disaster, but often, the inverse is equally true: A great singer can take an average band and push it towards transcendence.
For an example of just that, look to Satan’s Host’s dramatic late-career (re-) transformation from mediocre black/death outfit to first-class eeeeevil power metal band.
Granted, it’s less of a bizarre transition than you’d think, as the parenthetical prefix above would indicate: Formed back in the 1970s, Satan’s Host began as they’ve ended up. Back then as again now, they featured Harry “Leviathan Thisiren” Conklin on the mic, in both instances freshly departed from Jag Panzer. The original Satan’s Host trotted out one obscure early US power-trad record in 1986’s Metal From Hell…
… And then took fifteen years off, returning as a blackened death-ish outfit, with some inklings still of the classic metal that spawned them. For five records in nearly ten years, L.C.F. Elixir replaced Conklin. Elixir’s growl was a standard one, and the band’s earlier epic, theatrical heavy metal magic was lost in the process. Previously dangerous and eeeeevil, their lyrical devotion to Satan was less interesting in the decade-long eeeeeviler-than-thou one-upmanship of the 1990s. By the 2000s, they were just another demonic, competent band in a sea of similar sounds.
But then the Leviathan returned…
The improvement between 2009’s Power…Perfection…Purity 999 and 2011’s By The Hands Of The Devil is drastic, and yet it’s no mystery. It’s a marked shift from black/death back towards a dark and aggressive power metal, but it’s really just the arrival of one of metal’s most gifted singers to a band that literally needed to find its voice. Conklin’s range and power is top-tier, and the infusion of soaring melody and memorable hooks atop the band’s respectable blackened riffing improves upon the latter ten-fold. By The Hands Of The Devil took a middle-tier band from one spectrum and transformed it into a top-tier band on another, not-so-distant track. (For anyone keeping up, a disc of re-recordings followed By The Hands, and it’s one of the few such efforts that warrant exploration. The difference in the Elixir-fronted originals and the Conklin-fronted remakes shows the band’s improvement undeniably.)
So, history lessons given and everyone caught up, Virgin Sails continues in the vein of By The Hands Of The Devil, but yet it feels more cohesive, more like the band has settled in. That prior album was damn good, one of my favorites of that year, but this one tops it. As expected, there’s still darkness here, still aggression; it’s still eeeeevil enough to frighten the church ladies. The basic formula hasn’t changed drastically in this two-album run, but it feels refined, sharpened. It’s a hair’s-breadth closer to a more traditional power metal album than the one before it, but that’s Satan’s Host playing to its strength. Throughout, Conklin displays an admirable array of styles – he growls and soars and screams and sings, some unholy combination of Dio, Dickinson, and Abbath.
Tracks like “Island Of The Giant Ants,” “Cor Maleficus,” “Infinite Impossibilities” (with it’s Maiden-worthy bass intro), and the title cut are perfect examples of how power metal should be done, with two minor exceptions – here as on By The Hands Of The Devil, these songs do tend to drag on a minute or so too long. Of the eight actual tracks on Sails (there are two sub-1:00 instrumentals), only one is shorter than 6:00, and only one other runs less than 6:30. Given the band’s newfound ability to inject memorability into their songs, a bit of paring down would go a long way. And of the second exception, aside from a select few moments (see the Maiden reference above), the only things truly memorable about these performances are all vocal hooks. Given some streamlining and the injection of a few absolutely undeniable riffs, Satan’s Host would be truly unstoppable.
Regardless, Virgin Sails is a very good album from a band now on its third life. Those who enjoyed By The Hands Of the Devil will absolutely want this one, and any and all new listeners looking for high-quality eeeeevil-infused power metal with grit and fury are advised to look no further.