What happened in 2013 was not supposed to happen. The script never reads like this: “Long defunct band from great era of music reforms better than ever, topping their long-beloved classic material.” Typically, we are greeted by reunion albums ranging from the mediocre (Rigor Mortis) to the great-but-not-quite-up-to-the-level-of-the-classics (Carcass, Atheist). But better than the old stuff? Pshaw. Doesn’t happen.
That’s why what Satan did on Life Sentence was so spectacular, and rather unprecedented. Court in the Act is a bona fide NWOBHM classic, without a doubt, but due to the fragmenting of that lineup – and the members’ subsequent work in Blind Fury and Skyclad, among other bands, the magic was never to be repeated. So naturally, when the same Court lineup finally managed to make a new album, it surpassed the work of their youth. Obviously. Since that is what always happens.
Life Sentence was more complete, more hooky, more loaded with slithery, shreddy leads, and ludicrously enjoyable in so many ways that it was almost unfair. But the most surprising aspect was how the boys in Satan had lost none of the youthful energy or agility. Somehow, these five Englishmen were able to reassemble after all of those years and bust out a new classic as if it was no big deal. In nearly every case of a reuniting band releasing a new album after being long dormant, there is some sign that the humans involved had grown older and lost a bit of their original edge. Not with Satan. This was some serious Six Million Dollar Man action.
And they’ve done it again. While time will certainly tell if Atom By Atom actually tops Life Sentence, one thing is for sure: Satan is only growing more fiery and motivated with age. Atom is easily the most technical and wild work they have ever assembled, and has lost none of the infectious hookiness of Sentence. If anything, all of the wild noodling and acrobatics serve only to amplify the catchy moments, while giving extra weight to the notable intelligence and awareness that comes across in Brian Ross’ voice.
So basically, what we’ve got with Atom By Atom is a continuation and levelling-up of a comeback no one expected. More importantly, we’ve got one monstrous goliath of a heavy metal record. The quality and attention to detail are apparent as soon as a delightful little banshee wail introduces “Farewell Evolution,” to say nothing of the song’s great, busy verse backing and lead guitar duels (of which this album has many). The quality continues through a bluesy break in “The Devil’s Infantry,” through the proggy, off-kilter twitchiness of “My Own God,” and on through the irresistible snare-downbeat-toe-tapping in “Bound in Enmity.”
And it keeps going with every effortless change in tempo, spry riff, infectious vocal melody, twin harmony, machine gun drive, deft drumming variation, rumbling bass line, and all of those solos. Little touches like volume knob tinkering really add to it as well, and are aided by a crystal clear production—just enough guitar distortion to be totally metal while still allowing Steve Ramsey and Russ Tippins to use pick sound to their advantage if they so choose (and they do).
The band also keeps things interesting with just a few true changes in mood and tone. The title track, for example, opens with Satan’s typically smart-but-not-pretentious, dedicated-to-the-rock feel, but eventually adds a heightened seriousness and almost epic vibe when it opens up for some atmosphere and yet another great solo. But no song blends all aspects of the band’s sound as effectively as closer “The Fall of Persephone.” With spoken word sections, operatic backing vocals, some Alex Lifeson-esque touches, and one massive headbanger of a verse riff, this one is huge, and the moment when a lead guitar absolutely bends into existence following a major point is unforgettable. It is nothing short of a perfect rock moment on a seriously killer track, not to mention a textbook example of how to close out an album in fashion.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Atom By Atom is as perfect as that one amazing moment in its closer, partly because what makes an album a classic is very different from what makes one split second of musical euphoria work, but also because such stamps of approval are exercises in snapshot boldness that rarely end up mattering in the long run. What I will say is that, after about 20 or so spins, this seems like an album with no perceivable flaws. Every song is a meticulously-constructed highlight full of brilliant performances played with a fervor that few bands of any age ever manage to capture.
And that’s exactly what makes Satan in 2015 so special. Many bands reunite to cash in on a long-building legacy, and far be it from me to blame them. Satan, however, still had heaps of things to sing, say, and play, and if they were concerned with adding to their legacy or getting some stamps of approval, it would come through negatively in the music. Even so, it’s hard to not be a tad amazed by their resurrection, especially as it continues. It’s one thing to strike gold with one post-reunion album; those might have been long-developing song ideas inside any of the five band members’ heads. But another album that sees the band still advancing and growing? That just isn’t supposed to happen, friends. Thankfully, it did.
An absolute bounty of heavy metal joy, this one.