Of all the anomalies to have occurred within metal over these many years—and yep, there have been some absolute whoppers—the phenomenon of Saint Vitus lingers as one of the more unique and underplayed. The band itself remains sorely under-appreciated amidst a sea of more fashionable acts, which has always been doom’s way, but even compared to their peers in an already relatively narrow landscape, Saint Vitus has always represented a terrifically curious deviation.
Consider the origin story. 1984: the more mainstream end of the hard rock and metal record bins offered glossy covers such as Dio’s Last in Line, Dokken’s Tooth and Nail, Maiden’s Powerslave, Scorpions’ Love at First Sting, Priest’s Defenders of the Faith, Whitesnake’s Slide It In, Purple’s Perfect Strangers (yes, it was there), and the debut from upstarts W.A.S.P., while the more underground side of the fence found bands like Metallica, Metal Church, Bathory, Destruction, Mercyful Fate, and the like doing everything in their power to push extremes to new levels of speed, severity and / or evil. Nestled within all that din, however, were two pivotal releases that offered a completely contradictory course that involved slowing the fuck down and pushing a notably un-evil trajectory: Trouble’s Psalm 9 and the self-titled release from Saint Vitus. The former was overtly Christian, albeit in an intensely dark way, and the latter was mistakenly labeled as such by virtue of displaying a cross in their name. Both records took what Sabbath started, maxed out the heaviness, and ended up sitting widely unnoticed by metal fans at large because of a purported “lack of intensity.”
The path of Saint Vitus in particular was made all the more difficult by sidestepping the local metal scene and its general distaste for doom (a term still not exactly common) in favor of LA’s punk movement. The band caught the eye and ear of Greg Ginn, who signed Vitus to SST Records and brought them along to open shows for Black Flag. Metal was already at odds with its noisier, more untidy distant cousin, and Vitus’ choice to attach elements of punk to doom effectively put them at odds with every angle of extreme music. Yet there it was, the terrifically strange marriage between two opposing points, and Saint Vitus was the only dog in the often slow, sometimes deranged charge.
Songs like “Zombie Hunter” and “The Psychopath” from the self-titled record in ‘84 were as grim and doomy as anything from Sabbath’s crowning Vol. 4, but the punch of the debut’s title track, along with a healthy selection of songs from its immediate successor, Hallow’s Victim, all pushed a perhaps surprisingly frantic pace that at times sounded as if the wheels were about to fly off the wagon. This was, of course, by design, and the manner in which founding member / guitarist Dave Chandler channeled a cat landing on an electric fence during each and every lead only added to the band’s deafening charm.
Reagers hasn’t lost an inch of his voice, either—the very same level of determination behind those bellowed cleans and snarled rasps, and both used with equal weight and often on the very same word. The delicacy on the surprisingly mellow “A Prelude to…” is a damn-near lullaby, and his grizzled snarl throughout “Last Breath” helps seal the deal for the darkest song the band has done since “Sloth.”
What you’ve become
A broken shell…of a life
I now leave you
To the rotting
A fitting way…to end your time”
Vitus fans always seem to divide fairly equally between favoring the Reagers or Wino years, but it’s the former who has his name anchored to Vitus’ most tumultuous and decaying moments, and it’s quite wonderful to hear Reagers in such fine (/shambling) form again.
Sadly, founding member Armando Acosta and his Cimmerian crown are now thunder-drumming in the great beyond, but Henry Vasquez does a remarkable job of retaining an extremely similar approach to driving the rhythm with hammer-fists, and newest member Patrick Bruders (Down) provides a VERY impressive amount of bubbling bass in the absence of original four-stringer Mark Adams, who was unfortunately diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the end of 2018. Check out “12 Years in the Tomb,” a classic sounding cut that will undoubtedly stand alongside many other Vitus greats once the dust settles, and pay particular attention to the way the duo of Vasquez and Bruders rebuild the furious tension after Chandler’s frantic lead around 3:55.
“Bloodshed” is similarly charged with a punk flair, even more so than “12 Years in the Tomb,” and Chandler ends up getting so frantic that he occasionally dashes ahead of his own riffs. It sounds…unkempt, but that’s probably because he bangs that frazzled mop as hard in the studio while recording as he does on stage, and he’d probably look at the recording engineer as if they’d just given birth to a kangaroo if any suggestions to clean up got thrown around. As a rule, the riffs on Saint Vitus are dirtier than a Baltimore crackhouse, and the leads are, once again, more akin to lightning fucking under water than anything you might expect from the typical original school of doom shredder.
It’s not all punk-infused, though. Opener “Remains” is pure old-school doom misery after a relatively brief and bright kick-off, and the middle of the record shepherds in a couple bluesy strutters with “Wormhole” and “Hourglass,” the latter of which represents the cleanest cut of the bunch.
But just when you think the mood is as high as Spicoli on spring break, the ghastly David Lynch voodoom interlude of “City Park” blows in, lays a curse on the whole party, and then ushers in the wonderfully decrepit “Last Breath” and the hardest song of the band’s career, “Useless.”
Closing the album on an uproar like “Useless” is sure to ruffle some feathers, both due to its speed and lyrical theme; it’s a bit surprising to hear (what appears to be) an anti-protest song coming from a band that’s always swooped in from an anti-war angle. Of course, protests in the modern age include people protesting over protests, and also protesting over the removal of the McRib, so maybe it’s simply a case of four “seasoned” humans doing what we seasoned humans do best: yell at people who are incessantly yelling. Surely there’s more of a backstory, but the overall subject matter behind Saint Vitus does seem focused toward a general disgust with humankind as a whole, which is fair play, especially in 2019.
Outside of a fairly anomalous stretch around 2005 / 2006, doom has always had a fairly narrow core audience, and Saint Vitus has proven time and again that they’re quite capable of tightening that attendance even further. But by God, doom and punk are two great tastes that taste great together, and if Saint Vitus does anything, it provides further testimony of that grievously neglected truth.