[Cover art by Eliran Kantor]
The Court in the Act lineup of Satan has now been back together for over a decade, and the quality of their studio output in this time has been as consistently killer as it was initially surprising after such a long layoff. Each of the first three reunion-era albums has offered an ever-so-slightly different take or expansion of their core sound. Life Sentence was the big, catchy comeback, a tad less intense than their NWOBHM classic but no less refined in songwriting; Atom By Atom upped the technicality and riff acrobatics while maintaining the band’s long-established air of intellectualism and hooky chops; and Cruel Magic again did a slight twist on the formula by dropping the tempo and upping the mood factor in several songs.
Let’s put that another way: like the rest of Satan’s reunion catalog, Earth Infernal has more hot licks than a party with 10,000 Saint Bernard puppies.
Tippins and Ramsey simply don’t have it in their musical vocabulary to play anything that is unengaging or accept settling into a background role players. Even when they are giving another band member the spotlight – typically vocalist Brian Ross – they still add more to their parts than a standard rhythm accompaniment. Take opener “Ascendancy,” for example. The verses feature a series of leads that, while not exactly subdued, still manage to increase the focus on Ross. The chorus likewise sees them temporarily just hitting chords (while Graeme English gets a little fancy on the bass) before they deliver a huge machine gun response.
Even the soloing in the opener seems like an extension of the main verse motif, one of the many signs on Earth Infernal that Satan constructs each song independently, as opposed to writing a ton of riffs and seeing how they all form together later. “Twelve Infernal Lords” switches between suspenseful and complementary riff patterns and features chorus leads and a bridge that likewise build out of what came before (plus a seriously killer vocal melody during that chorus; tune rules). “Second Sight” gets as wild as anything here, moving from one harmonized, interwoven lead and bass section to another, almost risking distracting from the vocals as the strings simply never stop moving. And like in several other tunes, the dueling solo section takes time to reflect the main patterns and melodies.
If such songs seem to have evolved out of just a few riffs, a tracks like “Luciferic” might have originated in Ross’s storytelling vocals. It’s one of the few times when the instruments really back off, but use that merely as an opportunity to show off dynamic depth, leading to a chorus that seems to operate on autopilot from the energy built to that point. (As if to emphasize the dynamics of that tune, the final iteration of the chorus pulls out all the stops, with background vocals, a nice little lead, and some bass flourishes.) Ross is also in pretty strong form in the lyric department, at different points criticizing pseudoscience and flat earthers (a mite hilariously) in the aforementioned “Second Sight” or taking on corrupt politicians and religious leaders in “Burning Portrait” (good luck getting that chorus out of your head). We’re truly through the looking glass when a band named Satan is offering some of the more virtuous, real world lyrics in traditional metal.
Finally, a special nod must be given to drummer Sean Taylor for the level of outright pep he adds to this and every Satan album. His downbeat-snare, ride-cymbal-TING-heavy, preposterously punchy playing elevates everything around him. In the almost 40 years since these five guys first started playing together, not one of them has lost the smallest bit of chops, energy, or vitality. If anything, they’re better musicians now than in their youth, and Taylor is the glue that keeps every irresistible riff, bubbly bass counter melody, high flying solo section, and understated-but-infectious vocal line purring along like a well-oiled machine.
Satan’s music is just so balanced. None of these freakishly good performers ever threatens to get in the way of his bandmates, while the constant Onslaught of Awesome Stuff is always delivered within the frame of really detailed, smart tunes. Earth Infernal probably won’t carry with it the same level of feverish hype as did the first couple reunion records, but that’s because attention spans tend to be short when a band isn’t changing drastically from record to record, and because we’ve grown so used to this level of quality out of them (we are spoiled brats). But make no mistake about it, this is razor-sharp, intelligent, and passionate heavy metal of the highest order that demands hungry ears.