Review: Satan – Earth Infernal

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They must be cheating.

Satan is such a probability-defying anomaly, career-wise. There’s a thing in statistics called “The Regression Towards The Mean”, usually illustrated in terms of casino games and dice rolls, but which snotty music journo dorknerds like yours truly can also observe in that most stupefying abstraction, the album review score. Basically, RTTM says that the more extremely good (or bad!) you perform in one trial, the more likely you are to return to normal in the next trial. This is just a simple fact of how averages and series work. If you roll an 11 on 2 dice, you can only roll three different outcomes that are the same or better (another 11, or boxcars). Conversely, you can roll thirty-three different outcomes that are worse. Similarly, if you shit the bed and roll a low tally, you’re more than likely to get a better result next time. This is why bands get the “Sophomore Slump” after thundering out the gates with A+ material and immediately find they can’t follow it up, and it’s also why a line of stinkers can’t keep a band from at least treading water with a decent release now and then. Without adding any other qualitative or behavioral decisions into it, the deck is usually stacked in favor of “mid”.

So how in the hell is it remotely sensible that Satan, those incorrigible brain-geniuses who peaced out in 1987 and busted back on the scene in 2013, have been consistently putting out the absolute best records of their entire career over and over for like the last 4 releases running? In my estimate, the Newcastle NWOBHMers are probably the most radiant success of the resurgent classic metal comebacks embodied by Accept, Judas Priest, and Saxon. And Satan doesn’t even have the ingenious Andy Sneap in their corner coaching them up, unlike those others. Without turning this review into a compressed Porcelain Throne feature, you have more than likely not been giving this band the attention and respect they deserve. Distinctive in style, as influential on the thrash and power metal scenes as any name brand British band, and not afraid to dip into either style when it suited them (I’ve never heard any of those old-timers warming up with Death Angel riffs at a gig). Against all odds, the hot streak enters its 9th year with Earth Infernal, and it doesn’t show a wrinkle of doubt in its face, still pulling dynamic, moody riffs out of a 30-year aged wine barrel.

From the label alone, you should be able to tell this is a fine vintage indeed. You don’t get to nail down a name like Satan in the heavy metal world unless you were an extremely early adopter, and Earth Infernal, like the other records in this triumphant tetralogy, still bears some yesteryear candor from the moment you pop the cork. For one, the texture of the guitars is positively surfy, crusted with sandy grain and squealing with gain at the slightest flutter, turning downright tubular in the tumbling rolls and solos that buffet against the shore. Russ and Steve play their twin guitar with hairpin turns and masterful tweaks of mood, easily matching on agility with any of the great six-string duos. From “Poison Elegy” to “Sorrow Unspent” to “Luciferic”, the guitars spread furtive rumors on spindly climbing scales, one of Satan’s hallmark melodic motions, recalling the adroit fingers of a puppeteer running a macabre shadow play. Their songs on Earth Infernal, as their other releases, swerve in tone from dire to radiant from passage to passage, using actual chord progressions (remember those?) to match the penny dreadful flourish of singer Brian Ross, who conducts the whole affair from the lectern.

Ross casts a shadow across all of Satan’s records, the wailing, sneering voice of the becurled magistrate on the cover, presiding over each song’s tale of hypocrisy, woe, and insolence. Neither wildman show pony a la Bruce Dickinson, nor machismo-sweating icon like Halford, I’ve always considered him a sort of more snide companion to psychedelic wailer Arthur Brown, having a similar timbre and a habit of jumping from his rich head voice to wild warbling falsetto, garish like a harlequin shrinking around your shoulders, not to mention his oblique, lecturing manner on the ills of society as it is. An arbitrator, delighting in dissecting the secret shames of the wicked and drawing them out for sentencing. This has always been a big part of Satan‘s identity, compared to the sweeping adventure or hedonistic indulgence comprising the lyrical bulk of their contemporaries. But he also guides the album to swelling spots that are hopeful and dejected all at once. A record this cynical has to take its idealism in a muting defeatist shell. “From Second Sight” and “Burning Portrait” match their compelling sketches of unchecked egoism and self-delusion with touches of sardonic humor and even a distant, forlorn pity. You think Dickinson could pull off this sort of acerbic attack on the age of disinformation? Of course he couldn’t, the fucking Brexiteer.

What is it that drives Satan to keep this inspired font a-flowing this deep into their catalog? Maybe it’s that the recent batch of Xerox-of-a-Xerox retro bands are losing the spark, and the sagely skeletal scions of the scene feel a need to show the whippersnappers there’s more to heavy metal than gallops and harmonizing in thirds. Don’t waste the court’s time with a plea of mercy, your pilfered blues changes and purloined arpeggios are incontrovertible. Satan claps mere imitators in cold iron, whisking them to the gallows with a fall of the gavel.

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