(Metal Blade 2018)
Since their 2011 reunion, NWOBHM masters Satan have been damn near infallible. I mean, it’s uncanny. Of course, this is the same lineup that recorded 1983’s Court in the Act, which is rightfully heralded as a benchmark for British heavy metal in general, so the bar has been set extremely high. The mindblowing part is that a compelling argument could be made that each of Satan’s post-reunion albums (2013’s Life Sentence and 2015’s Atom by Atom) is on par with, or even surpasses, Court in the Act. They’re that good. Same style, same spirit, same fire in the belly, but there’s perhaps a more refined, heightened sense of songwriting on the more recent albums as the band have mastered their craft.
That brings us to Cruel Magic. A few things are different this time around. Most notably, Satan parted ways amicably with Listenable Records and are now signed to Metal Blade, which obviously has greater resources and distribution muscle to catapult Satan to well-deserved greater commercial heights. They also tinkered with their approach in the studio. Indeed, in the bio accompanying Cruel Magic’s release, the label promised a more raw, wild and spontaneous vibe, with the band using first takes whenever possible to maximize energy and excitement, even at the cost of leaving mistakes preserved on tape for posterity. There was a particularly revealing quote from guitarist Russ Tippins that Satan’s objective on Cruel Magic was to achieve a balance between “considered content and reckless performance.” But make no mistake: this is a pure, uncompromising Satan album through and through, from the instantly familiar Eliran Kantor cover artwork to the endlessly inventive, devil-may-care guitarwork of Tippins and Steve Ramsey to the often blistering tempos to the courtly, dignified vocals of the ageless Brian Ross.
Most importantly, the band have ginned up another brilliant collection of songs. Speedy opener “Into the Mouth of Eternity” swings for the fences right away, riding the aforementioned reckless energy as Ross sings about time flying “into the jaws of history / Into the heart / into the lungs of God.” Love the imagery. Elsewhere, barnburners like “My Prophetic Soul,” “Death Knell for a King,” and “Legions Hellbound” deliver the goods in a way that is certain to put a smile on the face of every old-school metalhead. To my ears, though, the pick of the litter is pre-release single “The Doomsday Clock,” a sub-4 minute jolt of white-hot energy that is simply flawless from beginning to end. Just when you think it can’t possibly get any better, there’s a part after the solo / drum spotlight where Tippins contributes vocals about “Time is the hand of the universe.” Sublime. It’s a genius track that is as strong as anything Satan have ever written. All of that said, Satan don’t keep the accelerator mashed to the floor at all times, and some of Cruel Magic’s best moments are more atmospheric, haunting pieces like the title track, the creepy, serpentine “Ophidian” (music and lyrics coalesce perfectly here) and epic closer “Mortality,” which ambles along at a relaxed pace until the end, when the band hits warp speed as Ross intones, “Slow down or die / In the blink of an eye / Slow down or die / Mortality.” It gives me goosebumps. Also appreciated are the thoughtful lyrics, such as in “Who Among Us” (“Will it be you / Will it be me / Who among us will cast the first stone?”), “Ghosts of Monongah” (about a 1907 West Virginia mine explosion that killed more than 360 people, according to reliable sources, although curiously Ross sings about “307 souls”), “Ophidian” (an ingenius serpent metaphor), and “Mortality” (musings on same, “faster and faster the candle burns low”). So Cruel Magic can exercise your brain as well as your neck muscles, if you’re so inclined.
There’s really not much else to say. The only real question in my mind is where Cruel Magic ranks in the vaunted Satan discography. It’s too early to tell, but it absolutely holds its own, which is exceedingly high praise in and of itself. What I do know is this: Cruel Magic is one of the finest albums of 2018, hands down. If you like anything Satan have ever done, or just well-executed, reckless old-school British heavy metal by a band on the top of their game, then this album is a no-brainer. Buy it now. Also, the band are embarking on a short U.S. tour in October, beginning with an appearance at the Frost and Fire Festival in Ventura, California next weekend. Don’t miss it.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~