Satan‘s Court in the Act exists in a unique space between the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and speed metal. As a wholly metal album that attempts no pandering to mainstream radio rock unlike seemingly every other NWOBHM band, Court in the Act is by far the strongest studio album of that sub-genre/movement and incredibly influential to American speed metal bands Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer.
The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was the simultaneous, sudden emergence of hundreds of heavy metal bands in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s and early eighties. The NWOBHM was prompted by the collapse en masse of earlier hard rock bands and heavy metal originators. Led Zeppelin and other blues-based riff rock bands had collapsed into meandering stadium rock with only a couple listenable songs per record at best (“Achilles Last Stand” on Presence). Black Sabbath fell flat on their faces after Sabotage, making the meandering duo of Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die. Punk declined from almost-progressive works as the The Stooges’ Fun House to boy bands such as the Sex Pistols playing radio pop. Deep Purple regressed to playing what their former guitarist Ritchie Blackmore termed “Shoeshine music.”
Review by David Rosales (read the original by Gabe here)
First things first – let’s get the obvious clear and out of the way. Satan is a band of not only competent instrumentalists, but songwriters with an ear for balance, color and dynamics. The previous review written for DMU on this album emphasized and praised this point as much as the band deserves. As it remarks, the attention to structure in the composition throughout the record and its faithfulness to its chosen style is worthy of praise. The only thing being suggested here is going one step further in our observations.
Sure, from the point of view of a purely academic critique, this is an outstanding work as it plays within its own style with dexterous flexibility, maintaining a certain cohesion and strong sense of flow throughout as colors and transformations are shown and removed. But metal goes beyond the formalities of technical music. Metal is about the the essence, hence it is about the ritual that directs a focus in the listener towards a certain attitude. But with Atom by Atom it sounds like we are gaily riding at full speed to the circus. At this point, we may question whether we are not making the mistake of placing something else besides or outside the music before the music itself. The answer is no; this is still about the content of the music, however non-objective it may seem, and is of the utmost important to a genre that claims to be more than fireworks and self-gratification (both on the artist’s and the listener’s sides).
We could go about explaining this with a loose inductive argument. Humans all tend to hear unisons and fifths as being more in repose and in balance than minor seconds or sevenths. This is because these correspond to very different and constant relations between sound waves at different frequencies, and their effect on the human brain on the physical level is, then, also constant. The way the appreciation of these changes and is trained through the exposure to different types of biases is a different matter, although equally important. Suffice it to say, that at the end it is a matter of the relation between the objective characteristics of sound and the conditioning by the environment of the subject.
Different systems around the world base their music on different philosophies, parting from these facts, even though they may not identify with exact things such as what Western music calls “perfect” or “imperfect” intervals. In the case of metal, it arises from the system of traditional Western tonality of the 19th century with a tendency towards terraced dynamics similar to those of Baroque music. The emphasis on content and delivery over flare that distinguishes metal from rock music also brings it closer to minimalism and one could even say, to early European music.
These are systems based on premises that are not just there as illusions, and serve as the objective sense on which this tonality is built. Certain intervals and progressions, certain melodies contrasted or complemented by the underlying chords, as well as the different rhythmic patterns (predominance of longer notes followed by shorter ones in bars and riffs) all possess distinct auras and characters. And although these cannot be pin-pointed with words, which would then obviate the need for music, we can generally define nebulous areas which range from what we know as human feelings to mental images and even divine morality (hence we have music that is predominantly described as ‘pure’, and music that sounds ‘evil’).
In the case of Satan’s 2015 opus, it’s as if the band had disregarded all sense of meaning in tonality and the character that the interaction between rhythm and melody projects onto the listener. In bouts of pure excitement and fanciful excess, Satan colors this album as a circus clown’s gala suit. Vocals are as emotional as in the first album, except that in here they seem even more disconnected from the music as the music veers into some sort of progressive speed metal akin to Helstar’s.
Although not as degradingly vulgar as Surgical Steel, Satan Atom by Atom results in a pretty tacky affair. This is an album that can serve as study case for guitar players when it comes to technical details in arrangement but falls short of a purposeful metal work. Its lack of heavy theme (from which the term heavy metal comes from) or any particular topic the musical level except the fun-funny carnival mood places it squarely outside any consideration for outstanding albums.
“Meeeeester Crowley, what goes on in your head?” came the wailing voice from the radio. Louder than that, I could hear the fluorescent lights above, and the beating of my heart. The texture of the paint on the walls seemed to break into a kaleidoscope of demonic faces. And I deserved all of it, because I had put myself here, smoking the tobacco of the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley himself.
The decision happened several weeks ago when I was reading about Crowley, a life-long pipe smoker, and his odd preferences for tobacco. Never a huge reader of Crowley — I’m more into Anton Long and Aldous Huxley for weird metaphysical science — I became interested when I read that we have no solid record of what he actually smoked, only a network of hints through his writing and rituals.
My first task then was to figure out what Mr. Crowley was indeed smoking. Lore holds it that he smoked “straight Perique soaked in rum,” but this leaves much open to interpretation. Perique originally referred to the tobacco that Pierre Chenet, having learned the method from the Choctaws, would press and ferment in barrels in what is today St. James Parish, Louisiana. This thousand-year method reduces acidity and sugars in the tobacco so that the body can absorb more of its indole alkaloids.
Unfortunately, after that time the use of the word became muddled. Some blenders coined the term “Perigue” for any Burley which had been pressed and aged, creating a fermentation effect. Sailors used to pinch some of the raw tobacco from their cargoes, soak it in rum and wind it tight in old sails to press it. And as Perique production dropped off in the 1950s, not only did some inferior substitutes arise, but many blenders phased it out of their blends, creating more confusion.
This left we step one to pipe smoking union with the Great Beast: figure out what he was actually smoking. Smoking the “real” Perique from St. James Parish seems unlikely because Perique is used in tobacco blends like a condiment in food. It has a strong peppery and fruity taste, and smoking it alone would be like drinking hot sauce or eating raw onions. Perhaps he smoked the Perique of the sailors, or “Perigue” of ingenious tobacco makers. But as with all things in his life, the clues are hidden and numerous, stretching across time and space…
First we turn to Crowley’s writings including The Diary of a Drug Fiend, in which Crowley mentions his tobacco preferences:
This deepens the mystery, as Perique is mentioned nowhere else in the book. Crowley mentions ordering “rolls of black Perique” which he then cuts manually, bringing to mind the Perique of the sailors and not of St. James Parish. But even that cannot help us, because St. James Parish Perique could also be delivered in “rolls” or “ropes,” a popular method of curing, storing and transporting tobacco. Ropes remain popular to this day, and are prepared as Crowley describes: cut into thin slices, or “coins,” they are then pushed apart with friction or “rubbed out” to produce thin-cut leaf tobacco.
So that tells us nothing, basically.
Perique remains popular today, by the way. Smokers favor it for its deep flavor and strong Nicotine content, as well as the way it can complement other flavors like Virginias (sweet) and Burleys (nutty). But to smoke it straight is unheard of, although a few brave volunteers have tried it. For that reason, many smokers are skeptical that Crowley actually smoked it straight because it is an abrasive, disquieting experience that would not have been much fun — and Crowley was a known hedonist.
This returns us to the question of what Perique Crowley was smoking. If he was smoking rum-dipped and sheet-pressed tobacco, he would have been enjoying a much milder blend than the St. James Parish Perique. But if he was smoking the St. James Perique, it seems unlikely that he was enjoying the pipe at all. Then there is the complicated term “soaked in rum.” Did he mean actively wetting it with rum? Or did this merely refer to the rum used in the sailor’s recipe, and indicate that it was not St. James Perique at all?
Luckily, Crowley hid another clue for us in his satirical social commentary, Not the Life and Adventures of Sir Roger Bloxam, in which he refers to the tobacco he kept around his darkened lair:
Admiral Fitzroy, by no means the least of English poets, was wont to observe — at least he was always putting it on his barometers — “Long foretold, long last: Short notice, soon past.” So please settle down in that Oxford Basket Chair, draw the table close, for you’ll need that jar you bought at Bacon’s in your first teens because Calverle hypnotized you into doing so, fill the old Meerschaum (the nigger with the hat is the sweetest) with the pure Perique of St. James’ Parish Louisiana, throw some coals and a log or two on the fire, and put your legs on the mantlepiece; for if the laws of weather apply to literature, this ought to be a terribly long chapter.
You can smoke a pipe, and find the port, while you wait; for I’m in no mood to write it just now. Do you realize it’s half past three in the morning?
Not only does he tell us what his Perique was — the St. James Parish variety — but by using the word “pure,” he puts emphasis on the fact that this is the Perique he wants, and nothing else will do. In a strange twist of fate, the use of St. James Parish Perique may strengthen his narrative, because if it were shipped to England it would most likely be in ropes to keep them moist for the journey, especially since Perique is sensitive to light (like the Great Beast himself) and so is often stored in forms that hide most of the leaves from the light.
(The unfortunate verbiage in the above quotation describes his Meerschaum pipe. Meerschaum is a soft semi-gelatinous stone when wet, and clever people carve things into it, then let it firm up as it dries. He is undoubtedly referring to the subject of the carving and not an actual person.)
That left only one mystery: the “soaked in rum.” He could not have meant that he drenched the tobacco in rum and then lit it because it would not have burned owing to the high water content in rum, although he would have gotten a blue alcohol flame. That suggests that his use of the term “soaked,” much like it is used today, refers to a “top flavoring” or an alcohol-based flavoring sprayed over the top of the tobacco before a final drying. Tobacco is very sensitive to moisture and molds easily, making it toxic, so alcohol is used by the water in it must be allowed to evaporate. Rum is about 40-80% alcohol.
This means that Crowley bought his Perique, cut it into leaves of a size he could smoke, and then soaked it in rum but then dried it before smoking. At last I had my recipe for going insane with the best of them. As I made preparations, I wondered if I would end up in a strange photo, making horns on my head with my thumbs, my gaze straight ahead and fixed as if on some demonic world beyond.
Step 1 was to acquire some blender’s Perique, which I did from Rich Gottlieb over at 4noggins. It comes in two forms, granulated and long ribbon, but the long ribbon is stronger so I got that and sliced through it a few times to make it easier to smoke. Then I put down a plate and dumped the Perique on it, watering it loosely with rum (some Captain Morgan’s I found under the couch) until there was some standing liquid in the plate. That, I thought, should be an adequate definition of “soaked.”
Step 2 was drying. The plate went into the cupboard and was sealed away for several days, only exposed to the light for a daily turning. The rum gradually evaporated entirely, leaving dry and stiff leaves. Sitting in my kitchen, wishing to ancient gods that I had an EMT team present in case I had made this tobacco blend wrong, I loaded up an old faithful pipe — I have no other kind — and gravity-filled it with these strange leaves, then dumped in some more and tamped the top. Time for Step 3. I took a deep breath, lowered the flame, and drew in the thick and ethereal smoke.
Pipe-smoking is not like cigarette smoking. It is more like playing a trombone or transcendental meditation: all in the breathing. The smoker starts with a blaze that sends up a lot of smoke, which is why smokers take short puffs at first; pipe smoke is not inhaled like that of cigarettes, but kept in the mouth, so short puffs are need. Then, the smoker draws on the pipe like sipping air through a straw, about every ten seconds filling the mouth with smoke and exhaling a few moments later. This keeps a steady stream of flavorful smoke through a cool pipe, delivering measured doses of nicotine to the nervous system. After a few moments when the paint screamed at me in ancient Syriac incantations, and the stove looked like the face of an Aztec war god, I settled into a normal rhythm.
And…? you ask. How was the Great Beast’s tobacco?
Good. Very good, in fact, so much that I’ve done it several times since. The rum both sweetened the Perique and removed some of its peppery edge, leaving it with a flavor more like strong brandy. The drying also reduced the wetness of the Perique so that it burns better, and somehow gave it a smoky flavor like Latakia or Dark Fired. While the Nicotine level remained high, it was more on par with my regular tobacco, Royal Yacht, and not as extreme as many ropes or the utter skull-crusher that is the Cotton Boll Twist. And the flavor toned down the spice in the perique while making its fruit flavor less extreme, giving it the complex scent and flavor palate of a fine wine, or at least what I imagine wine above the $7 limit tastes like.
I kept smoking. Strange — I was enjoying this! The flavor had gone from plum or fig to something like a dark berry dried in the sun, or even grapes at the edge of becoming raisins, but with that extra kick of spice that made the tobacco taste more vivid than sweet. The smoke curled around my head and for a moment I thought it spelled out something in Kabbalic and Alchemical characters, but then it dissipated. I shook my head clear and kept on smoking. The Great Beast may not have taken my soul, but he knew how to make a tasty tobacco blend.
Many (but not all) pipe smokers claim that they smoke for the flavor, not the nicotine. This is on par with wine drinkers talking about the “aura” and “palate” of a wine as they approach the end of the second bottle and begin slurring their words. For most of us, the pipe is a complete experience: taste, smell, feel, activity and yes, nicotine.
Why? Because Nicotine is a god among stimulants, providing cognitive benefits as well as relaxation. Because it helps us see our dead ancestors. Because it is fun. Pick one or more of the above, but be honest in recognizing that for many of us, nicotine is part of the trip. Accordingly, many smokers seek out a nicotine “holy grail”: the most intense nicotine blast that one can experience in a pipe.
A number of candidates arise, most from the Gawith Hoggarth stable, but rumored to be beyond even that in intensity are twists. These are nearly raw tobacco, taken from curing and wrapped in a distinctive shape, then allowed to age so the sugars in the leaf ferment and that dead vegetation flavor leaves. Twists are normally designed to be chewed and then placed against the cheek where nicotine absorption occurs through the membrane, but since the dawn of recorded history on the topic, smokers have been known to hack off bits of them and smoke them for a cosmic Nicotine experience.
You can get twists a number of places. Here’s a semi-comprehensive list:
These contenders for the holy grail of mind-blowing Nicotine trips are generally not all that expensive, in keeping with their functional origins in agricultural work. They do not have fancy flavors or extensive steps taken to reduce their rougher edges. But they do offer a staggering dose of the magic lady.
In my search for pipe smoking’s holy grail, I acquired an American Snuff Company Cotton Boll Twist, rumored to be one of the stronger twists. It arrived in a plastic bag, looking very much like a roughly dried leaf. Upon slitting the bag and removing it, I noticed a scent of old leaf, perhaps with undertones of oil, and felt how dry the twist was in my hands. But I noticed the hands were shaking.
Pipe smokers are famous for their lore, and while much of it is not strictly speaking factually true, almost all of it has metaphorical meaning, like religion or Texans telling tales where the fish keeps getting bigger or the boar gets meaner. It was entirely possible that this thing would kill me. They would find me, tense body twisted into an impossible pose in my comfortable share, surrounded by ashes flung aside during my final convulsions. The M.E. would shake his head sadly and proclaim death by misadventure, and I would be buried in a simple grave with the marker reading only HERE LIES AN IDIOT. This fear gripped me as I turned the twist over in my hands.
Being a somewhat intrepid sort, at least with my own life, I put it on the cutting block and hacked off an inch, then sliced it vertically and again, horizontally, to create small cubes. Because the leaf was dry and unpressed, these quickly expanded to tiny flakes — approximating the size of rough cut tobacco — of dry, slightly greasy vegetation. Figuring that here went nothing, I loaded up my favorite author style pipe and set match to tobacco, then waited for death to swoop down from the clouds and seize me in a spasm of final agonies.
Nothing of the sort happened.
First, I recoiled from the flavor. Almost no tobacco is actually “raw,” since you sort of have to dump something on it to help with the aging process and rehydrate it after drying. But this is as raw as it gets and it has a flavor that resembles, well, dried leaves. It burns quickly too, making me rehydrate the second batch. But for that first bowl, I lit, tamped, gagged and then lit again. After a few more puffs — slightly sour like the first notes of a newly-lit cigar — I found the flavor to improve. The nutty broad flavor of Burley replaced the raw taste of flame. Then a slight sweetness, very light, drifted to the surface. The more it burned, the better it tasted, although an oily undertone like old butter from an all-night restaurant persisted, and sometimes there was the slightly bitter “green” taste of minimally cured plant matter. But by the end of the first third of the bowl, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.
And then… it hit.
Like a serpentine form uncoiling in darkness, Nicotine wound its way through the smoke into my brain. My jaw dropped and cold sweat broke out on my forehead. I could see my fingers twitching like insects in the spastic repetition of instinctual motions. Sounds receded, and I could no longer speak. I could feel every hair like a finely-tuned instrument, detect even the slightest breeze brushing over my skin. “Unholy mackerel,” I thought, “This may indeed be the end.”
But I survived. And I hung on, chopping up another half-inch and adding the collected leaf-bits to a small bowl over which I draped a hot damp towel. I waited. And then I reloaded, lit, tamped and blazed. The same bitterness struck, the oily smoke curling around my head, but then the rancid butter and cut grass flavors faded and the nuttiness returned. The faint sweetness emerged as well, as did the Samurai warrior that is Nicotine. But this time, I rode the dragon. I felt myself pass into the shadow realms, and like the mythical Jenkem users of central Africa, I spoke to my dead ancestors. I enjoyed every minute of it.
In terms of raw strength, this tobacco is not more excessive than Samuel Gawith 1792 Flake or the infamous Gawith Hoggarth “Happy” Brown Bogie. It has some strength on those, but does not leap to another cosmic level. However, like a tropical storm it attacks quickly and holds you with an iron grip. In this case, it is pleasurable. Subsequent bowls revealed that this tobacco mixes extremely well, and even a pinch of an English mixture mutes its flavor extremes. Its heavy Burley takes the flavor of whatever it is mixed with, making this an even more enjoyable experience. But that power — the raw, infernal power — remains.
The stronger ropes from UK tobacco makers, or even some of the home-grown Perique mixes that the Americans concoct, most likely match this in strength. Part of its reputation comes from the fact that as a dry tobacco, it burns quickly and thus injects more smoke into the mouth (this is the same reason people like flake tobacco; the compressed flake burns a lot more leaf at any given instant than loose tobacco blends). But part of it is a sensible recognition of the dark forces at work within this demon of a twist. I paired it with Incantation Onward to Golgotha in recognition of its infernal strength, and sipped green tea to keep me anchored in the world of reality. This may not be the holy grail of Nicotine abuse, but it is one of them. And I am glad I found it.
A good legacy and a promising single can do much to build up expectations for any album. Atom by Atom was shaping up to be a textbook example of this axiom back in September, when I first became aware of it. Having listened to the end result, I can confidently say that the band’s reformation continues to pay dividends to those who pay attention (and/or cash).
The general formula hasn’t changed since Life Sentence – Satan plays the same sort of NWOBHM/early speed metal style that they became famous for, but in a more musically adventurous fashion than they favored 30 years ago. This sort of path leads many a band to neglect the coherence and intelligibility of their songwriting, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case here. The guitarists are particularly inventive here – the melodic and consonant style they perform in belies the wide variety of riff construction techniques they’ve incorporated into these tracks. They’re particularly good at the harmonized ‘dueling leads’ that so many similar bands have adopted; lesser bands would find their musical language shackled by overuse of one mode or otherwise limited.
This power would be strong enough to draw in many a listener, but Satan’s strengths on Atom by Atom go beyond mere creative guitar wizardry, although they are still unified by an emphasis on mastering a subgenre. For instance, the vocals (which are pseudo-operatic in style) remind me somewhat of James Rivera’s contributions to Helstar in their sonority and dynamic range, although Brian Ross sings closer to the guitar lines than many similar vocalists. However, this applies most to the song structures – while Atom by Atom tends towards typical pop verse-chorus structures like so many albums before it, these songs notably don’t rely on any one specific technique to cloak this or elaborate on their musical ideas. It should not escape your notice that in doing this, Satan otherwise consistently sticks to the limits of their musical language; while the way they vary it suggests to me that they could successfully execute a major genre shift if they so desired, I find their success within a genre to be a good outcome as well.
Musically skilled, technically proficient metal may be the norm these days, but Atom by Atom also succeeds on the organizational, structural level that is lacking and often completely ignored in so many of its contemporaries. This makes it a highly worthy acquisition.
Since we quite enjoyed Satan’s previous album (Life Sentence), it only makes sense to give their latest a mention as well. Satan’s musical style is understandably descended from the popular NWOBHM styles of the late ’70s and ’80s, but also showcases some musical techniques that would become influential in the speed and power metal camps, and their most recent albums adopt a similar style with understandably better studio polish. While this followup is not set to officially release for a few weeks, the band has released a track for promotional purposes. “The Devil’s Infantry” changes little if anything from Satan’s recent past, and hopefully the rest of the album will live up to the high standards it and the previous album set for the band.
Following the success of their recent South American tour, British heavy metal band Satan are set to release their new studio album ‘Atom By Atom’ this October on Listenable records. The LP features ten songs written by the band (including a collaboration with Angel Witch’s Kevin Heybourne). The tracklist runs as follows:
- Farewell Evolution
- Fallen Saviour
- The Devil’s Infantry
- Atom By Atom
- In Contempt
- My Own God
- Bound In Enmity
- The Fall Of Persephone
Sometimes we find ourselves looking for the music that suits the moment, the mood. Sometimes we want more than suitable, we want excellent, we want an experience, a window into another world. We waddle around swinging our fists frustratingly at the empty air and cursing our creator for giving us this craving for melody and rhythm that is not so easily satisfied. Then we realize the answer lies in Satan’s music. The rebel. The adversary.
So, while your neighbours and family members are falling asleep in Church this Sunday morning, you can draw a pentagram on the floor of room, scratch some runes, close the windows, light candles and turn the music on.