Harry Conklin, AKA The Tyrant, is a name that has been revered on the underground metal circuit for almost as long as there’s been an underground metal circuit. Best known for his work with the pioneering USPM outfit Jag Panzer, and their legendary 1984 debut album Ample Destruction in particular, fewer people realize that he got his start even earlier than that. Under the stage name of Leviathan Thisiren, he was one of the founding members of Satan’s Host in 1977, a Colorado troupe who brought an evil, occultist edge to heavy metal before Venom and Mercyful Fate had started to make it cool on the other side of the Atlantic. Conklin left the band in 1988, but although they were dormant for a time, Satan’s Host never really went away. Having reinvented themselves in the 90s and 2000s as a full-blown death metal band, they eventually came full circle in 2009 with Conklin reuniting with founding guitarist Patrick Evil. Virgin Sails is their second post-reunion offering following 2011’s By the Hands of the Devil, and it again finds the dynamic duo offering up an inspired fusion of styles that, when you hear it, seems so obvious that you wonder why more bands aren’t doing it.
How to describe the sound of Virgin Sails in generic terms? The phrase that their fans seem to have latched on to is blackened power metal, which works as well as anything, but it really is uncanny just how complete and natural this synthesis is. Patrick Evil has preserved the malevolent, assaultive vibe of the band’s 2000s death metal outings such as Satanic Grimoire. At times, he opens the throttle up all the way, letting loose with flurries of trem-picking and down-tuned riffs like rocket-powered bulldozers, complete with drummer Anthony Lopez blasting away like a madman – the opening of “Of Beast and Men”, for instance, wouldn’t sound out of place on a record by Aborted or God Dethroned.
These moments are tempered, however, by passages of melodic articulation. There’s evidence of influence from all across the metal spectrum – opener “Cor Malifecus – Heart of Evil” recalls the nervous, fluttering guitar work of Flotsam and Jetsam’s early output, other moments echo the more classical NWOBHM approach of fellow 80s refugees Hell (witness the surprisingly upbeat main melody to “Dichotomy”). A delicate balancing act is maintained between brutal, heads-down riffing and dramatic, swooping leads accompanying enormous, infectious chorus hooks. Satan’s Host successfully have their cake and eat it, exhibiting the best of both worlds. On the one hand, they retain the volatile spontaneity and forbidding atmosphere of extreme metal – if it doesn’t sound downright dangerous the way truly extreme acts like Anaal Nathrakh do, Virgin Sails certainly doesn’t sound friendly either. On the other hand, it has the rabble-rousing quality of the best stripped-down power metal. It sounds dark and menacing, but it’s a darkness and menace that the listener is complicit in and empowered by, not crushed beneath. That’s not to say there isn’t virtue in extreme music that does set out to crush the listener, but it makes Virgin Sails a somewhat unique entity in its genre.
To wit, Satan’s Host are at their best when they’re at their heaviest. Among the eight full-length songs here, the only one that got a less-than-enthusiastic response from me was “Cor Malifecus” – this was partly due to its odd structure (it ends very abruptly on a passage that feels like a non-sequitur), but also on account of being inexplicably mild in moments that serve to take the air out of its sails. It’s doubly unfortunate that this was the first track, as it meant that the rest of the album had to work to compensate for this lackluster first impression. It did, though, with flying colours. Particular highlights include “Reanimated Anomalies”, a mean, compact little Rottweiler of a song whose middle is jammed full of all manner of fire-spitting riffs, and the epic title track which spends its first four minutes in a slow, angry churn before erupting into the most expansive solo section on the album, the perfect capstone to the record. Best of all, though, is the magnificently named “Island of the Giant Ants”, which expertly transitions from a speedy introduction to a downright apocalyptic mid-paced groove, and sports a chorus and bridge that pack such a percussive punch that they make me want to headbang to the point of debilitating injury.
The catalyst for all of this, mind you, is Conklin; for all that his bandmates do right, it’s the Tyrant’s performance that compounds all of Virgin Sails’ successes and pushes it over the edge from a good album to something close to a masterpiece. The man’s been an institution in the metal world across five decades for damn good reason, and his performance here is as good as he’s ever given. Not to mince words: whatever competition there may have been for the best vocal performance on a metal album in 2013, Conklin burns it to the ground and salts the fucking earth. There are only a handful of other singers active in the genre today who could exhibit the same clarity, control, assertive presence and raw power across such a broad range as he does here, and there’s not a single moment he’s present in the mix that isn’t exponentially more effective than it would have been had his role been filled by an anonymous growler. It’s positively humbling to listen to.
The result of all this is a red-blooded, whole-bodied metallic ass-kicking, the sort of stick-to-your-ribs album that one can keep coming back to for days and weeks at a time. Satan’s Host have concocted a deliriously entertaining record here, one that uses its constituent elements to its fullest advantage. “Blackened power metal” is a sound that begs to be explored further – more like this, please.
01) Cor Malifecus – Heart of Evil
02) Island of the Giant Ants
04) Of Beast and Men
06) Reanimated Anomalies
07) Infinite Impossibilities
08) Vaporous of the Blood
10) Virgin Sails