Once again, the scavenger feasts. This year I seem to be lucking into reviews where other writers should be calling dibs but can’t for a variety of reasons. In this case, the honorable Dr. Fisting has been on an extended leave,1 and the review of the new Satan record falls to me. Which is bad news for Satan: their previous two albums, reviewed here by two different writers, each garnered a 4.5, a score the Huckster has never deigned to hand out. Already the deck is stacked against these venerable Brits. Add to that Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™, and the chances of Satan maintaining their torrid pace of quality releases is remote. But there’s always a chance, right?
Within seconds, and even without reading the promotional copy, it’s obvious that Cruel Magic is going to differ vastly from both Atom by Atom and Life Sentence. These will be words of joy for diehard fans of their early masterpiece, 1983’s Court in the Act, but for listeners used to, oh I don’t know, refinement, or production values, Cruel Magic will be a cruel joke. You see, Satan do not care about any of the latest styles or fads. They don’t care about spit and polish, overdubs, or flexing their biceps. They keep the music trve on Cruel Magic, recording these songs in one take with minimal processing of the sound. This is the rawest of the NWOBHM sound: if the production on Atom by Atom could be described as a medium-rare steak, Cruel Magic is like eating a slice of sirloin right off the cow while it’s still grazing. This can be disconcerting at first, but admittedly these raw, sloppy recordings have a certain and undeniable charm.
This is because, despite the rawness, Satan still write excellent songs. The pace of these songs is slower than on previous efforts, but the magic is still there, and although the tempo is slower, guitarists Russ Tippins and Steve Ramsey didn’t get the memo: they cram as many notes into each bar as possible. “Into the Mouth of Eternity” exemplifies this, with a slow, majestic buildup leading into a frantic, frenetic lead-up to a more restrained — and catchy as hell — verse. Songs like “The Doomsday Clock,” “Legions Hellbound,” and “My Prophetic Soul” all fit into the frantic charging template of previous albums, with the trademark excellent guitarwork and Brian Ross’s stellar vocals. His voice reminds me of a cross between Scott Walker and Hammers of Misfortune’s Joe Hutton (and in fact, the music at times isn’t too far off. Check out Dead Revolution’s title track). But those high-speed tracks are the exception rather than the rule.
Cruel Magic closes out with “Mortality,” a slow but loaded-with-notes song, with a complex guitar arrangement and a catchier-than-it-should-be chorus. In another homage to the olde days, the song’s tempo gradually increases at the end; Bands don’t do this enough anymore. While it’s no “The Fall of Persephone,” it’s a great song that fully encapsulates the different feel of Cruel Magic: slow and raw, a little rough around the edges, but still compelling. “Mortality,” along with “Death Knell for a King,” with its rollicking bass line, and the title track, are standout songs here.
Three albums into their resurrection, one thing is clear: Satan can’t write bad songs. Despite Cruel Magic being a step down in quality compared to Atom by Atom, it’s still a stellar effort that puts many other bands that are riding the retro metal wave to shame. Going for it in one take, with minimal touch-ups on the production side, is a gamble that pays off here in charming fashion — only because they’ve got the songwriting chops to pull it off. As far as overall enjoyment and replayability, Cruel Magic sits nicely beside Life Sentence, just below Atom by Atom. Satan’s fans, and fans of the NWOBHM, are once again going to love this.