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I've generally been of the impression that, as far as USPM is concerned, every major facet of the genre (i.e. every significant variant within the genre) had been done by 1985, or maybe '86 at the very latest. From Queensryche's self-titled EP in 1982, to Omen's rough-and-ready progression of NWOBHM; from Fates Warning's uber-complex, arcane brand of PM to the more straightforward power/speed of Liege Lord or Helstar - hell, by '86, even power/thrash was well-developed, with classics like Hexx's Under the Spell and Manilla Road's The Deluge. Manowar's epic style had been around for a few years already, and Slauter Xstroyes' debut covered the technical and strange side of things. For the most part, once you get into divisions further than that, you're really just quibbling over trivialities. Sacred Oath, however, managed to be just a little late - their 1987 debut, while not often mimicked, is a separate beast from any of the aforementioned subgenres. While one might argue that they were not late, given their first two demos, the full-length is a more definitive statement of their style - not to mention the fact that at least one of their first demos (1986's Shadow out of Time) has a virtually unlistenable production.
That being said, Sacred Oath are a weird, weird band, and yet at the same time simple enough that I'm a bit surprised the style hasn't been attempted more often. In rough terms, they sound a bit like the epic side of NWOBHM combined with the occult magic of Mercyful Fate and their ilk; but with more cohesion and atmosphere than either one. Both the galloping riffs and excessive dual leads are obviously taken from the NWOBHM; but the songwriting is so different that I can hardly accuse them of sounding derivative. The songs are dark, arcane, and atmospheric, with constant melodic leads that conjure up Iron Maiden more than anything else - that on its own is strange enough, but then you have vocalist Rob Thorne. His high, wailing falsetto and heavy use of multi-tracking account for most of the atmosphere, providing the sensation of something akin to an invocation of black magic by several dark practitioners at once. Overall, the music is ominous, arcane, and catchy as hell.
For an incredibly obscure USPM band from the 1980s, the production is pretty good. While not stellar, both the riffs and dual leads are always quite clear, and even the bass has a solid presence, with the vocals audible but never exactly stealing the spotlight - maybe just because the leads are so damn good. I've described the songwriting already to an extent, but there are some obvious discrepancies among songs that lead to only one logical explanation - two different songwriters to account for the two different styles. Failsafeman went into more detail on this in his review, so for all intents and purposes I'm going to assume that he's correct on the songwriters, etc., although personally I'm not sure. Anyway, they both retain certain elements (most importantly, Thorne's vocal style), but one has more straightforward, simple riffs a la early Overkill, while the other has more of the dual harmonic leads I described above. While both styles have some good songs (there's not really a bad song to be found here), the latter style is clearly the better one.
The more complex, dual-lead style is comprised of the songs "Two Powers", "Message to the Children", "The Beginning", and "The Ferryman's Lair". "Two Powers" is a good representative piece for the album, as it seems to demonstrate the two different songwriting styles at work on the album, as well as having more fantastical, metaphorical meaning in regards to the mythical/religious concept of dualism, as evidenced by the album cover. It's also a fantastic song that showcases all the positive musical elements of the album; great dual leads, an excellent use of multi-tracking, and ultimately a very strong song structure. "The Ferryman's Lair" is another excellent song, much darker than the aforementioned, with an even more extensive use of multi-tracking - the chorus has three separate vocal melodies running simultaneously, and it sounds fucking awesome. The other two songs are both very good, though not exceptional for the album, and pretty much fall into the dual-lead category without much derivation.
The simpler, straightforward heavy/speed style is comprised of the other five songs: "The Omen", "Magick Son", "A Crystal Vision", "Shadow Out of Time", and "Rising from the Grave". Of these, "Shadow Out of Time" are probably the best, with riffs strong enough not to get hold despite heavy repetition, a fantastic chorus, and strong solos. The others are merely good, although "Rising from the Grave" is a bit of an oddball, with an opening guitar solo and some wordless vocal harmonies, then proceeding to a normal heavy/speed song (although there's another atmospheric part in the middle). Ultimately, this section is good, vs. the dual harmony section, which is excellent. Still, the album is absurdly consistent for USPM, and one of my favorite albums of the genre to this day, still mimicked only by the obscure Blackstorm as far as I know; I would love to see this style played more often, as when it works, it really fucking works. If you're a fan of USPM, NWOBHM, or occult trad metal a la Mercyful Fate, give this album a listen - it'll be worth your time for sure.
USPM can be divided into two general styles; the first, called white collar USPM, is generally more melodic, often with progressive touches and operatic frontmen. Lyrical themes are usually relatively complex as well (often taking an introspective turn). This style is typified by bands like early Fates Warning, Crimson Glory, and early Queensryche (and many other lesser-known bands such as Damien Steele or Screamer). The other style, known as blue collar USPM, is more visceral, direct, and aggressive, often with a touch of thrash or speed. Lyrical themes are usually focused on violent fantasy subjects like battles and barbarians or mythology. Prominent examples include Jag Panzer, Omen, and mid-period Manilla Road. Less prominent would be Griffin or, to get to the review at hand, Sacred Oath.
With that bit of history you should already have a general idea of what A Crystal Vision sounds like, but obviously there's quite a bit more to it. Essential to the understanding of the album is Sacred Oath's preoccupation with dualism; even before you press play, you can see the cover art (drawn by the drummer). It depicts a demon and an eagle-man fighting over a fishbowl with Death mediating; chaos/evil vs. order/good fighting over the life, the universe, and everything. Even the reissue's cover shows Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus's dragons locked in mortal combat (from Arthurian myth). Hell, you can even see their logo on the MA page has both an angel and a devil in it. The lyrics as well often deal with dualism, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly, as with "Two Powers". But that preoccupation runs much deeper; Sacred Oath's compositional duties are split between guitarist/vocalist Rob Thorne and bassist Pete Altieri. Rather than collaborating on songs, they alternate. While neither's style is wildly different from the other, both possess a distinct touch; Thorne tends to favor a more traditional, NWOBHM-influenced approach, sounding not too far from Omen, while Altieri goes in a Bay Area thrash direction. Luckily this doesn't result in a disjointed feel in the least, as one might expect, for a couple of reasons. First, there is overlap between their compositional styles; Thorne will sometimes throw in a thrash riff, and Altieri will do the same with a more traditional-sounding melody or guitar lead. Second, their compositions are evenly interspersed, saving the album from being top- or bottom-heavy. Thorne's vocals are another point; though clearly an amateur, he still hits the notes and does so with undeniable emotion and energy. His vocal parts are split between an NWOBHM or Swedish heavy metal-sounding tenor and a clear, versatile falsetto (which can be piercing or gentle with equal success). Both are done quite well, and it helps that the melodies he sings are worth hearing, and accentuated with just the right amount of multi-tracking. He reminds me of a more powerful version of Saigon's singer. Though good, the vocals are less prominent than in most power metal, I'm sure thanks in part to Thorne having double-duty; the guitars are given more weight than usual, with riffs and leads galore.
The overall feel of the album is very strong, with a distinct melancholy flavor; imagine perhaps Manilla Road's mythical contemplation mixed with Omen's downcast but vital energy. Each of Thorne's tracks in particular is haunting, while Altieri's are more muscular and violent. And with no sappy ballads or ill-advised covers in sight (or any weak tracks at all), the atmosphere extends unbroken across the whole album.
To pick out a few favorites, "Two Powers" has fantastic vocal contrast between the mid-range and falsetto, and some great dual-guitar leads. "Magick Son" makes you wait in carefully calculated fashion for that big riff to finally explode out and resolve the tension (reminding me of "Satan's Fall"). The song also displays Sacred Oath's knowledge of how to pull off a good pitch-shifted power metal narrative, ever a tough thing to get right (their technique of putting a hypnotic multi-tracked vocal melody behind it works so well they use it again on the last track). Finally we have "The Ferryman's Lair", which not only displays great riffs but also what is probably the best chorus on the album. With no less than three haunting multi-tracked vocal lines going at once, it can't help but bring to mind John Arch's mastery, which is the highest compliment I can give. And to top it all off, throw in some fantastic dual-guitar leads! Goddamn, what a song.
Now that A Crystal Vision has been reissued courtesy of Sentinel Steel, there's really not any excuse for this album to continue being so unknown. I mean, back in the 80s being a band based in Connecticut may have been a death sentence as far as real popularity is concerned, but with the internet and its informational resources such as this one (topped off with a healthy dose of historical hindsight), it's about time Sacred Oath started getting recognition for kicking so much ass. OK, review's over; get listening!