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Two powers - one of which clearly dominates - 89%

Jophelerx, October 6th, 2012

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.