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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!