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Critical perspective 6: Muffled justice - 94%

gasmask_colostomy, October 28th, 2018

Satan's Court in the Act is a slightly neglected album rated by people who know it as one of the best and most forward-thinking releases of the NWOBHM era. Taking traditional heavy metal of the Iron Maiden school towards the greater intricacy of Cloven Hoof and Hell, while also upping the intensity in a manner not far from that other groundbreaker of 1983 - Mercyful Fate's Melissa - this release certainly shows the transition from trad sounds to the thrash metal and US power metal genres that were just about to appear. Unfortunately, few groups point out Satan as a major influence because the English group messed up rather by changing the band name...twice (facepalm here) after this debut was released. Ostensibly, the reason was to avoid association with explicitly satanic bands like Venom (also from Newcastle, Satan's home town - read that as you will), even though Steve Ramsey has since said that the name was supposed to fit with the figure of the judge represented on most of the band's artwork, thus portraying injustice.

Being critical doesn't always mean being nasty, but a big part of me wonders whether Satan might have had a better run of it if they had kept their original name and just forged on, since nothing they released in the '80s was poor, whether by the original name or under the Blind Fury and Pariah monikers. Praise of this album is easy to come by and the musical skill is undeniable for the most part, so allow me to briefly summarize. We get here speedy and mildly technical heavy metal, drums played aggressively and vocals clean but predominantly high-pitched, sort of like a less idiosyncratic John Arch of the original Fates Warning line-up. The coordination of guitarists Russ Tippins and Steve Ramsey is enviable, especially as they play at speed, remain melodic, and produce both memorable riffs and intricate solos. As well as being influential, a few of the songs like 'Break Free' and 'Trial by Fire' knock most of their contemporaries out of the park in terms of skill and pure songwriting appeal.

Allow me now to test and tease Court in the Act to reveal any potential weaknesses. Seeing as the skill of the instrumentalists is nigh on impregnable, I'd like to make comment on Brian Ross first. Distinctive though he is, both his mid-range and his higher shrieks lay themselves open to criticism. When singing more comfortably, he sounds a little too relaxed to bring appropriate drama to all of the songs, coming across as actually uninterested while 'Alone in the Dock' builds itself up, something that harms the balladic instrumental structure. Perhaps as a result of sitting low in a grubby mix, these mid-range vocals lack power too; the same feature hampers the higher-pitched interjections to a lesser degree, though here he is often focused more on pitch than effect and sounds frightened and feminine as a result. In this second situation, those who refuse to worship at the altar of King Diamond may have a more instinctive grasp of my feeling that Ross's vocals fail to serve the atmosphere. To temper this denunciation of the vocals, I must admit that they match the creative songwriting employed and cause little problem during the speedier numbers.

The guitars are sharp and cut through the rather murky production with excellent effect, while Ross's mid-range and the rhythm instruments fall on the wrong side of that line. The speedy guitars provide more than enough to listen to, especially when playing on open strings or adding leads to the songs, as occurs several times in each of the eight full cuts. Other parts of the album, however, don't sound so good. The gruffer riffing in 'Blades of Steel' loses some of its power, particularly as Graeme English is backing the riffs with a strong bass presence that is totally muffled, while Sean Taylor is practically missing from the breakdown in the middle despite playing fills around the basic beat. The slower and sparser moments of other songs lose something too, 'Broken Treaties' coasting at times on dithering power chords that need a powerful vocal to take hold of proceedings, while 'Hunt You Down' is an exception on Court in the Act, proving the only weak song. In terms of style and ideas, it plays more like a typical example of NWOBHM, slowing the pace and strutting around jauntily with the aid of some gang vocals oddly reminiscent of the first Metallica album. Despite more decent soloing and the jazzy perversity of the fills, 'Hunt You Down' is unlikely to excite much.

Other than vocals and production, there are no other major complaints one could bring against Court in the Act. An inkling of an issue may be brought up regarding the tendency of the band to write complicated songs and failing to turn many of them into actual anthems, but this largely comes down to taste, since the dip in accessibility is certainly made up by the added replay value. One might almost accuse 'The Ritual' - a four and a half minute instrumental riff-and-lead piece - of merely showing off and filling time, especially as it could easily have contained lyrics; however, that overlooks how well Satan constructed the song and the way in which it holds the listener's attention, even bringing the main riff back towards the end in a sort of victory lap. Of minor significance is the presence of two definite intro tracks, the rather overlong tension-builder 'Into the Fire' and the prelude to 'Alone in the Dock', though the album length is surely ideal and 'Dark Side of Innocence' is a nice way to bridge into the lower intensity of the closer.

Court in the Act is certainly not a flawless album (much less a flawless recording job), though it is to be counted as a very significant step for metal's evolution in the early '80s, as well as a hugely enjoyable listen with some absolutely kick-ass songs. It has aged in the last 35 years (what hasn't) but not nearly as much as some of Priest's and Maiden's classics from the time period. Production sticklers are recommended to get the Metal Mind or Listenable Records reissues: metal fans of most denominations are urged to have at least one listen before they are too old to headbang.