Satan – Years of Steel, Years of Blood

Satan_headerThe year is 1983. Amidst the gamut of scene-changing American Thrash albums that arrive that year, an NWOBHM band hailing from Newcastle in the UK, brazenly calling themselves the most Metal of things – Satan – quietly release their incredible debut, Court In The Act. Unjustifiably overlooked at the time, it is hailed by many today as a genre classic, and though followed by a handful of strong albums, it always beckoned for a true sequel to emerge. Thirty years later, we have that album, Life Sentence, a tour-de-force of British iron that is in every way it’s predecessor’s match. Worm Gear picked the brain of one-half of the dual guitar attack, Steve Ramsey, for his thoughts on both albums, and just where Satan (the band) fits in the annals of Hell’s Unhallowed Music Hall. -Jim

Greetings! Thanks for taking the time for this interview, and congratulations on the impending release of the amazingly strong Life Sentence; I consider the album to be one of 2013’s strongest thus far. As Heavy Metal’s reach has widened via the internet, other bands such as yours that have disbanded and reformed are putting out new recordings. The quality of most of these attempts to recapture the magic have been, in most cases, uneven at best, whereas Life Sentence is every bit the worthy successor of Court In The Act. What sort of studio preparation – physically, mentally, or otherwise – did it take to create songs that would not only retain the debut’s quality, but also remain connected with the groundwork lain?

At first we couldn’t believe that the NWOBHM genre was becoming popular again, the wonders of the internet! We needed convincing at first and it was Oliver Weinsheimer, the guy that organizes the KEEP IT TRUE metal festival in Germany, that eventually persuaded us that this was true and there were a lot of fans that wanted to see Satan perform the songs from Court In The Act again. We were amazed at how many young fans were present at the show in 2011 and that they knew all the stuff we played and loved it. It was from there that we decided to do more shows and eventually start writing new material. We knew when we got together for the first rehearsal with all five original members that we still had something special going on as a band. We could still perform with that frantic energy that the band used to create back in the eighties. Initially we had not a single thought about writing a new album but inevitably Russ popped up with some new music to try out in rehearsal. It sounded cool (it was what would eventually be the first song on the album ‘Time To Die’) and just like the old material from back then. We decided that we would continue to write and make what we thought could have been the follow up to CITA. We laid a few ground rules during the composing of the music and writing of the lyrics as for one we are all better and more accomplished musicians now and didn’t want that to interfere with the making of the album, only enhance it. We stuck to the same lyrical themes with the overall concept of injustice, and the devil as the judge to represent that too in the artwork. Musically there were a few ideas and processes we thought we wouldn’t have used like drop or down tuning of the guitars so the whole album is played in concert pitch. It was easy to know what to stick to like long embellished solo sections and twin guitar harmonies, and up tempo songs with frenetic riffing. It was more the things not to do that we considered. One song on the album, ‘Tears of Blood’, has a main riff that I originally wrote in odd time and we decided to straighten it out because we wouldn’t have written it like that back then. We recorded the whole album in a small demo studio in Newcastle above the place that we hire rooms to rehearse in. I was skeptical at first but our drummer Sean had done some recording up there and said the engineer had a good ear and the right gear to get the sound of the band as we sound live and in rehearsals. It turned out to be a great idea and the compromise was that we send it over to Italy for Dario Mollo to mix it. That was who Graeme our bass player and I had worked with on the last two Skyclad albums which we are very pleased with. It was a really relaxed way to do an album; the drums were done in two separate sessions, and the result was just what we were looking for. If the album hadn’t sounded like that and couldn’t have been deemed as the follow up to CITA it wouldn’t have seen the light of day. We knew we could be heading for a fall so were very cautious in our approach to making the album. We’re not a young band trying to get somewhere and be successful so it was all for the love of doing it.

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The overt melodicism of some NWOBHM bands can, for me, lessen the impact of their albums over the long term, as my own tastes usually lend themselves to the more extreme sounds of Metal. However, I can return to Court In The Act (and Life Sentence) again and again due to the very potent proto-thrash vibe snaking its way through Satan’s song structures. How did this special tenet find its way into your playing in the early ’80s, when Thrash as we know it today was in its infancy?

There was no such term or genre as Thrash when we wrote the first album. We were very young; I was 18 years old when we recorded CITA. We’d only started playing at 15 and a lot of the early stuff we learned was punk. We liked a lot of it and it was easy to play. Our first gig at school was a set of four songs, Paranoid – Black Sabbath, ‘Pinhead – The Ramones, Motorhead – Motorhead and either Holiday In Cambodia – Dead Kennedys or ‘Doctor Doctor – UFO as far as I can remember. As we developed our playing technique we started to play more difficult metal stuff that we were mainly into by then and that tested us more. Speed then became a feature, how fast can we play that new riff etc. which is one of the key elements of Thrash. In a way we were trying to push things to the limit using an aggressive style of playing without losing the melody of the music. We we’re playing covers like ‘Kill The King’ by Rainbow, everything off the ‘Unleashed In The East’ album by Judas Priest, ‘The Trees’ by Rush and Black Sabbath and Motorhead too of course. These bands and styles all influenced our song writing inevitably and was a good mixture of stuff to glean from.

How has the balance of an all-important aggressive edge, coupled with ample amounts of melody, maintained its foothold in your songwriting throughout the years?

I think if you get that in your blood it’s difficult to not want to let it all out. You develop an ear to hear a harmony for every tune you hear or write, and the edginess becomes your style of playing in a way.

Age is the enemy of us all, therefore the physical limits of tools we employ to create art tend to come to the forefront as the number of our days steadily decrease. Thus one of the most surprising aspects of Life Sentence remains Brian Ross’ seemingly immortal throat, belting out harmonious and tasteful vocals with as much aplomb as he did thirty years ago. It’s as if he has lifted a middle finger to the ravages of time, proclaiming ‘These pipes shall not diminish!’ While the capabilities of others in your peer group have rusted away, how has Brian’s vocal resiliency stood fast?

It is an amazing phenomenon. He looks after his voice but not in any extreme or new fangled way. I would go as far to say that it’s the best he’s ever sung and certainly the best he has ever recorded. Maybe it’s because he’s ‘In League with Satan’! Ha ha!

Satan’s output has been a stitch in Heavy Metal’s tapestry for three decades. That length of time – rare for any group of musicians – gives the band and its members a unique perspective upon this genre and its relevance that few others possess. What, if anything, did the term ‘Heavy Metal’ mean to you in the ’80s, and – if there is a difference – what do you feel it means today?

The types of rock music we grew up listening to in the seventies are what influenced us to pick up instruments and want to be in a band. The NWOBHM then the rise of Thrash are what came next in the eighties and that influenced the next generation. I still think of Heavy Metal as an aggressive but melodic form of rock music from the eighties. Thrash and speed influenced bands to become darker and aggressive in style and along with drop tuning the guitars created a lot of the newer styles. I like all of these styles but maybe our music is getting another listen to because like you said it has the aggression but also the melody which has become lost in a lot of the newer genres of metal.

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Like other NWOBHM bands, Satan covers a wide variety of topics, ranging from atomic warfare history in Court in the Act’s classic ‘Trial by Fire’ to possible dystopian futures as discussed in ‘Twenty Twenty Five’. But Satan also doesn’t shirk from closer-to-home themes such as the call for self-analysis in Life Sentence’s ‘Personal Demons’. Do you find that fantastic or historic elements in Heavy Metal connect with the listener as easily as ‘daily life’ topics? What particular subjects amongst Satan’s catalogue do you feel the most kinship with?

Personally I like lyrics to represent the music and not the other way round for Satan. The subject matter we choose for Satan’s lyrics is borne from the music and what we think will suit it. I’ve worked and composed in different ways with other bands but with Satan we are not trying to deliver a message through words only to make observations that the listener can connect with if they want to or not. I can’t pick a single topic out because I hope that all those that we cover suit the music we have made.

Despite the lyrical focus of any individual Satan song – be it historical, fantastical, personal, etc -when contemplating the words, I get the sense of being warned. Could warning the listener of folly in any way constitute a connecting thread of lyrical purpose between your albums? If not, and such a thread in fact exists, what would you consider it to be?

There is no intended thread. The lyrics are written by three different members of the band. Some of the lyrics on CITA were written when we were only 15 years old.

In light of the above-mentioned concepts, and the lack of any Black Metal-like worship of the Dark Lord to be found amongst your music, what meaning (if any) does the chosen name of the band hold for you?

Again, we were 15 when we came up with the name. At the time we thought it was the best ever name for a heavy metal band. It was only when people started connecting us with the occult that there was a problem. There was no such genre as Black Metal back then. My favorite band was Black Sabbath at the time and they weren’t devil worshippers as far as I could gather but had a name that suggested they may be the same as Satan. We wrote lyrics about the evil things that happen in the world by mankind’s own hand which was the only connection. We thought it was just heavy metal and nowadays it doesn’t seem to matter about our name to anyone. We get comments now saying what a great name for a metal band.

As with the vocals, truly face-flaying guitar work arises on each of Life Sentence‘s individual tracks. Case in point: the six-string freneticism found in abundance on ‘Testimony’. From where within do you and Russ pull in order to give your guitar-god moments Satan’s particular stamp (namely, riffs and leads imbued with a uniquely ‘smooth’ quality)? Do the same interior motivations employed by you during the time of Court In The Act remain similar when constructing albums today?

Russ and I learned to play guitar together from almost the start. He got a guitar and had been playing for a few months before I heard him play a couple of riffs and decided we were forming a band and subsequently got one myself. Neither of us had nor ever had any lessons. We learned together by ear listening to our favorite records. I remember us getting the Judas Priest ‘Unleashed In The East’ live album around 1979 and learning the whole thing from start to finish. He was Glen Tipton and played his parts and I K.K. Downing. That early Priest stuff really influenced our style of writing and playing. I suppose those factors attribute to us working so well together. When we get together and play now all of that comes back to us somehow.

Your 1983 debut turned the heads of understanding oldsters in its time, and to this day continues acquiring new converts to the Satan sound. Still, many American Metal fans remember the year only as the general drop-date of Metallica and Slayer debuts. Were you content with the amount of attention received then? In what way, if any, did the specter of competition after Court In The Act‘s release affect your drive as a band to make your own long-lasting mark?

We were a little disappointed back then especially by bad reviews of the album in the British press. That led us to changing our name and direction because we thought nobody wanted to hear what we had to offer back then. We were different to all of the other NWOBHM bands at the time. It wasn’t until later that we heard about a lot of American bands and fans liking the album, and the same thing elsewhere in Europe. Then we changed back to Satan where are hearts really were for the ‘Suspended Sentence’ album.

Band-Satan

As Satan’s place in the canon of Heavy Metal continues to rise along with the reputation of your essential-listening albums, so too does the visibility of Satan’s established legacy. Looking back, is there any one decision you’d like to change, musical or otherwise? Once we’ve all passed into ‘Another Universe’ (couldn’t resist!), what would you have future Metal fans think of when he or she considers Satan’s contributions to the genre?

Personally I think it’s bad to regret any decisions made in the past because it can’t be good for you in the long run. Learning from past decisions is by far a healthier attitude! I would like to think that eventually we will become more of a part of the ‘general’ history of our genre than we are considered now.

Once more, thanks for chatting with us. We here at Worm Gear wish you ongoing success for Life Sentence and afterward. As is our custom, you have the final word; feel free to come forth and plug, proselytize, put-down or pontificate!

We hope to be able to come and play in all of the countries we didn’t get a chance to first time round. See you on tour!

-Jim

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~ by cliftonium on April 24, 2013.

2 Responses to “Satan – Years of Steel, Years of Blood”

  1. Nice interview. It made me listen to Court in the Act again today. 😉

  2. Thanks for giving it a read, UA \m/ Hopefully, with the new album and tour, their reach will continue to lengthen across the Metal masses; they certainly deserve it! -Jim

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