Review Summary: A crown jewel of the NWOBHM.
Though many talented bands emerged from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the early 80s, most have slowly and perhaps unfairly been buried by dust and time. Newcastle’s Satan remains a prime example, despite consistently putting out strong material well into the modern era. Through lineup changes and even temporary rebrandings to the names Blind Fury under a more AOR-esque sound and later Pariah as a power/thrash outfit, they have only continued to build on the legacy of their cult classic debut, 1983’s Court in the Act. Satan’s effort here combines aggression with refined songwriting and ends up being a worthy rival to more legendary contemporaries such as Iron Maiden, Savatage and Mercyful Fate.
From its opening song, Trial By Fire, the album already surprises with its mix of keen melody and frantic proto-thrash riffs that go toe to toe with Metallica’s Kill Em All at its most intense. It always throws a curveball the listener’s way in the form of a surprising bass harmony or seamlessly inserting a more pensive melodic section that still fits the atmosphere of the album, providing a mournful and trepidatious edge to its dynamic yet fiery proceedings. A tonally appropriate and captivating success given the particular focus this album has lyrically on injustice in all forms and personal strife. Between the occasional occult vibe and the relatively complex approach to music, comparisons to Mercyful Fate’s Melissa could be made, yet what sets Court in the Act apart is its more down to earth tone. Satan pull it off naturally and without compromise, and manage to really cut their own niche in the process.
To that end, the vocals also capture that sorrowful texture while still being endearing. The singing is compelling without being as larger than life as the powerhouse performances of Bruce Dickinson or King Diamond. Indeed, Brian Ross' softer mid-range vocals give added character to an album like this where other approaches perhaps might have not. Besides, he still brings a fair amount of charming swagger and attitude along with some impressive high screams on tracks like the martial Broken Treaties, the progressive closer Alone in the Dock or the searing masterclass of early power/speed metal that is Break Free.
Of course, while it is easy to rain superlatives on this album’s highlights, it’s also very consistent even in its “weaker” moments. On some NWOBHM records (e.g. Holocaust’s 1981 The Nightcomers) the ambitious and carefully constructed tracks may be interspersed with more banal hard rockers making for an uneven listening experience. Even Iron Maiden’s debut kind of falls victim to this a bit with Running Free. The two songs that somewhat resemble that here, No Turning Back and Hunt You Down, are rockier in tone for sure but contain many of the qualities that make the rest of the album notable. There are a lot of great rhythms and inventive lead playing on both with the tense melodic bridge on Hunt You Down actually being one of my favorite moments on the album, even if the song itself still isn’t close to being my favorite on Court.
At no point do Satan rest on their laurels or phone it in, thus separating themselves from a lot of their peers in this regard. The result is an album that still feels remarkably contemporary, especially with all of the new Haunts and Eternal Champions from the new wave of traditional heavy metal bands who could still learn a thing or two.