Of the two main vocalists who helmed the mic for Saint Vitus, not to demean Christian Lindersson too much but he only really sang on the one album, there’s always been a healthy debate between which one of them was the better, more fitting singer and how that informed the albums. The difference musically between the two isn’t as drastic as some say – Vitus, for all of their virtues, were never a band who were prone to radical change. They went out, tweaked a couple of things, and promptly always returned with their signature blend of Sabbathian-meets-hardcore-gutter-dweller doom metal. All of their albums have definite identities that assert themselves, but they are also a band who stubbornly and resolutely stuck to their guns in the face of hostile punk crowds and a mainstream metal scene that didn’t give a fuck about them between the glam and thrash metal bandwagons. Suddenly Born too Late starts making a whole lot more sense then with that in mind.
Nonetheless, though, there is still a perceptible difference between what Scott “Wino” Weinrich brought to the band compared to his predecessor. His voice is pretty different on its own to start with – nasal but a little bit lower, and perhaps more quintessentially rugged – and consequently brought a different vibe to the band even if the vocal lines themselves aren’t employed that differently. The Scott Reagers albums, with their emphasis on the occult and spirituality, bring to mind watching a fine horror film on a cheap, shitty second gen VHS tape that pops, cracks and has grain that somehow feels more eerie than if you were watching it in pristine 1080p. Wino, on the other hand, brought a sense of despair that feels more working class-adjacent than anything else. The kind where you work a shitty job that barely pays enough to live on and not enough to meaningfully save up for anything. You get drunk night in and night out on shitty cheap beer (and if you’re lucky, maybe some whiskey) to numb the sense of smoldering rage deep down in the pit of your stomach. There’s a sense of passive-aggressive, languid hopelessness around the Wino albums that the Reagers releases don’t quite have (with the arguable exception of Die Healing), and in its own respect it was as influential on later doom bands as a vibe to capture as any of Chandler’s mutant chromatic-blues riffs were directly. Cathedral’s Forest of Equilibrium, in particular, comes across more as a direct heir to these albums as much as a force that similarly influenced legions of doom bands afterward (to say nothing of some of the major Finnish doom bands who ended up adopting the banner as well).
For my part, i’ve come around to the idea that this might be the best record of the Wino albums. At the very least it is 1A to B with its predecessor. It’s true that Mournful Cries isn’t as instantly iconic as Born too Late was – admittedly, there isn’t a song on here that’s as immediately band/genre defining as, say, that title track or “Dying Inside” is. Obviously, I’m not here to dump all over that record or even V (a fantastic and unfortunately overlooked record that has some of their finest work). For my part though, part of what makes Mournful Cries work is that it’s an incredibly well paced record that doesn’t really have any real weak spots. None of the six songs on it are bad, really, and despite the relative length of a few of them, it never becomes aimless through its most slothful tempo. The key to a lot of great doom is being able to maintain a sense of consistent direction and focus, with the riffing and the ability for everything else in the song to stem from that. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing the dualistic minimal/maximalist approach of, say, Reverend Bizarre, the grandeur of Candlemass, or the snappy pacing of Trouble. And Vitus, even with their lethargic songwriting that oozes and crawls from part to part, riff to riff, understood this as much as anybody. That they did without ever losing the feeling of just intuitively emerging from jamming while high on cheap resin is part of the band’s charm.
As importantly as all of that, Mournful Cries has a ton of memorable stuff on it, far moreso than its reputation as an undercooked follow up to its predecessor. Vitus is a band who have an inimitable grasp of crafting hooky material, even if doesn’t shove it in your face. It’s Dave Chandler’s riffwriting, as it always comes down to – the man, as mentioned last time with the 1984 Self-Titled, is simply one of the all-time masters of crafting slow, simple, and endlessly satisfying riffs. There’s no reason for them to be like that, and yet stuff like, say, the refrain riff in “Dragon Time” or that grotesque, distended main riff in “Shooting Gallery” find a way to get stuck in your head. He has a brilliant knack of using “negative space” – the space between the notes in the riff – that unfailingly and unflinchingly conveys the sense of anguish without being undignified about it. In some respects it’s the most obvious link between Vitus and, say, Black Flag’s sludgiest work. Part of it is that this is also a fairly varied record as well – a fair bit of up-tempo, more aggressive material presents here and it works as well at contrasting the despair with burning, churning anger.
In some respect a lot of it comes down to Wino’s input on the writing – he cowrote “Bitter Truth” and “Looking Glass” on here and even contribute some guitar on there, if I’m not mistaken. The touch that Wino brought, not just vocally but as a writer in his own right is something that helps further establish this album’s identity. “Bitter Truth” in particular is one of the more underrated Vitus gems in their discography, from an opening acoustic passage that evokes its namesake to the way it just crude crashes into a Chandler solo and the main riff of the song; Wino’s tale of woe underlines everything. The opening one-two of “The Creeps” and “Dragon Time” is, similarly, one of the better moments of their discog – the former of the two might be one of their fastest songs, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean a ton with them, it’s still a startlingly spry opener. There’s a sort of strange, lopsided groove that works perfectly off Chandler’s main riff, and that weird stinted slamming beat the band drops into for the bridge and the following solo rules hard.
“Dragon Time” meanwhile has one of the real earworm choruses of the band’s career – “It’s Dragon Time in the Village tonight…”, and again, the way the vocals and guitars mirror each other. In some respects it’s one of the most overtly melodic Vitus songs and has a unique vibe all its own. “Shooting Gallery”, meanwhile, is the real star of the album – a nearly ten-minute tale built entirely around that disgusting, distended tritone of a main riff; everything revolves around it as it tells its tale of hard lives lost to drugs and despair. The protagonist front and row, for all of it. It’s astonishingly good and one where the pure lethargy works perfectly for what it conveys. Similarly, “The Troll” returns to the same sort of well that defined “Born too Late” through its central metaphor, and it carries with it a bevy of excellent riffs throughout.
This really is a phenomenal record and it’s a bit of a shame it exists in the shadow of its predecessor. It’s surely as good at the very least; definitely isn’t the “leftovers” album that I always took it for. Vitus doesn’t really have a bad album, though – several ones less than “great”, sure, but none of them are particularly awful listens (even COD, for how overlong and anemic the production is, has some excellent material on it). Mournful Cries is one of their best; don’t sleep on it.
Favorite Track: “Shooting Gallery”