There aren’t a ton of doom metal bands more revered than Saint Vitus, and it is for good reason. Of Black Sabbath’s disciples in the 80’s, they are perhaps the most honest and soulful of the bunch, if not exactly a 1:1 copy of the original masters. Rather, what Vitus did is that they applied the atonality, loose song structure, and just pure griminess of American punk to the emerging doom metal format at a time in the 80’s when the early bands were forging their own styles and defining the subgenre on their own terms. If Black Sabbath was earthy and honest, then Vitus took it in a relative direction and imbued the genre with a far more street level, gutter-dwelling sound than what the other doom bands were doing around the same time. Their music lumbers and, in its slowest moments, oozes in a way that’s very different from the likes of what, say, Witchfinger General or Pentagram were doing around the same time. More so than anybody else in doom metal, you can draw a straight line from Vitus to the likes of early Cathedral, and onto most of the later Finnish doom metal scene – Reverend Bizarre certainly took more than a few notes from them.
It’s a testament to Vitus’s songwriting skills that they managed to forge their own style without it becoming redundant over such a long career. To wit: Vitus never really changed their style that much – the difference between the Scott Reagers and Scott “Wino” Weinrich eras are not actually as drastic as one believes at first. Yet in their prime, they’d always make a few subtle tweaks to their approach and would unfailing come out with an album that always had a distinct sense of identity of its own, almost every year or every other year. That might sound easy on paper, but it’s difficult staying consistent like that in practice, and arguably a harder path than making an endless series of Big Dramatic Stylistic Shifts in order to flex your Big Dramatic Artistic Credibility. It’s not for nothing, Vitus certainly weren’t a band who were afraid of how others perceived them – indeed, they were on SST and largely hated by punk conformists for their first tour. Guitarist and main songwriter Dave Chandler had even said it wasn’t until they toured in support of Hallows Victim that the punk scene began coming around to the band’s approach.
As such, their 1984 self-titled debut showcases a band who is already fully formed in style, scope and emotional depth/mood. To write off Vitus as a band who’s writing and playing is as self-labored as that implies is wrong. However, their music seems almost born of the intuition of just getting together and jamming things out until the ideas ooze into place. There’s a definite sense of coherence to everything about the songwriting on this album, but the actual performances are so loose that it almost sounds as if they’re just improvising shit on the spot even if they actually aren’t. Chalk it up to the clumsy, almost stumbling swing of the rhythm section I suppose. The production job even further underlines this – bassy, warm, almost entirely lacking in treble outside of Chandler’s leads, and it just sounds like the band parked themselves in your living room and started bashing shit out. I forget where I heard that last one but it was one of the most apt descriptions of how this album sounded that I’ve ever seen.
Much is made about the differences between the two major Vitus vocalists – ignoring Lindersson on C.O.D. for a sec, and even so he’s kinda doing a Reagers-esque vocal impression anyway – but the real heart and soul of the band is Chandler’s guitar work. He’s obviously not a technical all star by the standards of doom; to focus on that however is to entirely miss the point. Chandler’s riffing took the formal Sabbathian style, all tritone-laden, and transformed the rest of it into liquid tar. They’re some of the most innately memorable riffs ever written, and when paired with the aforementioned swing of the rhythm section, gave Vitus a kind of oozing quality that is halfway between prior metal bands and their then-label-mates on SST Records. To put it like this: it probably shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that they covered Black Flag a few years after this album with Wino. Even on this album, they already shared a particular kinship with punk, much to the protestations of conformists on both sides and his solos are some of the most directly vivid I’ve ever laid ears on. Ragged atonal squaking with a wah-wah pedal, with the barest traces of blues melody tying everything vainly together and it’s some of the most raw, rugged shit ever. Every Chandler solo seems like it should be the same thing and, unflinchingly, it works perfectly for every song they appear in. Who gives a shit if it’s rough and nasty, I’d rather listen to this man tear it up with his teeth than listen to a pile of wanky, pampered twiddling that does nothing but go meedley-mee~.
Make no mistake about it: this is a doom metal album through and through however, to the point where it is as purely elemental as the likes of Witchfinder General, or how Trouble or Candlemass would be hence. Vitus just happened to straddle the line between being soulful gutter dwellers and purveyors of a more mystical approach to the genre. Scott Reagers was the embodiment of that quality, by and large during this era of the band. He has a very distinctive voice that I’ve never been able to quite compare to anybody else – he doesn’t really have much range per se, but he has a really distinctly eerie tone to his voice that’s unsettling, especially once the band really starts going Low And Slow. If Wino sang like a man who’s lived under crushingly poverty and substance abuse his entire life, Reagers sings like a dude who spends his time tripping balls in the middle of graveyards and accidentally tapped into some shit he wasn’t supposed to ever know. There’s a crushingly eeriness when he starts singing “I have holes instead of eyeees” or “The psychopath… is youuuuuuuuuuuuuuu”, with virtually the perfect instincts for when to stretch out a word to suit the mood of a song. He’s not a technical wizard, and again, to harp on that is to miss the point. The point is the mood and emotion he conjures; on that count he is brilliant and was the right vocalist for this era of the band, in the same way how Wino became the right one for the albums he appeared on. While I certainly prefer the Reagers albums, for the record, writing off the Wino albums out of hand is openly clownish – he’s an excellent vocalist, and the albums he appeared on are similarly strong.
Vitus’s self titled is, of their discography, the one that is probably the most obviously “structured” of the bunch. It isn’t really a concept album on purpose, but it has an obvious running theme throughout – namely, it starts off kinda fast, and then proceeds to get slower, song by song, until it virtually collapses into the death march that is the bulk of “Burial at Sea”. It’s an album that feels even shorter than its relatively modest run time (around 35 mins, give or take), because the songs are constantly going somewhere and feel almost like they’re leading straight into the next one. The first two songs showcase the band at perhaps their most strident and hooky, even if they’re certainly more lumbering than lithe. Even still, the band showcases a natural flair for hooks that are virtually effortless in the context of their writing, in both riffwriting and vocal melody (Reagers really did have a knack for coming up with the exact right line/cadence to suit the rest of the band). It’s really during the outro to “White Magic/Black Magic”, when it collapses into slothful, trudging doom that the band really starts forcing the listener to sink into the tarpit. The insistent, lumber march of “Zombie Hunger” perfectly brings to mind corpses “walking by moonlight”; as cliché as it should be in the years since, this song conjures up the perfect feeling of wandering, ambient dread. Its main riff is one of the most simplistic and perfectly memorable ones out there, I think – almost comparable with Hellhammer in that regard – and Reagers drawing out his phrases for added effect is absolutely brilliant. It’s a song that flows so effortlessly that you almost don’t even notice time passing while it’s playing.
Meanwhile, “The Psychopath” starts off with the strangest melody of the album, a purely off-kilter figure that almost feels akin to a bell tolling before its actual main riff comes crashing straight in. The sort of draining, paranoid feeling that it brings forth is something that only really gains more power as it rolls along, its main riff and the rhythm section trudging along like a late-night walk before the chorus finally brings it into focus. It’s such a winding song and, more than any of the others, perhaps asks Reagers to carry much of it melodically; he does it almost flawlessly because again, he deals in pure mood and vibe, and the way he draws out certain syllables for effect underlines the creepiness of the song. “The Psy-CHO-path… is looooooooooooose” indeed. Between that and Chandler’s perfectly minimalist guitar work, that aforementioned sense of dread only gets deeper and deeper as it rolls along, and when it speeds up all psychedelic like with his solo towards the end, it feels like a proper, genuine climax.
For an album that is nothing but foundational doom, “Burial At Sea” is the most so of the bunch. That opening bass riff creaks and groans like the infirm boards of some long-forgotten galleon. Of the five, this is the most minimalist of the bunch – a verrrrrrry low-key riff wrapping itself around the bass-line, with distending tri-tone making itself felt behind Reagers’s voice is what carries the bulk of the song, conveying a sense of paralyzing dread at the oncoming doom. You see it coming and begin to scrabble desperately to avoid it – the middle section, where the band suddenly just speeds the fuck up for the first real time since “White Magic/Black Magic”, is a perfectly executed bit of contrast and highlights the sense of urgency and desperation at play, especially in Wino’s voice. The way the drums come just swinging in is incredible and so is Chandler’s noisy fuck off solo before the band trails off… only for the main riff to return. The onrushing doom, desperately pushed off, can only really be delayed for so long before it comes to claim you. And so the slow burn-down of the song, comes that distended tri-tone around the bass line releases all raggedly for its last moments before the darkness comes and ends it for good.
You know the answer to the question as to whether this is essential or not, so there isn’t realty any point in answering that. Vitus’s debut is a brilliant, monumental album that also exists as a foundation for many other brilliant bands to learn their craft from, and as a direct rebuke against the empty, plastic refuse that litters our day to day lives. Throw that bullshit and useless garbage aside and feel something that’s genuine for a change.
Favorite track: Zombie Hunger
Album rating: 96/100