Satan had a rather convoluted history – they changed their name pretty often depending on the prevailing style shift between albums and sometimes lineup changes; when Brian Ross left right after this album, Lou Taylor hooked back up with the rest of the band and they put out the lone album as Blind Fury. Then he left, and they did an EP and an album with Michael Jackson (not that one, of course) before changing their name to Pariah, etc. I think it’s fair to say that constantly name changes and general lineup instability sort of hurt the band in trying to be commercially successful. Of course, that has always meant roughly jack shit in metal’s case; the history of the genre is replete with lost classics that didn’t get lucky with the backing of big corporate bucks.
Ultimately, the greatest NWOBHM album of the movement always deserves to be noted, and as far as I’m concerned, that album is Court in the Act. A pretty tall claim to make, given the existence of bands like Iron Maiden, Venom, Diamond Head, Angel Witch; really at the very least probably a dozen others you’d want to list off. Satan was as good, if not outright better, than all of those bands though and the musical quality of this record reflects it. Court in the Act is an album that is equal parts full of dazzling, complicated harmonies and tearing, razor sharp riffing. It’s a record full of blistering yet innately musical solos, and never sacrifices the sense of physicality or onward momentum that drives most metal forward either. For 1983 it’s a ferociously contemporary record – an album that wasn’t afraid to throw in the odd thrash riff right as that movement was about to surge and take over the metal underground for much of the rest of the decade (of course, Satan wrote a huge number of these tunes back in like, 1981, which sort of underlines the fact that they were pretty ahead of the curve). It’s elegiac and strangely mournful in weaving its tales of backstabbing deceit and tragedy, and never sacrifices a raw, visceral quality either.
Even from when the first riff of “Trial by Fire” rolls in, it’s apparent these guys were just somehow a cut above much of the NWOBHM. That song is built around a harmonized riff that’s the main theme of the song, contrasted with a verse riff that’s mercilessly cutting and charging. The way they alternate between the two and the way the rest of them contrast is the core of the song. Instead of using their technique to fill out their songs with pointless padding, Satan uses it in a way that underlines the fluidity of their songcraft and the ease of movement between the individual passages, even within the most obviously anthemic NWOBHM rocker tunes. They’re flashy, intricate players, but it’s purely in service to what the core songwriting is conveying already, with a ton of attention paid to how the leads and harmonies work off the rhythm guitar and bass/drumming throughout. It only occurred to me rather recently that what Satan does here almost feels like a direct precursor to the style that Helstar also perfected with their final two records of the 80s. Different styles at the end of the day, but the same skill and patience applied to marrying flash and aggression without sacrificing pacing or memorability.
That’s also the big thing about this record: it’s flashy and melodic, stuffed to the gills with memorable leads and harmonies, but it’s also goddamned aggressive and doesn’t bother pulling any punches along the way. The opening riffs to both “Blades of Steel” and “Broken Treaties” are straight up thrash riffs, and even by 1983 they’re jarringly vicious ones that slice forth and cut up anything in their path. The way the band alternate and move around even the most aggressive rhythms is incredibly distinct and memorable. There’s no wasted movement or even really overthinking things; you hear it, you immediately “get” the riffing and how innately memorable it is throughout. Even the archetypical NWOBHM rockers don’t really feel tethered to rock, unlike most other NWOBHM songs in that vein. Sure, they’re verse/chorus, with the latter being a little bit more anthemic than the norm. But again, there’s a level of fluidity with which the band move between passages that, when paired with the rather aggressive drumming that emphasizes athleticism and hitting power over swing and groove, makes it feel more distinctly metallic than, say, Diamond Head’s examples in this vein. Not that it’s inherently better, per se, but it definitely feels like that this band moved things in a direct more purely metallic than before. (to use another example that also happens to include Brian Ross, compare the “rockers” on Blitzkrieg’s A Time of Changes to this album and the differences in delivery couldn’t be more striking) Most NWOBHM rockers offered the promise of a good time, same as much of the rock music they descended from. Satan’s idea of a Real Cool Time sounds like it involved knives or some shit like that.
The point of much of this rambling is that Court in the Act showcases an incredible kind of variety and memorability throughout its running time, yet in doing so it never really ends up sacrificing cohesiveness in mood and tone throughout the record. Whether it’s Brian Ross’s strangely elegiac, mournful yet powerful vocal delivery – perhaps the most jarring falsettos for effect in metal outside of King Diamond’s best work, and masterfully executed all the same – the incredible guitar work or the lithe yet powerful rhythm section, the band always knows what they’re doing and where they’re going. This grim, vaguely fatalistic atmosphere the album puts forth, that of universal judgement and eventual justice against the wicked eventually comes into full focus for its final three songs.
“The Ritual” is a blazing, cutting instrumental that features arguably the most memorable harmony of the entire record, and it returns to it constantly as its core theme of the track. Everything springs from it or in direct response to it, and the way the band burns through it is precise yet urgent; again, no wasted motion. “Dark Side of Innocence” is a little dark acoustic segue that’s used to build mood and tension for the final track, “Alone in the Dock”. Much like the previous two tracks, Satan abandon verse/chorus almost entirely for it, letting Ross’s voice and the guitars dictate the inevitable course of the song. It patiently unfolds along its course, not exactly in doom fashion but as something more brooding and ominous. It slowly builds and builds in its intensity, even as the bursts of lead work do something to alleviate it. Eventually it finally comes to a crescendo during its final verse, which bursts out in grimly ecstatic fashion as the protagonist of the song receives his final verdict for a lifetime of wrongs. It’s one of those things that builds up so naturally, effortlessly and with such immaculate skill that you can’t really be helped but be taken aback by it. “Alone in the Dock” is one of the best metal songs of all time, one of the relative few you could probably listen to 10 times in a row and discover something new and brilliant about it all the while.
The NWOBHM produced an untold number of brilliant recordings and incredible albums, when all is said and done – again, you could go blue in the face listing a bunch of em and you would probably overlook an album somewhere. But this one is the top of the heap. Classy, intricate and memorable songwriting, top performances without succumbing to self-indulgence, a brilliant vocal performance – Court in the Act has it all and then some. I guess the only real ding about it is that the production is slightly muffled, but really, it’s not terrible sounding. It gives everything a convincingly earthy kind of quality, with everything necessary still fully audible. Better that than some glossy triggered up compressed pile of plastic nonsense anyway. Unforgettable record, buy or die etc. you don’t need me to tell you these things.
Favorite track: Alone in the Dock