The slow and stoned sound of Saint Vitus — born too late, or too early?
MUSIC The Bay Area has a strange relation with its musical past — accounts of Phil Lesh's recent somnambulation among the living attest to this, but the same can be said about much of the past 10 years. For better or worse, as the early '00s crawled back into the woods to die, many of us were left with the impression that the past 10 years were composed of a series of disorganized, vaguely parasitic gestures, a theme party where every group of new guests seems to ape a different decade. Was this an era where mainstream pop music spun its wheels, the occasional ingenious act breaking free from its orbit and gaining some degree of forward drive?
This was also a decade that saw heavy metal — as a music, aesthetic sensibility, and subculture — grow in labyrinthine complexity. Perhaps the hallmark of this growth was an awareness of its immediate history, redirecting its typical drive toward progress, increasing its speed and techniques with mechanized precession, into an exploration of the forgotten pathways and alcoves of its byzantine evolution.
It's no coincidence that the emergence of a group of historically-aware metal titans ran parallel with the publication of several fantastic metal histories (Ian Christe's 2003 Sound of the Beast being probably the most well known), a string of successful reunions and new releases from reenergized legends (Maiden, Priest, Dio Sabb ... er, Heaven and Hell), and — what I would argue is most interesting — an influx of creative energy directed toward the supremely retrograde doom metal subgenre. Reemerging from the movement is Saint Vitus, a band that in many ways is the spiritual ancestor to this much-welcome ongoing metal mutation.
Though Saint Vitus' slow, stoned sound had been marinating in fuzzy '70s goodness, the band's Scott "Wino" Weinrich-fronted classic lineup came into its own on SST Records, a label dedicated to pushing the boundaries of rock. In many ways, the members of Saint Vitus were the shitty longhairs at the party. The same year the group released its monolithic Born Too Late (SST, 1987), not to mention three years after the release of fragmentary, futuristic milestones like Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, SST was busy signing Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth.
On the metal side of the spectrum, Vitus was inevitably entrenched in the thick of the famed "growing arms race" of efficient, mechanized speed and aggression that defined progress in terms of BPMs. The emerging stoner doom set, which Vitus was in the process of engendering, erected towering, sustained riffs in the classical (metal) mode, watching them deteriorate after the initial attack, fading back into the mix's opaque bass drone. In many ways, doom metal's current obsession with the sound of decay can be traced to Saint Vitus' still-audible feedback.
"Born Too Late," the title track off of the group's 1987 SST release (and the first Vitus record featuring Wino on vocals), expresses the genre's sense of temporal exile. The verse deals with this disjoint on a surface level — the hypothetical peanut gallery hassles Wino over his long hair and clothes — but behind the sartorial concerns, there's something gripping about the band's conception of its place in time. The main chord progression is the kind of tough, three-power-chord stomp we've heard hundreds of times before in heavy rock, yet Dave Chandler allows each of the foreboding chords to linger, reverberating against the persistent low-end and metronome drumming, treating his SG like a monstrous 500-year-old pipe organ in the process. The riff is played with a cumulative power, repeatedly driving the chord progression into the song's landscape; as one chord dissociates, another materializes to take its place. Wino howls that he was born too late, that he'll never be like you; the last syllable devolves into an abstract growl, and Chandler annihilates the history of the song with an atonal, dive bomb solo.
While "Born Too Late" may have become the unofficial anthem of both Saint Vitus and perhaps the whole doom metal sensibility, "Living Backwards," the opening track on its less famous but still awesome V (Hellhound, 1989), further articulates this nebulous relationship with time. Is the band moving backward through looking ahead, creating the forward momentum through facing backwards? Or, like the paradoxical title, does the band's obsessive cycling back to metal's origin point roll the group forward into the avant garde terrain of '80s underground rock? Not incidentally, "Living Backwards" is probably Saint Vitus' most driving song.
Of the three acts opening for Saint Vitus on its upcoming date at the DNA Lounge, Saviours' music articulates this strange relationship to past and future in some of the most exciting ways. (Also on the bill are subtle, unsettling funeral doom masters Laudanum and Dusted Angel, a stony five-piece featuring members of Vitus' SST Records contemporaries Bl'ast!.) Though by no means entrenched in the tradition of glacial, cavernous riffing, Saviours' historically savvy songwriting approach picks up from the backward-facing cycles that wheeled Saint Vitus into new creative terrain.
Saviours' most recent release, Accelerated Living (Kemado, 2009) is damn close to being the perfect heavy metal record, an overgrown wilderness of exceedingly heavy riffs that traverse the genre's 40-plus years in existence. The metal-attuned ear can discern everything from Thin Lizzy to Slayer in the mix (as the band is from the Bay Area, I'd like to imagine I can even hear shades of Blue Cheer's late, great Dickie Petersen in Austin Barber's vocals). But, like any of the group's guitar solos, the real explosive chemistry of this combination of patterns is unpredictable — the result is as heavy as it is timeless, a vision of heavy metal not segregated through arbitrary demarcations, but rather metal as a continuum, a nebulous, interwoven chain radiating from a dim, misremembered past. Accelerated living backwards?
With Saviours, Laudanum, Dusted Angel
Fri/29, 8 p.m. (doors 7:30 p.m.), $15–$20
375 11th St., SF