Coven’s “Satanic Mass” put witchcraft on wax
I don’t have clear memories of the Satanic Panic as it was happening. It started shortly before I was born, with the publication of the book Michelle Remembers, an infamous and widely discredited account of abuse through ritual Satanism as recollected through repressed memory therapy. And its very literal witch hunts began not long thereafter, but as a phenomenon that happened during my lifetime, it felt mostly like something that occurred in the background. My awareness was based mostly on references on TV and in movies, mostly in passing, but I don’t ever remember being afraid of the devil or Hell or anything like that. By the time I was in junior high and my friends had started listening to Slayer records with pentagrams on the cover, it just seemed like the natural order of things: Listening to loud music that invokes the name of the dark lord is just kind of what teenagers do.
The Satanic Panic was a big deal, of course, jeopardizing people’s careers and lives and casting blame toward people who didn’t do anything wrong. A recent rewatch of Unsolved Mysteries helped partially jog my memory of how prevalent the devil’s specter was in the ’80s and early ’90s, with a handful of murders being blamed by unreliable witnesses on “Satanic cults” (sometimes to the chagrin of actual investigators). And music, naturally, wasn’t exempt from this evangelistic campaign, with artists like Mercyful Fate singled out by the PMRC for their unwholesome content. The image of Satan is a powerful one—just the mere suggestion tends to make people uncomfortable or, more dangerously, scared.
Though hysteria reached a fever pitch in the 1980s, Satan’s been a popular bogeyman since the invention of Christianity. He’s also been just as effective a tool in the service of subversive and/or escapist entertainment, and as a countercultural symbol. We recognize Satan as an ever-present icon of heavy metal, and before metal there was occult rock, a kind of offshoot of acid rock and prog-rock that openly embraced satanic or supernatural imagery before they had the Boss distortion tone to match it. Groups like Black Widow and Blue Öyster Cult essentially created the template for heavy metal’s fascination with all things evil (and cool logos, for that matter), but even before that, Chicago’s Coven advocated for witchcraft and dark rituals through their own psychedelic rock sound.
Heavy metal didn’t quite exist yet when Coven formed; it’d be a year after the band’s debut that Black Sabbath would release their own template for doom metal. And though the two bands were kindred spirits in a sense—in addition to the fact that both bands had songs titled “Black Sabbath,” and that Coven’s bassist bore the name “Oz” Osborne—Coven’s sound didn’t have the roaring intensity of metal. I’ve seen them described as “Satanic Jefferson Airplane,” and that’s not too off the mark, particularly given singer Jinx Dawson’s own impressive set of pipes, in league with Grace Slick in her prime. Thematically, however, the band’s debut Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls is entirely concerned with, well, witchcraft and reaping souls, right down to the poster insert depicting a nude Dawson on an altar as the band performs a dark ritual.
Though there’s nothing particularly scary, musically, about the album, Coven pulled out all the stops for the final track on the album, titled “Satanic Mass,” and which is presented as an actual black mass. Now, to clarify, it isn’t a song at all, but a 13-minute recording of a dark ritual: dramatic chanting both in Latin and in English, hearty recitations of “Hail Satan!” and at one moment even some vastly more unsettling wailing. Under the right circumstances, its freakiness is undeniable, particularly after partaking in a drug or two, dusting off the old Ouija board and turning out all the lights. But on a sunny afternoon without the proper mood enhancement, it feels a bit more like a radio play. A dramatic, unsettling radio play, but a studio production regardless.
“Satanic Mass” on first listen feels like a musical equivalent to Cannibal Holocaust or The Blair Witch Project, a stylized piece of found footage that’s effective in its ability to give its audience a good creep-out. And it certainly proved convincing enough for the public at large, which ended up being to the detriment of the band. The album’s release suffered the unfortunate coincidence of being released shortly before the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by followers of Charles Manson, and with the occult connections causing something of a pre-Satanic Panic in the summer of 1969, the album was pulled from distribution shortly after its release.
In spite of the backlash, Coven still broke a record of sorts, laying claim to the first commercial release of a black mass on record. And though from a record company standpoint the curiosity and shock value might have been the primary factors in breaking such unholy ground, Dawson herself has been outspoken about her sincerity in her interest in witchcraft and the Left Hand Path. “I grew up quickly around the Olde Ones—my two great aunts who were Left Hand Path adepts,” she said in an interview with Metal Hammer. “I stayed and learned at their mansion as much as I was allowed. I soaked it all up and it became a passion. Their Magick was infectious and powerful.”
More than 50 years after the band’s debut, Dawson and a new lineup of Coven still incorporate the “Satanic Mass” into their live show as an intro, with Dawson stepping out of a coffin to make her entrance. Whatever your take on the devil—pro, con, or agnostic—that’s an image that’ll stay with you.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.