To outsiders—you know, normals—goths and metalheads probably don’t seem that different. They’re each fringe subcultures composed of hordes dressed in black who listen to strange, angsty music that falls outside of mainstream pop convention. That’s the succinct summary, anyway, and it’s not really all that absurd on its face. That’s not totally true, at least once you get down to the nitty-gritty of what’s in everyone’s headphones or part of their weekend plans, but close enough to true that it leads to natural questions of why metal and goth don’t cross over more often. Earlier in the decade, bands such as In Solitude and Tribulation each lent some credence to the idea that the post-punk songwriting sensibilities of Joy Division and Sisters of Mercy were a natural fit with the classic heavy metal of Mercyful Fate. And I’ve definitely seen proof of that kind of audience crossover firsthand—back when I was DJing a monthly goth night in San Diego a couple years ago, several of our regulars were notably absent on the night King Diamond was performing.
Though several bands before them cleared the cobwebs of the hallowed halls of heavy metal and gothic rock, Philadelphia’s Devil Master have crafted the most natural blend of punk, proto-black metal and death rock of any band in recent memory. The band’s EP compilation Manifestations, released last year on Relapse, showcased their raw and aggressive blend of dark metal at its dirtiest, a lo-fi glimpse into their chamber of horrors that provided plenty of ghoulish thrills on its own, yet suggested how much more the band could be capable of with a bigger studio budget. Satan Spits on Children of Light is realization of that potential, a 13-track horror-thrash carnival ride that never shakes off its evil aesthetics even when the band sound like they’re having far more fun than any supposedly “evil” metal band would let on.
Devil Master play up the camp value early on Satan Spits, its introductory track “Listen, Sweet Demons…” a spooky piano instrumental that conjures images of dripping candelabras on rickety haunted house stairs. Once the album gets going in earnest, however, it moves at the pace of a punk record—that is, a punk record with teased hair and fishnet gloves. “Nightmares in the Human Collapse” is a blitzkrieg introduction to the band’s ferociously maniacal deathpunk. The band sound like they’re racing each other to the finish, only to bleed into a song with an even faster-sounding introduction, “Black Flame Candle.” By the time the band reaches “Devil Is Your Master,” they’ve settled into a kind of groove. Well, less of a groove than a relentless gallop, guided by the vile bark of vocalist Disembody.
When the band are given a little more space to indulge atmospheric horror over jump scares, they make great use of the gothic aesthetic they cultivate throughout the album. Though just about every proper song is awash in chorus pedal glimmer, on tracks like “Skeleton Hand” or “Christ’s Last Hiss,” Devil Master sound as much Siouxsie as they do Slayer, basking in stylized gloom in addition to some classic death metal riffs. Yet what stands out strongest on the band’s best songs are their hooks; “Desperate Shadow” is among the catchiest metal tracks to be released of late, and while there’s nothing about the song that feels terribly mainstream-friendly, it’s the kind of rowdy anthem you can easily imagine kids losing their shit over in the pit. As they should. The same can be said of “Her Thirsty Whip,” which boasts a riff for the ages.
By Devil Master’s own account, they’re a band comprising several practitioners of magic and one actual Satanist. That suggests they take what they do very seriously, and based on how well they pull it off, there’s no denying that point. But that’s not to say there’s anything dire or morose about what they do. Much like classic death metal, or old-schoolers like Mercyful Fate or Venom, Devil Master embrace morbid absurdity and feed it through a series of chorus-pedal goth punk throwdowns. There will be more ambitious metal albums this year, more spiritually profound or simply heavier one, but it’s a rare metal album to come along that’s this fun to listen to.
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.