Where to Start: Saint Vitus

Without a doubt, they’re the most pivotal doom band of all time who aren’t also Black Sabbath, but until recently, Saint Vitus wasn’t any kind of household name, even among metallers. Their sound has literally taken a generation to become properly appreciated, and with a whole league of bands out there playing a traditional doom style based in no small part on trying to emulate them, not to mention their ongoing reunion and resurgence, Saint Vitus are finally getting the recognition they’ve long deserved. They’re bigger in 2011 than they’ve ever been.

The band formed as Tyrant in 1978, with Dave Chandler on guitar, Mark Adams on bass, Armando Acosta on drums and Scott Reagers singing. That would be the lineup as well when, after a name change, Saint Vitus issued their self-titled debut on Greg Ginn of Black Flag‘s SST Records in 1984. That lineup also recorded 1985’s Hallow’s Victim (just recently officially released on CD for the first time) and the same year’s The Walking Dead EP, but by 1986’s Born too Late, Reagers was out of the picture and replaced by The Obsessed‘s Scott “Wino” Weinrich.

Weinrich would record a total of three studio LPs with Saint VitusBorn too Late, 1988’s Mournful Cries and 1990’s V — as well as the Thirsty and Miserable EP. Vitus put out C.O.D. with Christian Lindersson (later of Count Raven) on vocals in 1992 and reunited with Reagers for their final album before splitting up, 1995’s Die Healing, both on Hellhound Records.

2003 and 2009 brought reunions of the Weinrich-fronted lineup, and the latter seems to have stuck, despite the untimely 2010 death of Acosta, who’d already been replaced in the band by Henry Vasquez (Blood of the Sun) due to his failing health. With confirmation of a new studio album in the works and a high-profile slot on 2011’s Metalliance Tour, there’s no doubt that a lot of listeners are going to be exposed to Saint Vitus for the first time, either because they were too young to catch them originally or just missed out. Either way, we get the age-old question of where to start.

The debate has always been between Saint Vitus, the first album, and Born too Late, the first album with Wino, and rightfully so. Had Vitus released nothing but these two records in the course of their career, maybe they wouldn’t be heralded as the gods they are now, but they still would have been able to have a sizable impact on underground metal. Both albums are absolute classics in doom, and close to if not as essential for understanding what the essence of the genre is as Black Sabbath‘s Master of Reality or Volume 4, and that’s not a comparison lightly made.

So the scenario is this: You’re standing in front of the Saint Vitus section at your favorite record store (they still have those, right?), and you only have enough cash for one. You can’t decide. Sweat is pouring down your forehead. Oh, if only this place took credit cards! You need to choose. But which? Which will you get, Saint Vitus or Born too Late?

Get the self-titled. Get Saint Vitus, Saint Vitus.

In just five tracks, Saint Vitus manages to encompass everything doom could be and has been since, but even more than that, it’s that wail. People talk about shredding guitar soloists like Yngwie Malmsteen in terms of the “wailing guitars.” Not even close. Dave Chandler plays slow as fuck, and that’s how you wail. Other guitars? They’re just screaming, and they’re only doing it to hear themselves scream. When Chandler plays, it’s agony.

The tone he emits right from the opening chords of “Saint Vitus” has never been duplicated, despite the best efforts of who knows how many bands, and subsequent cuts “White Magic/Black Magic,” “Zombie Hunger,” “The Psychopath” and “Burial at Sea” are an absolute standard by which doom should be judged. The atmosphere of Saint Vitus is relentless, punishingly slow when it wants to be, but still memorable. The chorus of “Burial at Sea” is no less infectious than that of “Saint Vitus” just because the latter is played at about half the speed of the former.

I understand the impulse to start with Born too Late, both because that material is so ridiculously good and because Weinrich is back fronting the band, but by hearing Saint Vitus first, you give yourself an important context in which to better appreciate Born too Late and Wino‘s contributions as vocalist. I don’t know if the songs are better — the title-track “Born too Late” might be the pinnacle doomer’s anthem, and “Clear Windowpane” and “The War Starter” stand up to anything on the self-titled — it’s just that, after having your mind destroyed by the first album, you’re going to be that much better off having it rebuilt by the third.

While you’re standing at this fictional record store, keep that in mind. However you get started with them, if you haven’t yet, see that you do. If you’re into doom and haven’t really explored Saint Vitus yet, there’s a whole lot that’s going to make more sense after you do.

Any disagreement, accord, etc., please leave a comment.

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7 Responses to “Where to Start: Saint Vitus”

  1. Every time I think I’m going to disagree with you, I just have to read a little further and be convinced by your compelling arguments (just like when you suggested starting with Dopesmoker for Sleep).

  2. paulg says:

    I have never really got in to these guys but, you have inspired me to give it another shot. Well, after I finish listening to the new roadsaw stream.

  3. Brian H. says:

    I prefer Born To Late, but I’m a Wino fan. I am old enough to have heard early stuff when it was new (my old room mate had the first record and we jammed on it frequently but those were thrash days and old school thrash won out on the record player), but at the time many of us in the metal underground looked at them as Sabbath wanna-bes (what were thinking back then!) and didn’t appreciate them like we do today. I feel fortunate to be able to see them live tomorrow night in Dallas on the first date of the Metalliance tour. I’d go for Vitus alone, but add Red Fang and Crowbar — its the must see show of the year!

  4. jniff says:

    I agree – I’d go with Saint Vitus. As much as I love Wino, Reagers’ vocal performance is absolutely ace. If I were to cheat, I’d say go with Heavier than Thou. It’s not a proper full-length, but you get some of their best tunes and Wino and Reagers. (That was also the first Vitus I bought, so I’m particularly attached to it.)

  5. Mike H says:

    While I understand your argument for the self-titled, I think if people are unfamiliar with Saint Vitus, Born Too Late, my personal favorite, will more easily hook them, immediately. Then go to the self-titled. I agree you will appreciate Born Too Late more if you start with the self-titled, but you have to have patience (I believe Wino’s voice is more suited for the band’s sound) and that is a rare quality these days. Either way it is a win, win situation. You CANNOT go wrong with either. Just know you may only be able to buy one at a time, but owning both is essential. I would also recommend number 3 on your list should be 1990’s Live. Hearing Wino’s interpretation of classics from the self-titled is in my opinion important, especially if you are thinking about catching the band live and time soon.

  6. Grant says:

    I went with Heavier Than Thou on vinyl. Great comp, but not a whole lot of songs with Reagers (just side 4). Check out Saint Vitus’ 1983 demo. Love the sound of it.

  7. Animikh says:

    you’re like that cool elder brother to me now, who gave me good music. (hoping you ARE indeed, older than me)

    Rocking out to their insane debut ryt now!

    Thanks man!


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