Awkward and obscure as the name is, guitarist Dave Chandler did right in naming Saint Vitus’ first album in 17 years Lillie: F-65. The title refers to a barbiturate the band used to take, and in many ways, that’s just what Lillie: F-65 is: A classic Saint Vitus downer. One might compare the situation that brought it about to Pentagram and their 2011 release, Last Rites. I’m not sure if there’s as much at stake personally for any one member of Vitus as there was for Pentagram frontman Bobby Liebling in that record, but in terms of pivotal American doom acts pitting their legacies against studio offerings that marked new eras, it seems a fair analogy despite a few key differences. Saint Vitus are arguably the single most important and influential band in American doom – certainly on the West Coast – and Lillie: F-65 (released by Season of Mist) renews the recording partnership of Chandler and vocalist Scott “Wino” Weinrich. The two exceedingly charismatic personalities have intermittently torn down stages the world over for the better part of the last three years, and together with bassist Mark Adams and drummer Henry Vasquez – who replaced a then-ailing Armando Acosta (R.I.P.) in 2009 – the 2012 lineup of Saint Vitus stands ready to honor both its own legend and the influence that inspired the band in the first place. Several of Lillie: F-65’s successes come in doing just that.
Chandler, as the principle songwriter of this and all Vitus material, wastes no time tapping into the primordial immediacy that made the band’s earliest work so powerful. Some of these lines, some of these riffs are so easy as to be obvious, and yet they are characteristically Chandlerian, and the more one listens to Lillie: F-65 – or any Vitus album, for that matter (how easily the new one fits in the lexicon of the band should say something as to its quality) – the more one can discern the blueprint behind the songs. Structurally, they are as they’ve always been: Simple, high-grade pop put to nefarious use. His vocals mostly following Chandler’s riffs, Weinrich nonetheless makes a landmark of nearly every chorus – to wit, “Let Them Fall,” “The Bleeding Ground” and “Blessed Night” – and delivers lines with feeling and drama worthy of any performance in his storied discography. For his part, Adams is in the Geezer Butler role – appropriate, considering how much of Vitus has always been derived from Sabbath – quietly, unassumingly turning good songs, like the above or the side B duo “The Waste of Time” and “Dependence,” into great ones with warm low end that’s both classy and rudimentary. I’ll say flat-out that he sounds the best on these tracks that he’s ever sounded in Saint Vitus, and part of that credit has to go to producer/engineer T. Dallas Reed, who positions him mix-wise so as to fill out the songs and highlight the character in his playing without stealing the spotlight from Chandler’s guitar, which without question is running the show.
That’s one of the things Saint Vitus has very much done right on Lillie: F-65. Another relates specifically to Vasquez’s drumming. Anyone who’s heard his work in Blood of the Sun can tell you the dude can throw down in true classic rock style. Indeed, that’s most of what Blood of the Sun (in which he also handles vocals) does. But that’s not what he does here. Adapting his style to the simplicity of the songwriting, Vasquez honors Acosta’s contributions to the band while maintaining a personality of his own. He does not indulge in long fills. He does not unleash double kick for its own sake. Instead, he hits remarkably hard and shows that he has obviously become an integrated part of the band over the last three years of time on the road. Along those same lines, Saint Vitus also plays it smart in keeping Lillie: F-65 short. Their 1984 self-titled debut was 35 minutes long, 1985’s Hallow’s Victim 34 and 1986’s Born too Late (their first album with Weinrich on vocals) also 35. Lillie: F-65 is a bullshit-free 34:29, right in line. The closest they come to any kind of indulgence is a Weinrich-penned acoustic interlude called “Vertigo” that comes between “The Bleeding Ground” and “Blessed Night,” and even that serves the purpose of allowing a few minutes of breath between those two landmark cuts and adding to the overall depressive atmosphere the album creates. One could argue closer “Withdrawal” – which is three and a half minutes solid of Chandler’s guitar feedback – is an indulgence, but I think that’s missing the point, since the track’s pretty much as close as Vitus is ever going to come to saying to their fans, “Hey, thanks for buying our record, here’s the fucked-up mess of noise you came for.” And you know, he’s right.
Half an hour before that, though, it’s Vasquez who has the honor of starting the first Vitus record since 1995’s Die Healing reunited them with original singer Scott Reagers, and he does so with a fittingly unceremonious bass-drum/crash cymbal count-in. Four hits and “Let Them Fall” is underway, and as if that wasn’t up-front enough, the song begins with its chorus:
“Why do I scream at them
They never listen
Why do I beat my head
Against the wall
I made a simple plan
They complicate it
Now they’re near the edge
Let them fall”
From the mere shape of the lines, one can almost discern the lumbering rhythm with which Weinrich delivers them; the ebb and flow – or better, rise and fall – of Chandler’s much-imitated patterning allowing for almost as little hope to peak through as the lyrics themselves. While Vasquez keeps time on his crash and Adams supplements the riff with deep, swarming low-end, Weinrich adopts the voice of god – or whatever omnipotent creator force you want to substitute for god, mother nature, etc. – giving up on humanity. Want to start a doom album, kids? That’s a pretty good way to do it. The song itself is strong enough and enough in line with classic Vitus anthems that it could’ve easily carried the record as a title-track – a move that would’ve aligned it to tracks from the band’s discography like “Saint Vitus” from Saint Vitus, “Born too Late” from that album or “Children of Doom” from 1992’s C.O.D. – but either way, it’s an immediate hook that sets the course for the rest of the album’s songs. It’s the shortest of the non-interludes or outros, but of undeniable substance and memorability. Plodding, miserable, and gloriously primal – it’s the best-case scenario for what Vitus could do on Lillie: F-65.
It’s not until his guitar stands alone to launch the riff of “The Bleeding Ground” that it’s apparent just how much Chandler’s classic tone is intact. It was among my main concerns going into Lillie: F-65 and something I asked Reed about when I interviewed him about the recording process a little while back, but though it’s presented with a modern clarity in the sense of not sounding dirty as a put-on, that’s Chandler’s guitar and there’s no question about it. The riff of “The Bleeding Ground” has an oceanic sway, but Vitus has never sounded big in the sense of some of the modern acts they’ve influenced, and they don’t take that on here, either. Perhaps the highest compliment one can pay to “The Bleeding Ground” is to say it’s Vitus sounding like Vitus, since that’s so clearly the intent driving it. A start-stop verse lets Weinrich take the fore while Vasquez keeps the beat behind, and a double-layer chorus vocal sounds like an absolute flourish compared to the relative minimalism surrounding. For Vasquez’s part, it’s the drums that most mark Lillie: F-65 as a Reed recording. His snare and toms and the balance of the cymbals in the mix remind of some of Stone Axe’s output in their overall sound, but though characteristic of Reed, it’s hardly out of place underneath Chandler’s surprisingly melodic solo – one almost expects a fast-strummed barrage of noise, but that doesn’t come until later, following the final verse, where the band launches into a more extended instrumental break. Chandler tops it with signature fury, coming back to the riff in time to line up with Adams and Vasquez for a big finish that sets up the transition into Weinrich’s “Vertigo.”
A sustained layer of melody (ebow, maybe?) underscores the main line of “Vertigo,” which isn’t out of place with something Wino might have done with the two-guitar project Premonition 13, but nonetheless fits with and enhances Lillie: F-65’s ambience. All the more so leading to “Blessed Night,” which is the fastest and also among the most straightforward tracks here. It’s the only lyric credited to Weinrich – and with lines like “Cross my palm with crystal light/My sword is sharp, my steed is strong/Upon us now this blessed night/For my queen, for my star,” I believe it – and the only music credited to the whole band, though that’s less a distinguishing factor since it’s still Chandler’s riff out front. The just over four minutes of “Blessed Night” was the first new Vitus music to make it to public consciousness, played live during the band’s sets at the Metalliance tour in 2011 and spread through subsequent YouTubing, but it’s a suitable vanguard for Lillie: F-65, finding the band firing on all cylinders in very much their own fashion. The riff is straight-up stoner, though tonally doomed, and Chandler stomps a hole through his wah on the brief-but effective solo while Adams holds down the riff and Weinrich wisely steps back to let the guitar come forward. Like a faster “Let Them Fall,” it is no-frills, no-bullshit songwriting – a Vitus specialty at any speed – and a last-minute injection of energy before “The Waste of Time,” “Dependence” and “Withdrawal” take hold on the album’s darker, more morose second half.
Because it’s important to remember that the substance of Lillie: F-65 is more weighted than one might think given the span of time. By the end of “Blessed Night,” just 17 minutes of the record’s 34 have passed, and Saint Vitus have yet to unleash their most doomed material. In this regard, the move to keep the album short and in line with their most classic works – C.O.D. and Die Healing were both much longer – also serves to highlight each individual song. Even a cut like “The Waste of Time,” which is unremittingly bleak and so less directly engaging of the audience than “Blessed Night” or even “The Bleeding Ground,” with which it’s more kin in terms of pace, is more appreciable because, on a certain level, it’s all you get. It’s not like there are nine other songs on Lillie: F-65 to compare it to. So while its chorus isn’t the same kind of hook as the cuts on side A, its tale of misery nonetheless proves more than worthy, and its function in setting the darker course of the album’s second half is in no way diminished. Chandler holds agonizing lead notes to feedback infinity before rejoining Adams and Vasquez on the riff and Weinrich gives the last verse a true sense of hopelessness by echoing some of the wartime themes that made their way into “Blessed Night” with a more realistic outcome of devastation well met by Vasquez’s subtle build on the kick. They ride the riff’s wave to the end, another big rock finish, well placed before the softer beginning of “Dependence” as an echo of what they did earlier with “The Bleeding Ground” giving way to “Vertigo.
“Dependence,” however, is no interlude. At 7:36, it’s the longest track on Lillie: F-65 by more than a full minute, and taken in combination with the noise-fest outro “Withdrawal,” it reaches to just over 11 minutes, beginning with a quiet guitar introduction that cuts after a while to Chandler establishing the riff before the rest of the band joins in. Its initial moments are somewhat reminiscent of “Vertigo,” but more morose, more depressed, and that suits the song well, as it’s Saint Vitus at their most miserable. Vasquez and Adams – who gives his best performance of the album here – kick in at 1:40, and Weinrich shortly thereafter for the first of three verses. As the title hints, the lyric is about addiction, but Chandler keeps it vague, so it could just as easily be pills, booze or a person Weinrich is singing about when he says, “Woke up sick again today/It doesn’t really matter/My end is here, nothing else to do/I depended on you” in the final verse, the last line trailing off into doomed oblivion as had the final impassioned delivery of the title lyric to “Let Them Fall” – symmetry even in chaos. So much else about Lillie: F-65 being straightforward and aggressively to the point, the lyrics to “Dependence” show depth of approach, and not that Vitus really has anything to prove with this record – especially by the time they get around to the last song on it – but as ever, there’s more to them than just what you’re hearing on the surface. That last verse is preceded by a noisy guitar solo and a gong-introduced feedback break, on which indecipherable whispers remind of the end to “Children of the Grave.” Chandler eventually feeds himself back into the riff, Vasquez (whose double-tapped snare hits have given the song an extra push the whole time) and Adams join back in, and the song stomps its way out as the waves of tube-screaming noise mark the only path through “Withdrawal.”
Abrasive, fucked up and just plain nasty, I can think of no better way for Vitus to have ended Lillie: F-65 than to let Chandler explode eardrums for three and a half minutes. I think it’s a track I’ll probably skip every time I’m able, but that’s the point. It’s not supposed to be pretty, or easy to take, or pleasant. Shit, it’s called “Withdrawal” and it follows “Dependence.” Let that be some clue as to the kind of ground Vitus is covering in “musical” thematic. The wash of noise gradually quiets down and the album ends with as little fanfare as it began, Saint Vitus proving once more that you don’t have to throw everything at the listener to provoke a response. Of course, Lillie: F-65 arrives with the considerable weight of the band’s legendary status behind it, but these songs stand on their own in managing to live up to that legend and work within it while also sounding natural and – as much as this brand of doom can – fresh. More than anything, Vitus shows the enduring significance of their approach, and that what proved true about them in their initial run is no less true now: By not being of their era, they were and remain timeless. Everything on Lillie: F-65 feeds into that idea, and with Reed’s production working in clear reverence behind it, Vitus comes out sounding like Vitus without sounding like they’re trying to sound like Vitus. Rather, one gets the sense in hearing a song like “The Bleeding Ground” that there’s no other way it could be, and that’s more than it seems fair to ask after so long. One could easily argue that in terms of their influence and their scope, Saint Vitus are more relevant now than they’ve ever been, and Lillie: F-65 shows a good deal of why. No doubt one of 2012’s landmark albums. Highly recommended.California, Gods, Saint Vitus, Season of Mist