Wednesday 14 June 2023

Savage Grace - Sign of the Cross (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia

I remember Savage Grace peripherally from their heyday in the eighties. They formed in 1981 with the name of Marquis de Sade, perhaps appropriately given the cover art they would come up with over the years, but quickly renamed to Savage Grace, which is a quintessential heavy metal name. They put out two albums and an EP in only three years but then fell away, eventually ceasing to be in 1992, at the same time as so many other heavy metal bands in the face of grunge. Well, they're back, with guitarist and former lead vocalist Christian Logue hiring a variety of foreign musicians to give him one more shot.

That's probably an unfortunate turn of phrase, because his activities in between attempts to keep Savage Grace a viable entity, apparently include "practicing medicine without a license" under the name of Dr. Richard Santee. Quite why a fake doctor needs an arsenal of military-style weaponry is an open question, but hopefully this album means that he's back on the straight and narrow, with a go forward plan to dedicate himself to music. It also may explain why this Los Angeles band has a Puerto Rican singer and a Brazilian rhythm section nowadays.

If memory serves, they never sounded like a Los Angeles band, even when they were based there in the eighties before moving to New York. There is some of that glam rock sound here in Stealin' My Heart Away and especially in the closer, Helsinki Nights. The former reminded me of a band such as Tokyo Blade who played power/speed metal when I found them but shifted with the climate to find their way into other genres, including glam rock. The latter feels like a cover of a Mötley Crüe song performed faux live by Krokus, but it's actually an original. It's raucous rock 'n' roll and it's a heck of a lot of fun. I'd call it a highlight even if doesn't sound much like the primary approach here.

For a power/speed metal band, that primary approach is old school heavy metal with an occasional burst of speed. The most common influence seems to be Judas Priest, with three songs here taken right out of the Priest playbook. Automoton (sic) is the first, a little slower than the opener, but it builds its energy wonderfully and wraps up at speed. A few songs later, Slave of Desire returns to a Priest sound, lead vocalist Gabriel Colón doing a fantastic Rob Halford impression. A final take from the Priest textbook is Star-Crossed Lovers, the three songs dotted across the album to keep it fresh.

The other obvious influence is Iron Maiden, though Colón only tries a Bruce Dickinson impression on the title track. Maiden are all over the album in moments, as indeed are Priest, but these are a quartet of songs so rooted in their single influences that, like Helsinki Nights, it wouldn't actually surprise much if they turned out to be covers of songs that we've never heard before. What's very telling is that these pastiches are arguably the best songs here, along with the opener, Barbarians at the Gate, which storms into action like it's still 1985 and Savage Grace are leaping at the chance to delve into this newfangled speed metal thing.

The other songs are all decent, nothing letting the side down, but they're missing something that would elevate them to the same level as those I've already mentioned. They're the sort of songs I heard on a lot of Friday Rock Show sessions around the time that Savage Grace were at their peak that underlined how much potential a young band had and why someone really ought to sign them to a record deal. These would make it onto their debut album, probably hindered by poor production to remain an underrated cult favourite, but they'd be forgotten if a killer second or third album showed up because the band had held together long enough to make it.

And so that leaves Savage Grace as a cross between those two scenarios. Half of this feels like the songs that sound good but would be soon forgotten as a band builds, but the other half seems like the sort of material they turned out after they made it to their third album, which, of course, this is. Sure, it's been thirty-seven years since their second, but it's still a third album. Now they're on that milestone, back together as a coherent band and putting out decent material, let's see if the next couple will grow them into something more than a welcome return.

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