Some albums are beyond dispute, criticism or discussion, purely by virtue of their status within the pantheon of their respective genres – think “Sad Wings of Destiny”, “In The Sign Of Evil”, “Master Of Reality”, the list goes on… There is no doubt that DIE HEALING, the last Saint Vitus album released before the band broke up in the mid Nineties, is such an album too. Released at a time when mainstream heavy metal was sinking ever deeper into a quagmire of irrelevance, the album sank without a trace, its fate doubtless compounded by Hellhound going bust, amid a sea of unpaid royalties. Sad thing was, the album turned out to be a stone-cold classic, that remains the benchmark for doom metal to this day. It is therefore extremely welcome to see this album getting its first CD reissue since 1995*, in all its brilliant glory.
Prior to the recording of this album, Chandler knew that the band had run its course; faced with resounding indifference from the mainstream metal media and audience, the hirsute, acid-fried doom metal supremo decided he’d had enough, but wanted to go out with a bang rather than the whimper of “C.O.D.”, an album he’s not proud of to this day! And so, work started on demoing what was to be the final Vitus album, with Chandler handling vocal duties in the place of recently booted Christian Linderson. However, around this time, original vocalist Scott Reagers was visiting Chandler on a regular basis, and agreed to come back into the Vitus fold for one final album, so as to bring things full circle. And what a decision that turned out to be; he may not have been heard of since 1985’s “The Walking Dead” (still my personal favourite heavy metal EP of all time!), but his voice remained intact, as utterly peerless as it was on the first LP! Coupled with the best production Vitus ever had (courtesy of Harris Johns, who has worked with everyone from Sodom and Kreator to Immolation and Voivod!), the utterly jaw-dropping result starts to make sense.
No longer cursed with punk studios that couldn’t take the low end (that said, Spot did his best on the SST albums), or producers that tried to inject needless sheen and polish to their sound (C.O.D.), the sound on “Die Healing” cuts through the listener with clarity and POWER – “fuck that weak shit” indeed! “Dark World’ is pretty much the best doom metal opener of all time (sorry, Candlemass!), it has the morbid Sabbath-worship of the début, and the spit and venom of “Hallow’s Victim”, the lyrics pure misanthropy and hyperbole: “I just took a trip/to a bottomless well/face to face with the madness/that’s been cracking my shell”. One of the things I love so much about this album is that Reagers’s performance gets more over the top and insane with each song, channeling the spirit of the metal God himself, Rob Halford. The influence of Judas Priest on doom metal seems to get glossed over somewhat in favour of Sabbath, but frankly the link between Eric Wagner or Scott Reagers’s baroque power and the archetypal stylings of Halford are as evident as the influence of Iommi and Co. Hell, it wasn’t even called “doom metal” until the Nineties!
And so, the album chugs on with the genre-defining “One Mind”, an ode to madness and hatred, which even had a video made for it – if they ever get Reagers back for one final farewell show, one of the many heartstopping singalong moments will doubtless be: “AND NO ONE…. UNDERSTANDS… YOUR MIND!” After this, Reagers reminds us why he’s the undisputed king of HORROR – whereas Wino always had the aura of being an angry man raging against the world, Reagers had the ability to convey the spirit of horror and despair like no-one else before or since. The resulting track, “Let The End Begin” is a song about the coming of the End Times, called by the reaper himself, featuring Chandler’s best chorus since the first album. However, Vitus have always been a bunch of punks, and the only people that came to see their shows in the Eighties were people from said subculture, who they eventually won over by sheer virtue of their tenacity. Best crossover band ever? Well, no, I’d nominate Carnivore for that award, but this song has its own nod to punk, with a middle part that is fast as fuck, with the most bizarre bass solo of all time! Mark Adams finally gets the treatment he always deserved on this album, his monolithic basslines coming through nice and clear, with the late Armando Acosta’s peerless caveman drums hammering out the V-beat until the bell tolls the end of man.
“Trail of Pestilence” is another manifestation of Chandler’s rage, a diatribe against the ruling/political elite and their glee at passing laws and dictating conflict at the expense of the poor and downtrodden – punks in more ways than one, and probably a reason that the Vitus sound is so timeless. In hindsight, the song’s message is rendered all the more poignant as Chandler lost everything to hurricane Katrina, and suffered the scourge of government incompetence as a result.
After a song that is firmly rooted in earthly brutality, we’re back in the realm of sheer evil for one of the slowest tracks on the album, “The Sloth”, followed by “Return of The Zombie”, an update of the Hungry Zombie on the first album; Reagers’s voice all drenched in reverb and delay, sending shivers down the spine (“…the holes in front of my skull shine with something VILE!”). However, the insanity of Reagers is sent full tilt for “In the Asylum”, arguably his finest moment. Just when you think he can’t sound any more demented and over-the-top, he pulls this performance out of the bag… It has to be heard to believed; a story of a woman abused within the confines of an asylum (“She’s hooked up… to a MACHHIIIIIIINE!”), Harris Johns knowing exactly when to accentuate Reagers’s insanity with simple effects. “Insanity is contagious! I speak… from EXPERIENCE” – only Reagers can get away with singing lyrics like this and come off sounding convincing and terrifying, all capped off with my favourite Chandler solo on the record – the whole band is on fire for the duration of the LP, but this song is particularly sublime.
Clearly, there is no way you can top the sheer over-the-top fuck-offness of “In The Asylum”, and so Reagers’s performance on the album ends here, having been stretched about as far as humanly possible. Chandler handles vocal duties on the final song of the album “Just Another Notch”, a song about addiction (a recurring theme with Vitus…) that could almost have been on 1992’s “C.O.D.”, an album that was bloody great bar some rather ill-advised production choices! The middle part of the song features an imagined conversation between a narcotic and Chandler, giving in to its alluring power, sinking under its control, before the album ends abruptly with what I can only describe as Chandler’s version of Tom G. Warrior’s death grunt!
As a whole, this is actually one of the longer Vitus albums, almost clocking in at 50 minutes (!), but it feels a hell of a lot shorter than that. The band were clearly putting everything they had into this record, and it shows – the songs are honed to perfection, the production has not been skimped on, and the presentation is also top notch – iconic, lugubrious artwork, with a band photo that is definitely one of the best heavy metal band photos of all time. Chandler has stated that “Die Healing” is his personal favourite Vitus album, and it’s not hard to understand why – all the instruments are clearly audible, but at the expense of none of the heaviness, and of course who can fault the sheer, insane majesty of Scott Reagers on this album? On a record where there really are no flaws at all, he manages to steal the show. A master, never equaled. Due to Hellhound going bankrupt soon after the album’s release, and the resulting cock-up that led to the cancellation of many dates on their final European tour with Revelation, this album never got the adulation it deserved on first release. Terrorizer, Kerrang, Rock Hard and Metal Hammer all gave it positive reviews (a long time coming!), but it was all too little too late – it would take a further 8 years for the band to reconvene, and 17 for another album to appear. We can only live in hope to have one last chance to see Reagers perform with Vitus again, and hopefully this reissue will bolster support for the sort of farewell Reagers and “Die Healing” deserve, since it really is one of the best heavy metal albums of all time. And remember to sing along: “I HAVE HOLES INSTEAD OF EYES!”
*Second LP issue, the first being a recent pressing courtesy of cult US label Buried By Time And Dust
Scribed by: Saúl Do Caixão