While Washington State is best known for its grunge/rock movement, it always had a pretty thriving metal scene, heavily dominated by melodic bands in the 80s like Queensryche, Fifth Angel and Sanctuary. However, the grimy underbelly of the Northwest also had its cruel side, and that manifested in underground thrash titans like Forced Entry, Bitter End, and the oh-so-Antichrist Coven. Which a riff style similar to a chompier Slayer, and a hostile vocal dementia, this band were out to destroy all through a no-frills, meaty thrashing and a mockery of all things Holy. They produced three albums from 1988-1993, and of them all, their debut Blessed is the Black still shines the most, like the gleam of a succubus wing.
Coven were not a complicated band. The formula is very simple: write riff, and clobber. Write another riff, and clobber some more. It took me some years to adapt to their crunchy guitar tone, but I think now I can say that I enjoy it, at least across their first two albums. Jay Clark's vocals are simply insane here, like early Hetfield/Araya if the two were being crushed in a vice with their balls about to explode against one another. Every now and then he'll break into some uncouth scream which almost places the band in cheesy power metal territory, but most of the riffs here remind me of one particular band: Venom. Sure, Coven were a little more modern, a little beefier, and certainly heavier, but there is a humor to what they do which recounts the shock tactics of England's most hated (and loved) band.
Blessed is the Black breaks out the big guns first, in the title track. A melody winds along aside some of their grainy, Cap'n Crunch guitars, and to be fair it's quite a good riff that tears right out of the speakers and has your head banging hard. Clark's vocals are fucking beautiful here, a throat no longer possessed by a human being, but whatever demon has sauntered forth to dwell within. "6669" erupts with a riff reminiscent of later, filthy late 80s street Venom, while once again Clark captures the listener with some very catchy, fun vocals. This is pretty awesome, especially some of the band's tongue in cheek lyrics, like:
Six six sixy nine
Copulation with a corpse
Demons rape her rotting hole
Fucked and left to die
Sense of humor aside, these were some pretty blunt and disgusting lyrics for 1988, and it often feels like the band uses them for shock value, but at least on this album, they really jibe with the riffing. "Burn the Cross" has an infectious, slower paced riff, I would totally blast this out of my car. This is what they were actually listening to in Hell while Twisted Sister was on Earth TV playing "Burn In Hell." "Out of the Grave" develops a creepy acoustic segment, and the band is more restrained, with Clark using a cleaner vocal style not unlike Erik A.K. (Flotsam & Jetsam) from No Place for Disgrace. This could be considered a heavy metal power ballad by Coven standards, but honestly...it's pretty good. "Rock This Church" is more like "Burn This Church", a fist pumper which creates visions of hairsprayed 80s youths throwing bricks and beercans through the stained glass fixtures at their local cathedral. And then we arrive at "Iron Dick", which is so goddamn lame that I can't help but smile at the ridiculous lyrics.
Pulsating steel protrudes from my thighs
She who spreads is she who dies
Long as my arm and five times as thick
You'll die at the end of my iron dick
"The Monger" boasts another of the infectious speed rhythms that flourish a little melody while maintaining a meathook core. Fans of Piledriver, Hallows Eve and other early, dirty thrash metal felt right at home here, and even the retarded lyrics of "McDonaldland Massacre" cannot completely piss on the parade of its charging mosh pit angst. You don't want to admit it, because it's just so dumb, but you would bang your head to this and sing along, and so would I. "Another Life" is a pretty bland ballad, though it is still identifiable as Coven it really does not belong here. The acoustic riff is aimless and the keyboards sound like shit, only the vocals shine. But the album ends on another high note, the melodic thrasher "Creature of Duty (And My Duty is Death)", which pops with Hellish glee as it sparks into another Hallows Eve, low-down charge.
How does it hold up? I'd say for the 6-7 stronger tracks on the album, quite well. The sound is so crisp and crunchy that it might take some getting used to, but if you liked vile and dirty thrash metal in the 80s which really sold itself on the wild hostility of its vocalist and a solid set of backing riffs, the appeal is obvious. This debut remains the most fun of their catalog, and while the band is often overlooked for the more impressive, technical speed/thrash metal acts of their day, this album at least is worth owning for collectors.
Highlights: Burn the Cross, Rock This Church, Iron Dick, The Monger, Creature of Duty (And My Duty is Death)
Verdict: Win [8/10] (brought to life a slave of death)