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The wheel's come back around for doom-metal trailblazers Saint Vitus. It took some time, but what's three decades among friends?
"Like anybody, we were kind of surprised this hard-rock return was happening," says Scott "Wino" Weinrich, who sang for Vitus on three albums during their '86-'91 heyday and has fronted their reunion lineup. "We knew that we had to really embrace it. We're older now, and we know what our priorities are. And our priorities are Saint Vitus."
When the Los Angeles quartet formed in 1978, they had trouble finding a home. Guitarist/principal songwriter Dave Chandler was deeply influenced first by Judas Priest and then Black Sabbath, settling on a portentous rhythmic throb with the consistency and viscosity of maple syrup. Chandler's guitar intermittently erupts in bursts of psychedelica with a distinct prog undertone.
Chandler also was informed by '70s L.A. underground bands like Germs and Flipper, developing a dry, grimy guitar tone more in line with punk. They signed to Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn's seminal label, SST Records, but found themselves marginalized. The punkers thought they were too metal, and the metal kids thought they were too punk.
They broke up in relative obscurity after seven albums in '96. But as stoner and doom metal grew over the past 15 years, many of its adherents cited Vitus as an influence. The classic lineup reunited in 2003 for a single show that was recorded and sold on DVD, then they came back for good three years ago to bigger audiences than they'd ever seen.
"We attribute it all to the speed of communication. If you wanted to get into something like Vitus in the old days, you'd have to wait until someone's brother left so you could get into his record collection," says Weinrich, who himself was turned onto Vitus by Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye. "The younger kids have it now because of the Internet, and they're growing up listening and skating to Vitus."
Founding member bassist Mike Adams and drummer Armando Acosta joined in the reunion, but Acosta's faltering health forced him to pull out before the first tour was complete. This misfortune (which was followed a year later by Acosta's death) turned into beneficence when they added Henry Vasquez as his replacement.
"It was also a stroke of luck with Henry because he's so good," says Weinrich. "His playing makes a big difference. He brought a whole new aspect to the band in that he's a hard-hitter. Once Henry got with us, everything took on a new energy and power."
Refreshed with new blood and tight from a couple years of touring, they bring renewed intensity to Lillie: F-65, their first new disc in 17 years. The title refers to a powerful downer available on the street back in the day. It's appropriate to the band's lumbering rhythms while Weinrich's bruising baritone laments dark, dispiriting times in service to dehumanizing institutions. The album sounds like classic Vitus, only in high-def.
"We wanted to keep the Vitus sound — which I think we did — but have better production. I was blown away. I think [producer] Tony Reed did an amazing job," he says. "Tony told us straight-up, 'I know what to do to get what I understand to be the Saint Vitus sound, but it's going to be better.'"
Saint Vitus feels tighter and more dedicated than ever, with plans to record again. They're even more secure, having finally found some acceptance among a more open-minded and younger contingent. Yet, in a way, it's business as usual to them.
"We never changed," Weinrich says. "We play our music because it's the music we love, and we want to get a message across that these are pretty tough times. I think that people are more tuned into what's really happening, and they're starting to wake up some. I kind of see Vitus as carrying the torch."
Let their ominous darkness light the way.