Sabbath Assembly have been gifting us with music firmly entrenched in eerie discomfort since 2009. In the early years, their releases centered upon the teachings of the Process Church of the Final Judgement, which made them disturbing to the point of near-inaccessibility. In what was a positive career move, the band decided not to regale us with further hippy cult weirdness on 2015’s self-titled release, instead focusing on pure occult songs, resulting in an excellent album that catapulted the band (in our eyes at least) to the top of the occult rock food chain. Now two years later, Rites of Passage finds the band attempting to maintain their grip on the Dagger ov Occult Awesomeness.
This iteration of Sabbath Assembly is slightly different than 2015’s. We still have Jamie Meyers casting her spell on the mic (as she has done in the past for Hammers of Misfortune and Wolves in the Throne Room), Kevin Hufnagel (Gorguts, Disrhythmia) providing guitar wizardry, and Johnny Deblase back on the bass, but also playing are original Sabbath Assembly drummer Dave Nuss and Ron Varod (Psalm Zero’s bass player) joining in on second guitar. Varod complements Hufnagel nicely throughout as their guitars interweave seamlessly, often counterpointing Jamie’s vocals in haunting fashion. In fact, the entire band is firing on all cylinders here, with amazing chemistry and rock-solid cohesion on every track. Having a crackerjack band lends legitimacy to the material that might otherwise be missing.
Much like Sabbath Assembly was a stylistic departure from the band’s older records, so too Rites of Passage continues the band’s evolution. For one thing, the songs here are longer than on Sabbath Assembly, routinely clocking in from five to eight minutes in length. Other differences are subtle, as on opening track “Shadows Revenge,” which launches with an optimistic Hammers of Misfortune feel to it. The changes here are the dual guitars winding and snaking around Jamie’s vocal lines, the longer, more complex arrangement, and Nuss’s finesse drumming, which is the standout instrumental performance through the entire record – and that’s saying a lot, with Hufnagel on guitar. But listen after listen I found myself drawn to the intricate yet not overwhelming drumming. Overall, “Shadows Revenge” hints at the progression Sabbath Assembly have made.
Sabbath Assembly had a more traditional, uptempo, psych rock feel to it, and a lot more Kevin Hufnagel guitar work. While the opening track and follow-up “Angels Trumpets” carry on in the same vein, the album dips into gloom and doom afterwards, with more focus on atmosphere and the all-round band performance. Jamie opens “I Must Be Gone” with a low, salty vocal line like we might expect from an aging witch, showing us the depth and nuance she’s capable of. She performs all lead and harmony vocals throughout, and her work is even more entrancing than previous albums. “Does Love Die” has her gracing us with airy, haunting harmonies atop foreboding acoustic guitar, while massive closing track “The Bride of Darkness” has the entire band blowing us away for nine roiling, doom-encased, witchy minutes.
It’s hard to find drawbacks on Rites of Passage. While the songs are lengthy, the arrangements hold interest throughout. Lyrics are much less decipherable than on Sabbath Assembly, which is disappointing, because the subject matter is weighty, covering topics such as losing one’s religion, taking care of a loved one suffering mental and physical decline, and other transformative moments (hence the album title). When you’ve got a singer with the talent of Jamie Myers, and your schtick is occult rock, listeners need to hear the lyrics to be truly enthralled.
Overall, Rites of Passage is a more varied, yet at the same time, spellbinding effort than the excellent Sabbath Assembly. What the band set aside in terms of riffs and solos has been made up for in composition, songwriting, and the feeling the band was all in on this effort. Production is equal to the task of these songs, with tons of dynamics, haunting guitar tones and a mix that makes you feel as though you’re in the room with the band. Sabbath Assembly continue to push their music in the right direction, maintaining their claim to the top of the occult rock heap.
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Svart Records
Websites: sabbathassembly.bandcamp.com | sabbathassembly.com | facebook.com/SabbathAssembly
Releases Worldwide: May 12th, 2017