In what should be considered a minor achievement, Sabbath Assembly are dropping their seventh album, A Letter of Red, with the identical lineup as 2017’s excellent Rites of Passage. This is the first time these strange occult-rockers have kept a static lineup, and that means we hope for an album of equal or better quality than the previous (which was a favorite of mine that year). However, the band makes it clear in their lead-up to the album that they are throwing a few change-ups our way: shorter songs, tight production, and a leaning towards 70s hard rock rather than the prog rock they treated us to on Rites of Passage. With the pedigree present, I’m sure they can pull off anything they attempt–can’t they?
This “back to basics” approach is immediately evident, as “Solve et Coagula” begins with no fanfare at all, just straight into a simple riff combined with what might be Jamie Meyers’ least-haunting vocal melody. The band’s restraint here is admirable but misguided: the song comes off as a throwaway track rather than a highlight, where the only interesting moment is the bridge. Much better are the next two songs. “The Serpent Uncoils” and “Worthless” are both gallopers, the latter featuring Meyers moaning out the lyrics in unison with the guitar melodies in spellbinding fashion as she recalls the prison of adolescence in her uniquely biblical fashion. Meanwhile, “The Serpent Uncoils” has become one of my favorite songs this year. The lead-in is as eerie as Sabbath Assembly can do, but when the song drops into its gallop, it’s possibly the catchiest thing they’ve written. Imagine if Heart were occult-rockers, and there you have it.
This is a lyrically heavy album with varying subject matter. “Solve et Coagula” tackles the story of the Yezidi people and the ISIS siege of Mount Sinjar. Several other songs, including highlights “Ascend and Descend” and “The Serpent Uncoils,” are based on the relationship between Egyptian goddesses (and sisters) Isis and Nephthys. But the most touching song is the album closer “A Welcome Below,” which deals with drummer Dave Nuss’s daughter’s years-long opioid addiction, and the self-discovery she has gone through on her path to healing. It’s poignant, beautiful, and harrowing, all within its eight-minute framework. The song is somewhat of a departure artistically for Sabbath Assembly, but it pays off on a personal level with emotional performances from the entire band.
Sabbath Assembly have gone back to Randall Dunn for production (he produced the band’s debut), and the sound is clean, sharp, and vibrant. The guitar combination of Kevin Hufnagel and Ron Varod is fantastic. Hufnagel may be better known for his work in bands such as Gorguts and Dysrhythmia (and Varod for Kayo Dot and Psalm Zero), but here his work is more similar to the latest from Vaura. He and Varod provide intriguing counterpoints to each other throughout A Letter of Red, notably at the end of “The Serpent Uncoils” and through the noise-filled jams in “Worthless.” And Jamie Meyers is of course her impeccable, eerie self on every song. The critique here is that several songs just don’t engage on the level of others, or of Rites of Passage material. “Weighing of the Heart” and “From the Beginning” are pretty songs, but the static arrangements fail to resonate.
Overall, A Letter of Red is a satisfying album. Jamie Meyers continues to mesmerize us with her haunting vocals, and Hufnagel and Varod put on a clinic in regards to instrumental interplay. The change in direction to a more straightforward hard rock sound doesn’t always work, but when it does the songs rock us darkly. This is an album that is more enjoyable when we listen closely to each instrument rather than sitting back and experiencing the songs, which can make it a tougher, more cerebral journey. Still, if you’re into Sabbath Assembly, occult rock, 70s rock, or all of the above, you’ll likely find A Letter of Red an appealing listen.
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Svart Records
Websites: sabbathassembly.bandcamp.com | sabbathassembly.com | facebook.com/sabbathassembly
Releases Worldwide: April 26th, 2019