1996 was a weird time for metal. That year many bands decided to abruptly switch logos on us, and whenever that happens, usually the music gets a lot more “creative” (i.e. tame) and a whole lot less metal. I remember seeing an ad for Samael‘s Passage in an issue of Metal Maniacs and immediately got worried. Gone was the pentagram-infused logo and the Eric Vuille painting of Jesus with his crown of nails coming out of his head, and in their place was a logo that was fresh off of Microsoft Word and a picture of what appears to be the moon. There was also gossip of how Xytras (henceforth known as “Xy”) gave up drumming to tackle keyboards and soundscapes, a position left open by the mysteriously vanished Rodolphe H. Still, I made my weekly pilgrimage to Newbury Comics to pick up Passage, skeptical as all hell, and proceeded to drop my jaw to the floor repeatedly once I pushed “Play.”
The music itself wasn’t an abrupt departure from 1994’s awesome Ceremony of Opposites (which is also the first-ever Yer Metal is Olde inductee). Rather, it was the delivery that was altered significantly. Xy proved himself to be a much better keyboardist than a drummer, as his ability to evoke incredible atmospheres on the awesome “Angel’s Decay” and “Jupiterian Vibe” gave Passage a royal sense of transcendence. He also proved that he was no slouch at programming drums either, as his programming opened up some rather tricky-yet-engaging patterns that would be tough to replicate on a live kit (the beginning of “Angel’s Decay,” the break near the end of “Rain”). Also making a radical departure were the lyrical themes. Gone were the hymns to Satan and “bulged-tummy women” (hey, I didn’t write the lyrics), and in their place were songs about personal transformation (“Angel’s Decay”), belief in oneself over any deity (“My Saviour”), and personal empowerment (“Rain”). Guitarist/vocalist Vorphalack (now Vorph) improved as a lyricist when it came to writing in English, leaving behind the awkward passages (the aforementioned “bulged-tummy women”) that made otherwise great songs like “Son of Earth” a little chuckle-worthy.
But the core of what made Ceremony of Opposites such a great album was thankfully retained and strengthened on Passage. The only difference was the exterior is painted with shades of Laibach and bits of Kraftwerk instead of swatches of Celtic Frost and Bathory. Whereas Ceremony of Opposites felt warm and dark, Passage was cold and distant, approximating the feeling of being lost in space. “The Ones Who Came Before” married the new sound with the old, being the album’s most frenetic, blackened track, but also the most danceable. “Jupiterian Vibe” brought an atmosphere that was both otherworldly and dark, with a refrain featuring Vorph speaking over a nice trip-hop beat, so when he says “Present is the time including all times/each second is eternity as eternity is now/and now? Now is forever…” hefty and hypnotic. There’s even a ballad in the form of “Moonskin,” showcasing Xy’s incredible piano melodies and the debut of Vorph’s singing voice.
Of course, there’s one song on Passage that reigns above the rest, and Samael, like My Dying Bride before them with The Angel and the Dark River, saw fit to introduce the album with their best in show. “Rain” comes in like a typhoon, with Vorph and then-newcomer Kaos riffing away over Xy’s keyboard melodies and Masmiseim’s driving bass lines. Featuring one of the band’s most iconic choruses (“Our seeds sown larger/Our roots will go deeper/Our trees will grow higher/And now, we wait the rain”), “Rain” is Samael‘s unofficial anthem, a crowning achievement in a catalog chock full of crowning achievements, and one of their most requested songs in live settings.
And while Samael dove deeper still into the industrial pits with varying degrees of success, no one can argue that Passage was a crowning achievement, proving that you can expand well outside your box and gain an immeasurable amount of success and fans. Twenty years later, the album still feels fresh, still hits hard, and still enraptures and empowers with a sense of otherworldly royalty. Welcome to the Hallowed YMIO Halls again, Samael! [Bulged-tummy women, you make the rockin’ world go round. – Steel Druhm].