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Album Review: Sabbath Assembly – Rites of Passage

Of all of Kevin Hufnagel’s higher profile projects—which include Gorguts, Dysrhythmia, and Vaura—I have paid the least amount of attention to Sabbath Assembly. I don’t know that I have a particularly good explanation as to why that is. In general, I’m a fan of what he does. The psychedelic/progressive doom tag that gets placed on Sabbath Assembly doesn’t bother me, as I tend to like music that ventures off the beaten path. Maybe it’s the Hammers of Misfortune (who I can’t stand) association via Jamie Myers, who handled vocals on The Locust Years. Whatever the reason, the forthcoming Rites of Passage, which is their fifth full-length since 2011, might be the first Sabbath Assembly album I’ve stuck with and listened to all the way through. It’s definitely the first one I’ve listened to more than once. And now I’m probably going to have to go back and check out their older stuff, because it’s pretty damn good.

More than anything, what makes Sabbath Assembly’s music both exciting and occasionally frustrating is the tension they create by taking a fairly straightforward subgenre of metal (doom) and playing it in a decidedly off-kilter way. If you pick up a Sabbath Assembly record hoping for something along the lines of Uncle Acid, who I would also consider a psychedelic doom band, you’re going to be disappointed. Whereas Uncle Acid, like many of the Black Sabbath-inspired doom bands, play music built around huge riffs and deep grooves, neither of those things are really present on Rites of Passage. The intro riff on opening track “Shadows Revenge” is probably the most straightforward one on the album, but it’s still a bit too angular to really be catchy, and the drums sound like they’re playing a slippery time signature underneath. Then when the verse kicks in they shift into something that sounds more like modal jazz than metal. “Seven Sermons to the Dead” has a decidedly King Crimson-esque skronk to it, while the epic closer “The Bride of Darkness” features an extended guitar break that sounds like the Grateful Dead during a particularly spacey version of “Dark Star.”

Given the album’s ever-shifting musical landscapes, vocalist Jamie Myers had the unenviable task of not only adapting her style to fit each song, but also ultimately providing the anchor that keeps the record from spiraling out of control. Fortunately, she has a fantastic voice that combines the swagger of Castle’s Elizabeth Blackwell with the emotiveness and elasticity of Le Butcherettes/Bosnian Rainbows/Crystal Fairy frontwoman Teri Gender Bender. Often times, she eschews the more obvious melodic line in favor of something darker or closer to a countermelody. For example, on “I Must Be Gone” she opts for a lower register and sings around the time signature instead of on the beat. She particularly shines on the acoustic “Does Love Die,” where she incorporates several different styles, occasionally layering them in some very cool ways.

Ultimately, the record I most want to compare this to is Radiohead’s OK Computer, but not because they sound anything alike musically. I remember the first time I listened to that record, I was confused by it – I had no real frame of reference for what Radiohead was trying to do. There was something in it, though, that made me want to keep going back to it until it made sense, and now it’s probably one of my ten favorite albums of all time. I don’t know if I’m ever going to feel quite that strongly about Rites of Passage, but I definitely want to spend more time with it, trying to unravel more of its mysteries.

Rites of Passage will be available on May 12 via Svart Records.

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