A decade old and with a wealth of ideas soaking into their world both musically and thematically Sabbath Assembly have grown into one of the more interesting bands around and every new release has something different about it. They started out indoctrinated into the cult of the Process Church Of The Final Judgement but have somehow safely managed to get through the deprogramming procedure from that and come out the other end back into society once more. Developing into the band we have today founding member David Christian has a fluid and purposeful group of musicians around him and popularity is spreading along with their music. I must admit that last album ‘Rites Of Passage’ was a bit of a tricky one, throwing a right curveball my way. I certainly liked it but there was perhaps too much going on in it with what I described as skewed harmonics and experimental rhythms. It definitely took on a weird and avant-garde flair stylistically that left me in a bit of a fug and was definitely not an easy album to get into. When A Letter Of Red came through I looked at the themes and took a deep gulp, again this has plenty of esoteric ideas in it. Gnostic paths and journeys back home by a lost traveller are summoned by the album title itself. Ancient Syrian texts and biblical testaments are taken as inspiration and themes have us journeying right to the present and “the plight of imprisoned Yazidi women after ISIS’ 2014 siege on Mt. Sinjar.” Further down the line Dave somewhat bravely bares his own soul with a song about addiction and imprisonment with his own family battles with his daughter’s opiate habit.
Musically however you can perhaps breathe a deep sigh of relief, the 8 tracks here are much simpler in construction and for those that simply want to rock, well you can salute the album and get on down with a much easier to harness musical mainframe. ‘Solve et Coagula’ may sound like it has escaped from a Ghost or Zeal and Ardor album and does indeed have an immediate bounce to it that’s catchy and designed to have heads banged along to it. Singer Jamie Myers is straight in with the music and at the very heart of things with her beguiling and near Gothic etched flair. Sounding as natural as the music itself everything is very fluid and those lurches into weird prog territories are nowhere near as immediate. Still the very organic feel tempered by a soulful folk like down-tools interlude have the spirit of musical ages past very much in mind and it easy to imagine you are listening to a lost treasure from the 70’s. Dave’s drumming is very noteworthy as ‘The Serpent Uncoils’ and ‘Worthless’ giving songs an almost proto-metal gallop that could have come from the NWOBHM era. It’s not full on though and there’s a very doomy demeanour which with the witchy vocals casts spells left right and centre. Obviously with guitarist Dysrhythmia, Gorguts and Kayo Dot one would expect some mind-bending jazz like fusion but these never quite come and it is as though Kevin Hufnagel and Ron Varod have been told, “right we fucked with people’s heads last album, let’s take it back to basics.” What we get instead is a very 80’s drive down the highway cruise control feel on songs like ‘The Serpent Uncoils’ and it’s not surprising to learn that the hard rock of artists like Heart and Priest were taken as inspiration here.
Myers is excellent at throwing out Banshees type mystic wails but her magic is equally spellbinding when allowed to sinuously and sensuously bring slower drama to proceedings. ‘Weighing Of The Heart’ is slow and gloomy by comparison to what has come before and is a prime example of this, a touchingly beautiful number to sway along to, the darkness at its lyrical heart bound to touch the very soul. Subtle psychedelia, post-punk and metallic licks all combine as we ‘Ascend and Descend’ and the music continues to weave away, knitting all the fronds together. Suddenly it is noticeable here that Johnny DeBlase has perhaps unfairly not been mentioned yet and here I can really hear his bass talking to me and giving me the nudge to do so as it noodles in pronounced fashion within the track. ‘Hymn From The Pearl’ has a near Killing Joke vibe from the guitars giving it arcane flair. The tempo has gradually risen again and chanted vocals give an air of mysticism as the priestess observes the ceremony. The simplicity has perhaps moved closer to delirium but it is still quite thankfully accessible and the pure folk nuances of ‘From The Beginning’ drop us right back into the past and caress a fevered brow in total contrast. With hindsight and having listened to this every day for the last week it is not an immediate album as new things are discovered ever single play, each song has a strong sense of identity and over 6 albums you could never accuse Sabbath Assembly of running out of ideas. Wrapping things up with ‘A Welcome Below’ perhaps the album could have done with a gallop to the finish rather than dropping you into an enchanted fever dream but you can never tell just where a musical trip is going to take you and that has been very much the case here, leaving me more than happy to go with the flow till silence descends once more….
(8/10 Pete Woods)