Spirituality in metal can be a touchy subject, but there is no denying that some of the best metal bands use their music as a conduit to express what it means to them—and we’re not talking Stryper. Amon Amarth are self-professed Viking Metallers who have proudly hailed the Norse Gods of the ancient pagan religions native to their homeland for the better part of two decades. Meanwhile, Sabbath Assembly formed specifically to reinterpret the hymns of The Process Church of The Final Judgment, a somewhat wacky ’60s cultish offshoot of Christianity. And Saule’s post-blackgaze brilliance is a trip that shows you don’t need the dogma of organized religion to be spiritual.
Amon Amarth and Goatwhore
Theatre of Living Arts, Philadelphia, May 8
Both bands on this tour have carved out their reputations by being smarter than their peers. In Goatwhore’s case, that means also being heavier. In the flesh, the New Orleans band’s well-honed black metal is even more intense. Their trademarked sludge is like unrelenting quicksand, while the raw vocals of L. Ben Falgoust II could peel the rust from a shipwreck. The furious songs that dominated the band’s support slot careened wildly, but never went off course due to the machine-gun-like percussion of Zack Simmons.
“Vengeful Ascension,” the title track from Goatwhore’s forthcoming album unveiled to the appreciative Philly crowd, was a slow grinder with a surprisingly soulful guitar solo from Sammy Duet. Those anticipating the album’s release likely won’t be disappointed.
If Goatwhore is heavier live than on record, the epic qualities of Amon Amarth (pictured top) become even more grandiose onstage. The stage looked like an ancient waterway with a ruby-eyed dragon head on the mast of a ship that seemed to have crashed through the drum riser on its way off to war. Like in any documentary of the time, tranquility was fleeting—smoke poured from the stage as if from the carnage of a great battle, strategically placed lights cut eerie rays through the fog while strobes mimicked lighting from the Gods. The band, allegedly mortals, supplied the thunder.
This kind of showmanship is becoming rarer. Part of this is the era we live in, one of minimalism where anything more than a backdrop is considered excessive. The more likely explanation is the limited appeal of niche underground bands. Iron Maiden can play arenas, but bands like Amon Amarth are stuck playing in daylight to early-arriving festival crowds and headlining smaller venues where theatrics are logistically limited.
As such, itt was satisfying to see a band bring arena rock to a theater. It helps that they look the part: four Nordic souls with long beards, longer hair, and thick tattooed arms that you can imagine hoisting tankards of mead while pillaging the dressing room.
It also helps that Amon Amarth unabashedly embraces metallic excess musically as well. The entire set, culled from the last seven albums the band has released from “Death in Fire” off 2002’s Versus the World to four tracks off last year’s Jomsviking, galloped like armored steeds headed to Valhalla. Warships and warhorses? Amon Amarth will fight anywhere on Odin’s green earth and my money’s on the Swedes.
A rite of passage is defined as “a ceremony or event marking an important stage in someone’s life, especially birth, puberty, marriage, and death.” It’s interesting that Sabbath Assembly chose this, the band’s fifth full-length album, to be called Rites of Passage (Svart Records) since that ship sailed with 2015’s eponymous release.
On three albums released between 2010 and 2014, Sabbath Assembly was a leading group in the occult rock scene alongside the likes of Blood Ceremony and Jess and the Ancient Ones. These bands took the influence of long-forgotten cult attractions such as Coven, Black Widow, and Lucifer’s Friend more than four decades after those luminaries merged dark imagery with electric folk, releasing albums with some of the most amazing album covers you could find.
But you would think a band named Sabbath Assembly would have a kinship with Black Sabbath. They didn’t, at least when compared to other modern-day doomsayers. They were far more interesting than that, purporting to translate hymns of The Process Church of The Final Judgment, an obscure religious cult from the ‘60s and ‘70s that believed that Satan and God would reconcile and judge humanity together. Even L. Ron Hubbard thought they were a little nuts.
All of this changed in 2015 when Sabbath Assembly either ran out of pagan paeans or the desire to continue singing them. Signifying this change was the self-titled album that eschewed neo-folk hymnals for more straightforward progressive-minded doom metal. The album was well-received despite the profound change in direction, setting the stage for Rites of Passage, which offers more of the same.
There is a subtle shift, though, possibly representing a change in the dynamics of the band. Sabbath Assembly seemed to be the baby of singer Jamie Meyers, a vehicle to show off her wide range of emotion, whereas the new album might be Kevin Hufnagel’s tour de force. Although he has been with the band since 2011, while also working as a full-time member of tech-death legends Gorguts and math metal merchants Dysrhythmia, the guitarist takes over Rites of Passage. Joined by Ron Varod (Kayo Dot) for the first time, from the discordant Voivod-ian riffs of album opener “Shadows Revenge,” Hufnagel never lets up . “Angels Trumpets” and “I Must Be Gone” are epic power metal, but he rely on sullen doomscapes rather than uplifting major keys, the latter breaking into an instrumental passage that would have fit into Rush’s Grace Under Pressure rather seamlessly.
Though you would never have accused Sabbath Assembly of being neophyte musicians, their progression on Rites of Passage is stunning. “Seven Sermons to the Dead” actually sounds like several different passages, tied together with the tribal drums of Dave Nuss. Yet unlike much prog metal, the excesses are tempered with genuine and memorable songcraft. Just as it used to be that calling Sabbath Assembly an occult band was severely selling its talents short, calling the 2017 version of the group a prog metal band understates one of the scene’s more interesting bands.
Post-black metal seems to be reaching a saturation point, so you’d be forgiven in dismissing a band that just formed two years ago. But what Saule lack in tenure and pedigree, the band makes up for with artistry and brilliance.
The band’s self-titled debut album (Avantgarde Music) is a cascade of delicate, shimmering riffs. Unlike most post-rock, the guitars do not drone; instead the percussion does, pounding out repetitive, primitive beats that propel the strings and compliment them along with anguished vocals that seem inspired by Neurosis’ latter output.
Every song merely gets a Roman numeral for a title (curiously the last song on the album is “0,” which would likely drive math nerds batty), but it doesn’t matter which one you choose as every track follows the same quiet-loud dichotomy. Possibly as the Polish group gets more seasoned there will be some more variety in that respect, but being formulaic is not a terrible handicap when the formula works this well. Watching the trajectory that Saule takes will be intriguing, especially with such a breathtaking start.