“In the early 80s, King Crimson, Rush and Yes were working on trying to make more concise musical statements and even though some people would say they sold out, I believe there’s something magical about it… Do you still respect me after saying that?”
David Christian, founder and drummer of occult rock band Sabbath Assembly, is discussing the albums that influenced him and the band’s guitarist Kevin Hufnagel while composing their self-titled fifth album; one that marks a break from their previous religious-themed releases.
“It’s not that we don’t like side-long, 70s, total acid-trip prog, and I know it sounds cool to reference that stuff, but when we wrote this album we were really thinking about that 80s period, circa Yes’ album 90125, with hit songs like Owner Of A Lonely Heart, or When The Heart Rules The Mind by GTR,” Christian says. “We wondered what the hell was going through their heads at the time, and those songs in particular were an important creative template for us when recording the new album.”
Hailing from New York and Texas, Sabbath Assembly began in 2009 as a project with the sole intention of performing the hymns of the controversial occult group, The Process Church Of The Final Judgement. Although considered a separate entity from the cult, the members of Sabbath Assembly, featuring frontwoman Jex Thoth on vocals for their debut album, performed in association with the publication of a popular book about The Process Church, Love Sex Fear Death by original Church member Timothy Wyllie.
No one has asked us to play those sleepy church hymns since we’ve started playing the new album.
Christian explains: “The Process hymns were successful records but they were really hard to perform live in an interesting way. You could say they were a little heavy and camp. So, basically, we were playing church songs to heavy metal crowds at festivals like Roadburn and Heavy Days In Doom Town. After a while, you start thinking, ‘Well, this is lame – we want to play some hard rock for these people.’
“The new songs come across more powerfully than any of our previous material when performed live. No one has ever asked us to play those sleepy church hymns since we’ve started playing the new album. The tour that follows the release of Sabbath Assembly will also help the fans catch up to what we’re doing now. This is what makes me believe this album will be even more successful than the previous ones.”
The band’s sinister spiritual songs and alternative appearance on stage, wearing robes and displaying symbols of the Process Church, attracted those with a penchant for the dark side, as well as Process Church followers. It also allowed them to collaborate with the notorious artist Genesis P-Orridge, an icon in the fight against mainstream culture, who featured as a narrating priestess on their LPs.
“We wound up getting a record deal with a black metal label, and this is what led to the release of the first album, [2010’s] Restored To One,” says Christian. “After that, a band called Earth asked us to go on tour with them. From then on we started to feel like we were a real band so we decided to make more music.
“One of the things we wanted to do was a whole liturgical text of the Process Church called the Sabbath Assembly Liturgy, which was like their Sunday mass. I’ve known Genesis for a while from the New York scene where I was living at the time. Genesis had lots of information about the Process when it came time to document what a Process Liturgy would actually feel like, and who has a better voice than Genesis?”
Having broken free from the Process Church’s music, Sabbath Assembly’s new album is a mystical entanglement of 80s prog melodies and 90s hard rock riffs, passionately led by Jamie Myers’ sultry 70s vocals, and reminiscent of Jefferson Airplane.
“In a sense, we almost feel like this is our first record and that’s why we’ve given it a self-title,” explains Christian. “I feel like the Process was a great way to start the band. However, there’s a lot more vulnerability around this album because we can’t hide behind imagery and lyrics that are not entirely our own any more.
“We had a lot of fun documenting different aspects of the Process Church over the period of four albums. Now we’ve decided to let go of it because we feel like we’ve done enough and we’ve said all we had to say about it, so we can concentrate on our original material instead.”
From the first track, Risen From Below, the band’s eagerness to rock out is palpable after five years of unholy chanting. Through pounding drums, dissonant chords and hypnotic vocal melodies, Sabbath Assembly are able to grab people’s attention with their raw talent as musicians rather than the shock value of cult music. While the subject matter of their material has evolved, the tone of the music remains dark and gloomy, despite Christian’s pop-prog references, citing Rush, Scorpions and Magma as inspiration.
“Working on the Process music landed us into the occult rock genre,” he explains, “which is still relevant to our new album, but prog is a very strong reference point for us. In fact, Jamie always wears her Jethro Tull belt buckle on stage because she’s such a huge fan of their first five records.
“We like to debate a lot about prog within the band because I’m more of a European prog fan, so for me, Krautrock and Italian prog from the 70s are my strong reference points. However, we deliberately didn’t bring too much of that influence into the last album so it would sound closer to British or American prog, bands like Tool being top of that list.”
Sabbath Assembly was produced by Colin Marston from technical death metal band Gorguts. Marston’s also a member of complex prog band Dysrhythmia with Sabbath Assembly’s guitarist Kevin Hufnagel. Christian composes the melody lines in Sabbath Assembly and with bassist Johnny DeBlase’s added free jazz background, they combine their skills to achieve interesting music, without straying too far into musical meanderings. It’s a powerful and catchy style.
When we wrote this album we were really thinking about that 80s Yes album 90125.
“When the new album started taking a heavier direction, it made sense to use Colin as our producer,” Christian says. “We decided that if we were going to take this direction, we really needed someone who knew what they were doing, so Colin was a natural choice.
“Kevin and I grew up listening to 80s metal, so when it came down to writing our own material for the first time, that was what came out. Colin is a bit younger than us, so he grew up on death and black metal. But let’s face it, everyone loves a bit of Twisted Sister, so when we started pulling out the big guitar harmonies, everybody got along fine.
“Jamie’s vocals always come last. I like working with her because she has a good sense of creative harmonies. She always comes up with something way better than what I first started with, and I’m a bit of a kindergarten songwriter so I need these amazing musicians to flesh everything out.”
Sabbath Assembly’s music video, Ave Satanas, depicts a playfully wicked image of impressionable children playing with a Ouija board before being propelled into a front row of headbanging fans at the band’s gig. Black imagery is one of the band’s most compelling features, so Christian’s fascinating description of the new album cover comes as no surprise.
“I’ve been living in a place called Corpus Christi in Texas for a couple of years,” he explains, “and I found this random unknown artist who wasn’t doing anything except sitting in his basement holding a pen and being a pothead. Turns out he has incredible talent, so I asked him to draw the cover for us.
“I had this idea about a hand holding an egg. The image of the egg with two nails hammered into it is an old witchcraft symbol for abortion. This represents the death of the Process Church because we are done with that. The other element is the egg with a snake wrapped around it, which is an alchemical image called the Cosmic Egg. The snake is the climbing energy rising up the symbol of birth, contrasting life and death. This represents the death of our work with the Process Church and the birth of Sabbath Assembly.”
Sabbath Assembly is out now on Svart. See www.sabbathassembly.com for more information.