Sabbath Assembly Are Setting Aside Occult Hymns for Human Ones
With 'Rites of Passage,' the occult rockers leave their cultish beginnings behind and look to the future.
Sabbath Assembly is an artist collective in the truest sense. The progressive, melodic, often dreamy doom rock outfit's rotating cast of members was solidified by the darkly ethereal singer Jamie Myers, and the band has settled into a groove. Its current lineup also features Kevin Hufnagel of Gorguts and Dysrhythmia renown and newcomer Ron Verod of Psalm Zero and Kayo Dot alongside bassist Johnny Deblase and band founder Dave Nuss. The members themselves are second to the vision they create in unison, and on their new album, Rites of Passage (out May 12 via Svart Records), that vision deals with the near-universal transitions we make in life— birth, growth, socialization, and death.
However, the release of Rites of Passage isn't just a commentary on life in the abstract; it signifies a transitional moment for the band. They've been steadily moving past the strong ties to the hymnody of The Process Church of The Final Judgment—a Scientology splinter group based in London that reached peak relevance in the 1960s and 70s—that informed the band's earlier work. As they've moved towards more original material, Sabbath Assembly has also focused hard on pushing their creative boundaries by incorporating stunning visual art and video work (as seen in their new video for "Does Love Die," which Myers shadow casted and edited).
I caught up with Myers right after she arrived home in Texas following a recent short run of shows, and broke down some of those themes as they relate to society and the modern disruption of some of our sacred long-standing rituals. Read on for our conversation, and listen to the full album stream of Rites of Passage.
Noisey: Rites of Passage, rather than focusing on fantasy and mysticism, is more focused on the transformation that comes about through daily experiences. Is there something in this message applicable to our society in its fractured state, or is this more about personal growth and change?
Jamie Myers: In the past people have had rites of passage to usher them through the complexity of the transitional stages of life, for example puberty rites, marriage ceremonies, religious initiation, and of course funerals. I think in society these days you're seeing less and less of these traditions. So for us, on a more personal level, we were really trying to dig deep and feel what types of transitional experiences need rituals, and we wrote songs to serve this purpose. I think we tried to really internalize that within the group and tell a nice story to provide passage for ourselves and hopefully our listeners.
In a Decibel interview last summer, you mentioned your inspiration had seem to run dry with the Process Church of the Final Judgment but there are still connections to the traditional hymns of the church, correct? Can you explain a little there?
Yes. I think overall we had thematically explored everything those hymns had to offer. The well had run dry, so to speak. It wasn't that we weren't interested in it anymore or that it didn't seem applicable to what we were doing, but the hymns themselves within the context of the four previous albums—we thought we had told that story to where we felt fulfilled by it. To be honest, a lot of the hymns were written in a very similar format, as many hymns are, so that really felt like at some point it was tying us down. It was just time to move on from that and become our authentic selves, and to do that with new music and with new experiences that were our own rather than retelling a historical moment in time.
So it's not only human rites of passage, but also a rite of passage for the band to come into its own.
How do you think the current lineup of the band lends itself to the creation of these songs as actual rites of passage? Is there a different comfort level there now with the current members?
Yes. I think in the past, even with the process hymns, we were highly influenced by whoever was a part of the collective at the time. I view Sabbath Assembly as an artist collective to be influenced by who we were working with, but somewhere along the Quaternity album, we started to work heavily with Kevin Hufnagel. We just struck this bond with him, and suddenly he and Dave and I felt this sense of camaraderie and a creative force that we hadn't had prior to that in our own experiences. So when Kevin brought Johnny Deblase from the self-titled album into the group, it only made that feeling more intense and suddenly we were writing very moving music that felt very strong to all of us. Moving forward after that record we though, 'Well, where are we gonna go next?' Kevin wanted to work with another guitar player, and that's when Ron Varod came into the fold. It just sealed the deal, and it really solidified our group on a friendship level, a creative level, and just moved forward a musical dynamic that really was unbridled, and very organic. It really felt timely in some sort of sense like we had known each other for a very long time. It just felt right. I think that's where a lot of the authenticity and storytelling came to the forefront because the inner workings of the band were so comfortable.
It really feels so good when everything clicks within a group and you feel the chemistry lock into place.
Yeah, and we had experienced working with so many other wonderful people but people have schedules! They have lives, they have other bands—so while we were still creating music that we thought was vital to us, it wasn't until the current lineup came into being that we felt like the music inside ourselves had a home and a platform to really express ourselves.
You mentioned in another recent interview that the band has been spending a lot of time together bonding, and that that chemistry can be heard on the new record. Do you have any special routines or rituals you do together outside of practice that help tighten that bond?
This go-round, we hit the road before we hit the studio. Johnny had already been with us on the self-titled record, so we had a really good experience going with him already and had done a couple of tours with him. When Ron was brought into the workings of the band… we just really all have the same sick sense of humor and kind of jaded outlook upon life. When you can find someone where we can all laugh about how ridiculous the world is, it kind of sheds light into an otherwise desperate living situation. If you can get in a van and tough it out on the road with a group of people and not rip each others' heads off, and generally stay humorous and make each other laugh throughout the experience, I think when you can bring that into a working dynamic inside of a rehearsal, that fun and that charisma everybody brings in really gets you through the tired moments when you hit a wall and you don't think you can continue on. Presently with living in different states, we have really grueling rehearsals when we do get together. We tend to lock ourselves inside of a room and don't see daylight for twelve hours. We come out of it kind of exhausted and wrecked from it, but we also have this 'Oh, wow. We just did something really cathartic and wonderful.'
You're credited with the shadow casting and editing the gorgeous video for "Does Love Die." Can you talk a little about the concept and execution behind that and the cover art used therein?
Sure! Starting with the cover art: Pacific Northwest artist Alex Reisfar is responsible for that. I had come across some of his stuff and was just mesmerized by it. I thought about all these heavy themes we were trying to explore and I thought, 'How are we going to do this justice? We need someone with a really strong narrative and aesthetic in their work.' His artwork in general is just so dark and beautiful, within a few brief conversations, he was able to pull together something special for us. I could write a thesis on how his dark surrealist vision aligns itself to each one of our songs on the record, but I wouldn't want to potentially ruin it for anyone who wants to draw their own conclusions. There are little gems tucked away in every recess of the painting. He really hit home the narrative of the album.
So when I started to work on the theme for the video, I would periodically get updated photos from him as he was working on the painting. I'd ask, 'Hey, would you mind if I appropriate some of this and build it into the actual video?' Once [I had] his blessing, I just sort of ran with it. Most of the video stuff I do is a process of layering. I usually set up a backdrop of some kind and have created some projections which I then I put onto a screen and stand in front of and create shadows on those projections while filming that. Once I get that into an editing form, I start to blend still pictures into it, which is where you see some of his start to bleed in. It's a way to marry the two concepts but still in an abstract way that allows the viewer to enter a dreamlike state. The song is very dreamy as well, so it doesn't have a specific theme in mind—that's more to be interpreted by the viewer. Of course there are little things tucked away and hidden in it that are pertinent and symbolic to me, but it was just a fun process from beginning to end to work with Alex and have his blessing as well.
Both are so beautiful, and that painting is just incredible.
Oh, I know! He skillfully hid very poignant moments throughout that kind of touch base on the rites of passage that we formally discussed. The Datura flower is something that we used for "Angel's Trumpets." It's used in puberty rites to cause the initiate to forget his or her past. There are beautiful moments in reference to the Hades and Persephone myth that relate to "Bride of Darkness." He delicately placed darkened symbols within the artwork that portray self-exile from religion, which goes back to the song "Twilight of God." There are twists and turns from his paintbrush that we'll be decoding for years to come.
In "I Must Be Gone," there's a plea to not stand by your grave and cry, followed by "It's you, it's you, it's all for you." The track stands out to me as one that seems almost like a posthumous love note to your children to know your life meant something because it brought them forth. Is that something you wanted to convey here (seeing as how at least two of you are currently raising children), or is that just something I gleaned from a personal perspective?
So that is something that you picked up on, but it's extremely insightful because Dave and I are experiencing, as parents and with our own parents entering their twilight years—we're going through these kind of full-circle moments. Suddenly, through your parents, you see yourself as a parent and you think about your own children and what that means. So that's very insightful and though that isn't purposely put into that song, it is a huge part of the album as a whole. "I Must Be Gone" is also in reference to a person observing their own funeral from above and trying to console their loved ones, so that is a very poignant part of that you mentioned. It's also coming from the protagonist's standpoint of confronting God and confessing to being betrothed by your enemy. There's a reference to the Leda and Swan poem by WB Yates and that ties into the song as well. You pretty much hit the nail on the head with that one.
So what are you looking forward to most with the band—touring, making new videos, etcetera?
Oh yes! Currently with the band, we have a very quick album life cycle, and that just comes with everyone's drive. We don't let a lot of time pass between projects, so we're even working on new music even though this album hasn't been released yet.
More interestingly, we're working with New York artist Gretchen Heinel on a beautiful and really demented short film where we got together and brainstormed a concept for the film, and now we're scoring the music for it. That will be released sometime in the next few months. Moving forward, we're going to continue to work with Alex Reisfar for artwork and as well potentially with some other film-type projects as well.
That sounds fascinating! I'm excited to see what comes out of it.
We're really at the top of our game as far as music writing is concerned and so we're really just trying to push forward and expand the boundaries of what we're doing as a band. Not just in musical terms, but in a general artistic vision. We're trying to bring forth some new ideas and tap into some other creative sources and people who can extend that vision and help us create some magic.
Kelsey Zimmerman is casting spells in Twitter.