Review by Daniel for Samael - Passage (1996)
Ben & I came across Swiss outfit Samael very early on in their recording career through their early 90’s releases. Those records pushed a fairly raw, simplistic & primitive yet still quite dark & atmospheric brand of Celtic Frost-inspired black metal that took a similar approach to that explored by the Greek bands of the time like Rotting Christ & Varathron. 1991’s “Worship Him” & 1992’s “Blood Ritual” were both reasonably enjoyable releases however Samael wouldn’t really peak until their 1994 career highlight “Ceremony Of Opposites” album that saw them taking a step up in the black metal ranks & in doing so entitled them to a lot of repeat listens during the next year or so. 1996’s fourth full-length “Passage” would prove to be a very different prospect though as it would not only see Samael stepping away from their black metal roots but it would also see them creating a new sound that is still very hard to categorize today. We'd gained a taste of this new direction a year earlier with the band's stop-gap "Rebellion" E.P. seeing Samael dipping their toes in the water to see how people would react however "Passage" would see them cementing their new identity. It would be one that would stay with them for the remainder of their career too.
The shadow of RateYourMusic.com has always hung over the Metal Academy website. I mean I can’t deny that it was the inspiration for the initial concept for our site & it certainly stills holds a very dear place in my heart. But if recent months have shown us anything it’s that there are significant gaps in its audiences understanding of metal music with their genre-tagging arrangement proving to be consistently inaccurate & “Passage” is a prime example of this. On RYM we see “Passage” being tagged with both Industrial Metal & Symphonic Black Metal as primary subgenres however that’s simply not an accurate depiction of what you can expect to hear on this record. Sure, there are some industrial metal tracks included on "Passage" however there are more that don’t really show much of a trace of anything industrial. In truth there are just as many gothic metal tracks included but that subgenre doesn’t seem to get a mention despite some clear similarities with the likes of Moonspell & Tiamat at times. Plus, claiming “Passage” to be a black metal release is a big stretch. There are a few tracks that show glimpses of the symphonic black metal sound & Vorphalack’s vocals still maintain his extreme metal bite however this isn't enough for a primary vote & “Passage” would seem well out of place at the top of the release charts for The North in my opinion. The only consistent element here is the symphonic component which is clearly evident on every track & is a major driver for the album as a whole. For this reason I see the Symphonic Metal subgenre as being the logical home for “Passage” & it’s unfortunate that this doesn’t really align with our Metal Academy clan structure given that Symphonic Metal currently resides in The Guardians i.e. our traditional melodic heavy/power metal clan. Thems the breaks though I guess & I’d much rather have our releases tagged correctly than worry too much about whether someone might misguidedly select a Samael track for The Guardians playlist.
Given my statements on the correct gentrification for “Passage”, this brings us to the quality of the music & the impact Samael’s new sound had on my overall enjoyment. The production is excellent as it presents Samael’s trademark simplistic riff structures in a chunky & up-front fashion that accentuates their heaviness while the symphonics are positioned well in the mix & never overpower the guitars. It’s a really professional sounding package to tell you the truth & was a big fat feather in the band’s cap. The song-writing is also pretty strong although this is where personal taste comes into it. I’m not at all surprised to see someone like Andi jumping all over “Passage” as he’s more of a fan of symphonic metal & gothic metal than I’ll ever be & it’s important that you have a good grasp of those two elements if you’re to fully understand the charms of this record. I can’t say that I’m completely onboard with the symphonic component if I’m being honest & that’s been a sound that I’ve always battled with no matter what the basis of a band’s sound might be. It’s only been the absolute elite acts like Emperor that have managed to overcome that stigma to gain genuine classic status from me personally but for every one of those there are dozens of artists that I’ve cast aside along the way. Don’t get me wrong. Samael are a class act. There’s no question about that. It’s just that I can’t help but feel a level of disappointment that their musical direction on “Passage” doesn’t suit me quite as well as it did on its predecessor & for that reason “Passage” would see me getting off the Samael train & giving subsequent releases very little attention until I started putting together the monthly The Sphere playlist.
Despite the undoubted quality of the performances & execution on display here, there are a couple of failures included amongst the eleven tracks. I don’t have much interest in “Moonskin” or the straight-up gothic metal of “Shining Kingdom” which both sound pretty flat to me. The rest of this material offers me a pretty consistent level of appeal however the stylistic direction sees me unable to push for classic status on any of the individual tracks. The Slayer influenced opener “Rain” is probably the best of them along with the equally strong “Jupiterian Vibe” & “The Ones Who Came Before” but none of them manages to quite get me jumping out of my seat. Vorphalack’s blackened vocals are very well done but I don’t think there are any hooks that have me repeating them in my head for days afterwards. He shows his Swiss heritage pretty clearly as you can often hear elements of Tom G. Warrior (Hellhammer/Celtic Frost) & Ron Royce (Coroner) in his delivery, only with a bit more of a black metal edge.
Overall, I’d have to say that I have a lot of respect for “Passage” as an ambitious & original undertaking from a band that were looking to do something fresh & different. If that was their goal then they’ve certainly achieved it & the fact that I find it so difficult to pigeon-hole "Passage" into any clear subgenre is a testament to that. In saying that though, I can’t deny that it doesn’t fit in with my personal taste as well as “Ceremony Of Opposites” did & I don’t think I’ll ever regard it in the same terms as Ben or Andi do. That’s OK though. Those differences of opinion are a big part of the appeal of music & art in general, not to mention websites like this one.
For fans of The Kovenant, Godkiller & early …And Oceans.