Sunday Old School: Samael
Band Photo: Samael (?)
Formed by brothers Vorph and Xy (originally going by the much longer titles Vorphalack and Xytraguptor) way back in 1987, Swiss act Samael is one of the longest running bands in the black metal scene, although there have been many times throughout the group’s career where the term “black metal” didn’t apply at all.
Despite the tension that would appear to occur with two family members writing, recording, and performing together constantly, Samael has been forging ahead without any signs of slowing down for more than 20 years. The band’s lineup is currently rounded out by bassist Mas, who has been involved with since the early ‘90s, and “newcomer” guitarist Makro, who joined in 2002. Makro also plays in the devastating death/doom outfit Sludge, which has previously been covered in our look at unknown side projects.
Samael has actually had one of the most stable lineups in a band with this sort of longevity, only splitting with three members in 26 years, with the core of the band remaining stable in all that time. Despite that lack of membership changes, the group has had a constant theme of evolution throughout its history, refining and even changing styles completely several times.
Besides the sound change as the band evolved from black metal towards an electronic/industrial vibe, the lyrics themselves have morphed significantly. The themes went from explicitly negative lyrics attacking religion in the early days (“I vomit on the holy bible” being one iconic line from the “Ceremony of Opposites” album) to more mystical leanings in the transitory middle era. The metamorphosis came full circle by the time of the 2004 album “Reign of Light” (reviewed here), where the band was still critical of religion, but the lyrics had become positive and uplifting instead. The follow-up “Solar Soul” (reviewed here) then shifted yet again, this time towards current events, politics, and warfare.
Samael’s first full-length “Worship Him” arrived in 1991, which witnessed the band’s most overt early black metal sound that is about as old school as it gets.
The next year saw the release of sophomore full-length “Blood Ritual,” which was still very old school, but had a distinctly different sound from other black or extreme metal bands of that same time.
“Ceremony of Opposites” is where the band really starts to bring something different to the table, and for many fans of the older style who don’t care for electronic sounds in metal, this is still considered Samael’s finest hour.
In between “Ceremony of Opposites” and “Passage,” which would become Samael’s flagship release, there was a little EP titled “Rebellion,” which is now quite difficult to get ahold of. Besides some remixed tracks, the release included a classic cover of Alice Cooper’s “I Love The Dead.”
“Passage” is where Samael really kicks things into high gear, bringing in many non-metal elements while still maintaining a very strong extreme metal presence. There’s not enough industrial here yet to turn off the black metal fans, but it’s still a fairly experimental release, with songs like “Jupiterian Vibe” bringing out a bongo. A second version of the album was also released containing the bonus CD “Xytra’s Passage,” which featured the tracks rearranged as completely keyboard and instrumental tracks.
After “Passage” the electronic sounds would become the norm, rather than a backing element, but Samael still had one more hybrid release to gift the world in the form of the “Exodus” EP. This would end up being one of those rare EP offerings that’s just as important in a band’s discography as the full-lengths.
Samael ended up self-producing next album “Eternal,” and while there are definitely some cool moments (see “The Cross” below), overall the sound quality is lower than what was heard on “Passage” and “Exodus,” and front man Vorph has even stated there are a few songs from the album he won’t play live as he doesn’t care for them. The album is notable, however, for “Together,” which just may be the first black metal love song.
By “Reign of Light," the industrial, glow-stick friendly side of Samael was on full blast, which divided the fan base quite a bit, with some loving and others straight up hating it.
Due to contractual obligations, Samael’s next release was the double-album “Era One + Lesson in Magic #1,” which almost entirely ditched the metal in favor of neoclassical instrumental music. While perhaps an interesting trek into a different side of the band, these CDs are essentially a side project released under the Samael name as the band was switching labels.
Splitting the difference between “Reign of Light” and “Era One,” “Soul Soul” (reviewed here) injected some metallic elements back in, but stayed much less on the extreme side overall.
Perhaps overcorrecting from the lighter “Solar Soul,” the following album “Above” (reviewed here) was a cacophony of furious and chaotic sounds. The tracks on the album were originally from a side project of the band members named Above, complete with its own MySpace page and everything (back when that mattered).
Front man Vorph originally described the music as “too radical and unbalanced to be a Samael” release, although the band changed its mind after the mastering process and “Above” became the next official Samael album. You can read our interview with the band about how “Above” came to be right here.
The band’s latest full-length “Lux Mundi” (reviewed here) changed the sound yet again, but this time it was a return to form, as the band heavily channeled the “Passage” era. You can read what Vorph himself had to say about the differing approaches between “Above” and “Lux Mundi” at this location.
The legendary band isn’t slowing down after “Lux Mundi” however, as Samael is again working on a new full-length this year. With the band’s constant evolution, it’s almost certain that whatever the Swiss metal gods cook up next will sound nothing like the last release.
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