Boxset Review: Sabbat – Mad Gods and Englishmen

Boxset Review: Sabbat - Mad Gods and Englishmen
Reviewed by Dan Barnes

As a nation, we (I mean England and, latterly Great Britain) have established why every citizen is innocent until proven guilty (Magna Carta); parliamentary control over executive government and Monarchy (Bill of Rights) and led the world in the abolition of the slave trade (Slavery Abolition Act) through the nineteenth century.

What we’ve not been consistently world class at is Thrash Metal.

While the US had the Big Four and many, many more waiting in the wings, the UK only ever seemed to muster a handful of bands capable of challenging that hegemony. Many had the potential to have a crack at the bigger platform: Acid Reign had the personality, Slammer had the backing and Xentrix had the riffs; but it was Nottingham’s Sabbat who looked to be the most likely torch-bearers for the British Thrash Assault.

Noise Records – Sabbat’s original label – are issuing a five-disc vinyl or four-disc CD package, both including a DVD and twenty-four-page booklet of the band’s output up to their major reconfiguration for 1991’s Mourning Has Broken album. Called Man Dogs and Englishmen, there was something quintessentially English about Sabbat, an eccentricity still found in bands like My Dying Bride and Cradle of Filth. A sound unmistakeable born in Albion and unashamedly grandiose in its execution.

Having cut their teeth with a couple of demos and with both Magik in Theory and Practice and Fragments of a Faith Forgotten creating a buzz around the young four-piece, Sabbat signed to German label, Noise and released their debut album, History of a Time to Come, in 1988.

Disc One of this collection is that very record, in all its imaginative glory. It’s been a while since I last spun this disc, so revisiting it has been a real treat. My original vinyl version still has the inlay where you can buy Noise merchandise through the post in deutsche marks (25dm for a muscle shirt – according to the interweb, in 1988, that was about £8) and the battle scars of much action back in the day.

My first reaction is how modern it still sounds. Andy Sneap wrote all the music on the record and the consistency is palpable. Ideas are revisited and reinterpreted across the eight-tracks proper, moving from fat and meaty riffs delivered with rapid fire execution on balls-out thrashers like Hosanna in Excelsis, The Church Bizarre and Behind the Crooked Cross to the more traditional heavy metal sound of I For An Eye and For Those Who Died.

These two songs, along with the epic Horned Is the Hunter, prove Sabbat have complete control over their own creation as a young Mr Sneap – so young, in fact that the band signing their contract with Noise was delayed until he turned eighteen – ably demonstrates why he became one of the most sought-after producers in the country and why he was a perfect fit for filling Priest guitar duties some thirty-years-later.

Simon Negus and Frazer Craske hold it all together on drums and bass respectively, being solid without being flash. On the mostly-instrumental A Dead Man’s Robe the musical components of Sabbat are allowed the space to breath and serve up a slow and brooding composition without being swamped by Martin Walkyier’s vocals.

Yet it is Mr Walkyier’s voice that instantly sets Sabbat apart from all the other Thrash bands of the era. His lyrical dexterity and ability to create mini-dramas in each song is remarkable and was clearly

an inspiration for a young Dani Filth – it’s probably fair to say the early Cradle career owes much to History of a Time to Come.

Subject matter ranging from Faust to the war in Heaven to the rise of National Socialism across Europe to the Inquisition all come under Walkyier’s critical gaze; and it wouldn’t be an album from the latter part of the Eighties without a shot across the boughs of Televangelists in The Church Bizarre.

In retrospect – because hindsight is always 20/20 – the seeds for the next record were sown in these snippets of dramatic situations; the meeting of an English Pagan Thrash Metal band and an obscure 1983 novel on the subject of pre-Christianity and ancient lore in the form of Dr Brian Bates’ The Way of Wyrd.

Described by Dani Filth as “one of the most important metal albums – ever” 1989’s Dreamweaver (Reflections of Our Yesterdays) is a concept album at a time when concept albums were either dead in the water or so anachronistic as to be the remit of your parents or prog fans.

Boxset Review: Sabbat - Mad Gods and Englishmen

To tell the complex tale of Wat Brand’s mission deep into the pagan forests of medieval England, Sabbat recruited Holosade’s Simon Jones to assist Andy Sneap’s with his musical workload, turning the band into a five-piece and fattening their sound considerably.

It’s clear from the outset as the tolling bell and cawing crows of The Beginning of the End’s narrative introduction, that Sabbat had managed to capture lightning in a bottle once again.

For a band still in its infancy and only on its second album, the accomplishment of Dreamweaver is astounding. The atmospheric intro gives way to a Simon Negus drum-role and directly into the story, where Sneap’s music and Walkyier’s lyrics marry almost perfectly.

From the confident bombast of The Clerical Conspiracy to the wistful cello of Advent of Insanity; from the combination of chugging riffs and ethereal guitars to reflect the dreamlike quality of Do Dark Horses Dream of Nightmares? to the constantly shifting tempo of Best of Enemies leaving the listener as unsettled as Wat is when first meeting his guide, Wulf.

From start to end, Dreamweaver benefits from the experience the band gained from the History of a Tour to Come shows. They are even tighter here than on the debut and Jones’ inclusion, delivering unrelenting rhythms, gives Sneap’s lead the ability to soar and conjure the magical sounds of primeval England.

Disc Three of this set are the three songs Sabbat recorded during a BBC Radio 1 session and were originally broadcast in 1987. Both A Cautionary Tale and For Those Who Died would find their way onto the debut album and these early versions showed a rawness and exuberance of a hungry young band. The third song, The 13th Disciple, would be recrafted and reworded to become Horned Is the Hunter. For fans from back in the day who didn’t hear these on the Friday Rock Show, this disc, although short, is well-worth checking out.

Discs Four and Five is the CD and DVD versions of Sabbat’s Thrashing In the East show in Berlin on the 4 March 1990. Along with three quarters of the Teutonic Big Four – Kreator, Sodom and Tankard – the Englishmen played to a crowd starved of metal mere months after the Berlin Wall finally came down.

This show has been available to an extent since the VHS release of The End of the Beginning in 1990. I still have that video cassette – signed by the band at Bloodstock 2007 – but don’t possess a VCR to

play it on. Although the band had toured the UK merely four months before the Berlin show, Simon Jones was absent from the gig, with Neil Watson stepping in to cover rhythm guitar.

The 2007 CD reissues of History and Dreamweaver featured bonus tracks from the show, giving us the full Fotodisk Video version of Sabbat’s performance. But that is not the whole story as Mad Dogs and Englishmen finally includes the missing songs Wildfire and The Church Bizarre from that 1990 show.

Sadly, later in the year the band would fracture, with Martin Walkyier heading off to Skyclad and Frazer Craske leaving. Andy Sneap, Simon Negus and Neil Watson would recruit bassist Wayne Banks and vocalist Richie Desmond and issue Mourning Has Broken in 1991, but the magic had gone.

Maybe, one day, Mourning Has Broken will be re-evaluated, but in comparison to its two predecessors it falls considerably short of the heady heights Sabbat managed between 1987 and 1990.

Whether you were there back in the day or are just too young to remember Communism, I urge you to either acquaint or reacquaint yourself with a couple of the UK’s most accomplished and inspirational Metal albums.

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1 Comment

  1. This looks epic, but I’m slightly disappointed by the omissions here. Why can’t we have those demos? And no release for Blood For The Blood God, the White Dwarf flexi disc. I would love to have heard them again.

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