As cliché of a superlative it may be, “of biblical proportions” is no better applied to any album than Slaves For Life, the truly godly debut of a Tel Aviv trio entitled Amaseffer. The ancient name is a Hebrew rendering of “People of the Holy Book” (the followers of Abrahamic religions), signifying the vocation of proud Israeli Jews to translate the Torah into shockingly original progressive metal with all the epic timelessness of history’s most legendary and ostensibly metal literature. One does not simply write music for ageless biblical concepts, nor can the vast majority of composers expect success at such an endeavour; although the idea drifted into drummer-frontman Erez Yohanan’s mind many years ago, he humbly accepted his unworthiness for the project until a momentous personal victory left him older, wiser, and somehow brave enough to realize not just one album, but a trilogy. Slaves For Life spans only from the Egyptian exile to the Ten Plagues and aftermath, but it hits all five bullseyes for religious, historical, cultural, musical, and emotional richness and even transcends the source material with devotion not of mortal origin.
Sufficiently extraordinary evidence as such is the staggering ambition of Amaseffer’s craft. Yohanan and guitarists Hanan Avramovich and Yuval Kramer comprise the band’s core alongside Mats Levén (ex-Yngwie Malmsteen) in the taxing role of lead vocalist; rich choirs, lush flutes, antique tabla percussion, frequent cinematic samples, exquisite sound design, and live actors enlivening key plot elements, serpentine Hebrew narration by Yohanan, Middle Eastern-styled operatic chants by Kobi Farhi (Orphaned Land), and most notably the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra were needed to depict the story accurately. As such, Amaseffer’s sound relies on symphonic arrangements, ethnic color and multilingual lyrics akin to Orphaned Land, and Levén’s theatrically trenchant throat between Chris Cornell and Russell Allen in timbre, with steely metal spines to support the narrative; most Western metal elements take cues from Vanden Plas (Andy Kuntz was Amaseffer’s first lead singer choice but could not commit long-term), such as ornate orchestration, wide-open precise drumming, and generally stripped-down axework high on feeling and dark spaceyness between notes. Bands such as supergroup Affector settle for retelling biblical subject matter untouched lest the message be diluted, but Amaseffer does the impossible lyrically and enhances the original text by developing emotions, characters, and unmentioned or unexplored details such as centuries-oppressed Israelites questioning God’s faithfulness, a mother’s primal fear for her son’s life, and a murderer’s terrible remorse, to make Slaves For Life as much about the human condition as religious history. By marrying music, lyrics, and atmosphere in the audacious quest for aesthetic immortality, Amaseffer succeeds where Gilgamesh failed.
Prog’s superfluous intro myth is busted by Sorrow‘s forlorn acoustic plucking overlaid by a grieving flute lead, the voice of battered child Israel pleading for deliverance from abusive Egypt; the whole album is justified as a coherent piece at every turn, as while scores of progressive bands attempt to cross unfathomable musical boundaries and aesthetic terrain, only the elite are as professional and expressive with detail as Amaseffer. The sparkling symphonic introduction heralding the Birth of Deliverance bleeds into grim bells and violins as the Egyptians conspire to slaughter all male Hebrew infants, while the crying baby Moses is caressed and protected by his desperate mother. Thundering riffs and abrupt metric truncations hammer down previously safe doors as Levén pours unimaginable emotion into agonized wails and helpless prayers for Moses’ safety; once she can no longer run and must abandon Moses to the Nile’s mercies, Kramer’s bereaved extended lead and samples of rippling water and the sobbing mother and child are almost impossible to hear without being profoundly moved. Amaseffer’s ability to arouse extraordinary empathy for the story’s characters allows the story to be accessible and edifying to a wide variety of audiences, despite contrasts as extreme as the midsection of Midian: primitive riffs lead an electrifying duel between Angela Gossow’s torrential growls and Levén’s voice gradually dehumanizing until it doubles Gossow, then ebb instantly into frantic breathing and shattered acoustics as Moses realizes he has become a crass murderer. Incensed Egyptian horseback officials expel Moses into unknown lands where he will roam a stranger eaten alive by remorse amidst echoing power chords, elongated muezzin calls, and solemn harmonic guitar tapping; thankfully, an alluring duet between Moses and his wife Zipporah, redolent with charming interplay between various acoustic and percussion instruments, uplifts the mood briefly. The Burning Bush is a microscope on Moses’ very soul: flowering guitar-bass harmonies oscillating between 4/4 and 5/4 blossom Moses’ abject fear at the titular phenomenon, and Levén surgically extracts Moses’ dreadful insignificance and unworthiness, a lowly shepherd wearing scarlet letter M for Murder compared to the infinity and purity of God. Especially because years of searching for faith amidst depression and loneliness allow me to deeply empathize with his emotions, it ranks among the album’s most golden moments.
Even without a formal lyric format, Amaseffer’s pictorial storytelling through instrumental skill impresses. Wooden Staff’s opening of resounding bells underneath staccato riffing and a firebrand guitar solo, Vanden Plas-esque by forcefully bending notes, almost defines epic; mysterious Hebrew whispering under ghostly tabla and Floydian guitar atmospheres develops the hypnotic bass rumble whose monotone is maintained throughout about half the song, creating the impression of Moses steadily marching around Egypt staff in hand. When the monotonic bassline is anchored by guitar, Kramer extends a breathtaking solo for over two minutes; though most of Amaseffer’s lead guitar playing is moody and deliberate, Kramer occasionally discharges momentum with dizzying speed on par with Petrucci, as if expelling bursts of power from the staff, while maintaining his Stephan Lill-esque spacey tone. In this reverent context, the song’s finish with a waltz rendition of Jewish liturgical hymn “Adon Olam” is a glorious stroke of narrative genius.
Among the songs which perfect the Israelis’ formula, it is ultimately Ten Plagues that most transcends art itself. Not even one second escapes the terrifying atmosphere set by a foreboding acoustic chord and rolling thunder behind uneasy finger picking, cut open by tense chords in somber harmony with funereal lead guitar bends. After a brief piano-vocal reflection upon a Pharaoh’s black heart, monstrous chugging riffs and Levén’s grotesque scowling almost perfume the room with lugubrious stenches of blood and rotting corpses befalling the recalcitrant Egyptians. A subtle Egyptian mode strums and builds harmonic tension as lice creep through dust clouds; jarringly erratic but razor-sharp guitar-orchestra wizardry and volatile drum syncopations flash war zones before an observer’s eyes in brutally rapid succession; the arrangement jolts forward due to a time shift to 6/8 as ascending chord gallops are parried by pounding kicks and snares raining down scorching fury upon Israel’s mortal enemies. In Amaseffer’s theatrical masterpiece, the band proper halts entirely for Moses and Aaron’s verbal duel with Pharaoh himself, their voice acting as gripping as three possessed men fighting for their lives, and climactic thunder crackles down from heaven while Moses praises God and summons unlimited power upon Egypt as strings and orchestral percussion pulse triumphantly. When I listened to this album during a plane flight, the entire story involved me as vividly as if I was there, such that mere language fails to express the mark indelibly etched by this passage. I felt what could only be described as a colossally strong magnetic field pervading the plane and inexorably rooting me to that infinitesimally precise spot; Moses’ battle cry seemed to overflow that same unlimited power into every corner of me, seeming to burn away any shreds of negative emotion with white-hot fire as the temperature felt as if soaring 30 degrees, leaving behind a perfect calmness and clarity beyond description. Not even the ghastly Angel of Death that, thanks to graphic studio effects, barbarously slices and swishes through the mix as realistically as if crawling up a listener’s back, and Pharaoh’s eternal grief through a bewailing guitar solo could disturb the phenomenon’s persistence at peak intensity for over two minutes, and I did not recover for over an hour afterwards. At the time, it was the single most spellbinding spiritual moment among hundreds I had ever experienced listening to music, competing with the impact left behind by Mel Gibson’s monumental filmographic achievement The Passion of the Christ.
Perhaps that alone is sufficient to prove Slaves For Life as an unforgettable masterpiece essential to even the most casual listener, but from beginning to end, it is so consistently awe-inspiring, stylistically groundbreaking, and even groundbreaking in crossing bridges between the disparate media of music, art, theater, literature, and cinema, that my only option is to award a classic rating despite miniscule flaws. Although the overall production is outstanding and allows every instrument and every layer to shine with organically arid clarity conducive to the ancient setting, the drums sound sampled and thus their lost space in the mix can be felt when the dense and somewhat overcompressed waveform begins limiting. In all other respects, Slaves For Life is among the best progressive metal albums around today, recommended regardless of age, experience as a music enthusiast, musical preference, or even religious affiliation despite the biblical subject matter. It cannot possibly be for nothing that, among many albums which have been significant to my religious faith, personal evolution, and musical knowledge, this recording forever holds a treasured place.