Sabbat – Mad Gods And Englishmen

Sabbat – Mad Gods And Englishmen
Release Date: 19/05/23
Running Time: 02:58:25
Review by Simon Black

Once upon a time there was a ground-breaking independent record label called Noise Records. In the early 80’s, independent labels were quite rare. Quite risky too, if you were a band carving a new niche that the major labels hadn’t associated with profit margins yet and as our very own Dark Juan would say, were generally a very good thing. Noise has an interesting history all of its own (which is very well documented in David E. Gehlke excellent ‘Damn The Machine – The Story Of Noise Records’), but in essence it’s founder (former jailed anarchist turned capitalist Karl-Ulrich Walterbach), started his musical career with a Punk label ran out of his West Berlin squat and the aid of a conveniently located public phone booth on the street outside. You couldn’t make this up…

Walterbach discovered the burgeoning Metal underground scene was way more alive and kicking than punk, that there was a huge gap in the market currently being filled by homemade demo tape hoarders and thus Noise was born (ostensibly to provide a platform for Thrash acts that the major labels were ignoring in the early 1980’s). Whilst Metallica et al were kicking the door down Stateside, Walterbach pulled the same trick in Europe and provided the platform for the likes of Kreator, Helloween, Rage and Tankard to prove what they could do to Germany, Europe and ultimately the world. Noise Records became Noise International, and the roster started to expand beyond Germany to wider Europe and the UK.

Equally influential and memorable were Nottingham’s Sabbat who were a huge cornerstone of the British Thrash Metal scene in the late 1980’s, and first up on Noise’s “International” agenda. Formed from the ashes of Hydra, Sabbat like many acts at the time fascinated by the more extreme end of the Metal musical spectrum, found themselves banging their heads against the glass ceiling of the industry major label structure in an age where what independent labels did exist in the UK were mainly all about regional distribution of material from the States, rather than nurturing new talent. Noise were where it was at in Europe back then and Thrash was growing commercially much faster over there, but the reality was this probably was not the wisest choice of label partner for a UK act. The benefit for Sabbat was total artistic freedom, which is another way of saying the label pretty much ignored them at the time…

Getting hold of their material also has become a challenge in recent years. Noise effectively folded at the turn of the century as Walterbach smelt change in the air as physical media sales declined and sold out to Sanctuary Records whilst the going was good. A few short years later Sanctuary in turn were bought out by Universal, who pretty much did nothing with any acts from the back catalogue that weren’t still a going concern, and thus many gems from the period have been locked in limbo for the best part of two decades. Again, the whole lot was recently hoovered up again by BMG in 2016, who have realised that there’s still a lot of love for the material under the Noise roster and have been gradually dipping their toe in the water with some revamped reissues (and actually using the Noise brand to boot). Mainly that’s been in the form of a few tentative compilations so far, but this box set feel like the start of a whole new adventure. 

Comprising of the first two full studio albums and some deep dives from the rarities archive, this set comprises pretty much everything of note that the original seminal line-up of Sabbat (Walkyier, Sneap, Jones, Craske & Negus) delivered. With their first two studio albums taking the first half of the set (and the disastrous final album “Mourning Has Broken” wisely being left out entirely), the remainder comprises of an ‘as live’ set from the BBC Friday Rock Show in 1987 and a proper live show in Eastern Berlin in 1990 and illustrates in four brisk and brutal disks why they are still considered to be such a huge influence on the Extreme Metal scene some thirty-five years later.

Growing up In Nottingham myself, I can confirm that we had a huge amount of pride for these local lads made good. When “History Of A Time To Come” was finally released in 1988, it felt that the whole of the considerable Metal population of the city was right behind them (well, the half that didn’t wear cowboy boots, eyeliner and enough hairspray to put a hole the size of the Market Square in the ozone layer, at least). It had been too long coming too, with guitarist Andy Sneap being too young to sign a record deal when the label first engaged, despite the huge groundswell of support in the UK press. Taking the ire of anti-organised religious hypocrisy of Hell, the extreme vocal tone of Celtic Frost, the technical proficiency of Mercyful Fate and the sheer brutality of Slayer, this debut is probably the first definitive UK Thrash Metal album. Like so many records from the time, it struggled with production values, but now as then it leaps out of the speakers and grabs you by your delicate parts with its sheer energy, anger and the outstanding musicianship on display.

Martin Walkyier is one of the most underrated firebrand lyricists in the business, with a powerful, distinctive voice with which to deliver it. On this first album he takes often uses a higher register, more screaming pitch which bows deeply to Tom G. Warrior and which although he does mellow and deepen over time, but it works brilliantly in the context of this debut. The whole album stands the test of time incredibly well though.

“Dreamweaver (Reflections Of Our Yesterdays)” sees a more confident, richer and mature sound to Sabbat appearing – helped enormously by some way higher production values. Whereas the debut often found the instruments merging into a hugely energetic wall of sound, here they can all clearly be heard. This is the point when the sheer skill underpinning their playing rises to the top. Each and every member of the band is delivering full throttle and hugely technical performances, without loosing any of the energy and vibrancy in their delivery. Vocally Martin Walkyier has now adopted the slightly deeper and more emphatic approach to his delivery phrasing that will become his trademark. 

It’s a wise decision, as the higher pitched screams of their debut often made his superb lyrics incomprehensible without the aid of an album lyric sheet, but here we can hear his enunciation and eloquent word play more clearly, although he’s a bit lower in the mix as he starts to assume his trademark sound balance position of equal billing to the other instruments (which would continue throughout his time in Skyclad). Then there’s the songs themselves, all wrapped in a conceptual framework sourced from “The Way of Wyrd” and the start of Walkyier’s passion for all things pagan and mystic as a keystone for his writing. 

The arrangements are more complex, subtle and almost progressive as the band gain confidence in their abilities, but with enough speed, energy and ferocity to guarantee they work both on record and in a live environment. Again, it stands up well and for my money was about five years ahead of its time and you remember how I said that their debut was the first definitive UK Thrash album? Well, this is the second…

The third disk is another snapshot of a bygone time, when up and coming acts would troupe down to the BBC’s Broadcasting House studio in London to perform ‘as live’ versions of their material for transmission on either Tommy Vance or John Peel’s legendary weekend BBC Radio 1 shows. The most fascinating part of this approach was that quite often underground acts would take slots on shows with broadcast audiences in the millions, despite being not on the commercial radar of the major labels. Needless to say, a good showing on one of these could rapidly change a band’s fortunes in this regard.

This recording predates the recording and release of “History Of A Time To Come”, which was still in limbo pending Sneap being old enough to sign a recording contract with Noise and I would argue that the production values are actually better than the end product from Noise. It’s also the only chance many will get to hear ‘The 13th Disciple’, which hailed from their “Fragments of a Faith Forgotten” demo, but ultimately never made it onto “History” and so has become lost in time unless you have an old cassette copy. To be honest with only three songs it’s a bit brief, and if they were going to rummage that far back to before Noise’s involvement, then including those demos would have made the set more complete, as well as justifying a full third disk, which at 19 minutes here it barely does, although given that it’s been lost for decades this is a minor quibble.

What is completely new in digital format however is their full performance from the Thrashing East Live concert in 1990, with the Berlin Wall falling around them, historically speaking. Released on VHS only in 1990 as “The End of The Beginning”, this was hard to get hold of even then and a DVD copy of this is included in both the vinyl and CD versions of this box set, along with an audio version (although sadly we’ve only got the audio versions for review purposes). I’m lucky enough to have actually seen this, as a friend had a copy acquired from a road trip to Germany and I remember it as an absolutely blistering performance, but even on audio only you can hear how shit hot this band were in a live arena, with frontman Walkyier and his fluent grasp of German allowing a huge rapport to build up with the audience within minutes. Once again it jumps across the decades as a lesson in how things should be done, and done properly.

Sabbat were and still are a hugely important and influential band, but let’s face it they are never coming back. OK, there’s been a couple of revival attempts with live performances over the years, but they didn’t end well. Guitarist Andy Sneap is on the Judas Priest payroll now and if he did have any spare bandwidth, he would be either prioritising Hell or the long list of bands hoping that he could lend his phenomenal production skills to. Fraser Craske  and Simons’ Negus and Jones seem to have dropped off the musical radar somewhat and none of them wants anything to do with Martin Walkyier after a very final and very public online spat at the tail end of the 2000’s. I’m not going to go into the details, but the reality is these are differences that are never going to be reconciled, so the availability of this slice of history buried for decades is the best news any fans could hope for under the circumstances. 

But I’m OK with that, because with this spinning in the background suddenly I’m my eighteen-year-old self again for a few hours – all angry at the world, but less angry that Sabbat’s time was so short. I’m also glad that we all have the chance to hear this stuff again though, as this flame burned very, very brightly, if far too briefly.

Sabbat – A Cautionary Tale – BBC Radio 1 Friday Rock Show: 


Disc 1: “History Of A Time To Come”
01. Intro
02. A Cautionary Tale
03. Hosanna In Excelsis
04. Behind The Crooked Cross
05. Horned Is The Hunter
06. I For An Eye
07. For Those Who Died
08. A Dead Man’s Robe
09. The Church Bizarre

Disc 2: “Dreamweaver (Reflections Of Our Yesterdays)”
01. The Beginning Of The End
02. The Clerical Conspiracy
03. Advent Of Insanity
04. Do Dark Horses Dream Of Nightmare
05. The Best Of Enemies
06. How Have The Mighty Fallen
07. Wildfire
08. Mythistory
09. Happy Never After

Disc 3: “BBC Radio 1 : Friday Rock Show Session”
01. A Cautionary Tale (BBC Radio 1 Session)
02. For Those Who Died (BBC Radio 1 Session)
03. The 13th Disciple (BBC Radio 1 Session)

Disc 4: “Live In East Berlin 1990”
01. Intro
02. The Clerical Conspiracy
03. Hosanna In Excelsis
04. Do Dark Horses Dream of Nightmare
05. Behind the Crooked Cross
06. I for an Eye
07. Wildfire
08. The Best of Enemies
09. For Those Who Died
10. A Cautionary Tale
11. The Church Bizarre

Martin Walkyier – Vocals
Andy Sneap – Guitars
Simon Jones – Guitars
Frazer Craske – Bass
Simon Negus – Drums


Disclaimer: This review is solely the property of Simon Black and Ever Metal. It is strictly forbidden to copy any part of this review, unless you have the strict permission of both parties. Failure to adhere to this will be treated as plagiarism and will be reported to the relevant authorities.