Yossi Sassi Band – “Roots & Roads”


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Yossi Sassi has been called the “Pioneer of Oriental Rock,” an appropriate title that doesn’t warrant a whole lot of explanation.  With Dessert Butterflies (2014), the multi-instrumentalist from Israel showcased a new collection of tunes with soul, purpose, and distinct West-Asian character.  He returns, this time with his official band, to showcase Roots & Roads to the world, an album that carries its predecessor’s vision to new places – heavier, louder places.  Released 25 May, the album maintains the selfsame “Oriental Rock” aura, but infuses a much more grinding, metal-influenced edge, linking middle-eastern vibes with an aggressive bite that hearkens back to Yossi’s work with Orphaned Land.

Roots & Roads is technically not a solo record, and is actually the first official release of the Yossi Sassi Band.  This “new” collaborative project is still the brainchild of Yossi himself, who wrote the vast majority of the album and produced it, in addition to providing vocals, guitars, bouzouki, keys, and much more.  Shay Ifrah (drums), Ben Azar (guitars), and Roei Fridman (percussion) – all of whom have worked with Yossi since his solo debut, 2012’s Melting Clocks – form the band’s lineup, together with Or Lubianiker (bass), who also played on Desert Butterflies, and lively new vocalist, Sapir Fox.  As with Yossi’s solo records, this release also features a number of returning guest musicians (the full list can be viewed at the bandcamp link above), including Zaher Zorgati (vocals on “The Religion of Music”), Ron Bumblefoot Thal (guitar solos on “Palm Dance”), Diana Golbi (vocals on “Root Out”), and Roy Zu-arets (piano) amongst others.

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“Wings” opens the album with that immediately recognizable Middle-Eastern flavor: bouzouki with synth and guitar – Yossi’s unmistakable mantra.  The big, open orchestration allows the unique instrument to feature and also create the track’s characteristic ambiance.  For an album opener, “Wings” is mostly instrumental, steady 4/4 with some feel changes, largely consisting of its central refrain and an extended bridge.  The second track, “Palm Dance,” is one of its more memorable compositions, moving through sections of metal-influenced guitar riffing over a shifting meter.  Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal features on this track, adding a pair of guitar solos to the song’s repertoire.

“Root Out” is the first track on the album to feature prominent vocals (the singing on “Wings” was more of a periodic refrain), performed by Diana Golbi.  Dark and restless, this is the song of a paternal tree, watching and waiting for a return to the “days of endless bloom.”  There are some really neat dual-guitar parts on this composition, as well as an emphatic solo toward the end of the track.  The tempo accelerates to the conclusion, where everything comes to a crashing end.  “Mr. NoSoul” and “Madame TwoSouls” form an isolated, thematic partnership in the midst of the album, the former being a brief, instrumental ballad constructed on acoustic guitar and bouzouki; the latter, a grinding, full-band instrumental number.

After the chugging conclusion of “Madame TwoSouls,” “The Religion of Music” once again launches into a driving, guitar-based piece, featuring Zaher Zorgati as its primary vocalist.  “Winter,” one of my two favorite tracks on the album, opens with some unique instrumental textures: horns against chugging guitar, with icy piano riffing and secondary guitar tones.  This is the longest track on the album, topping 8:20, and is entirely instrumental, moving through several melodic sections but returning several times to a central theme.

The band dedicates “Thundercloud” to anyone who has lost a loved one, and cites the names of several deceased friends & family of the band, in addition to Yossi’s own father, who was recovering from a stroke at the time of the album’s release.  Though brief, “Thundercloud” is another strong point for the record, featuring strong vocals and orchestral instrumentation.  As always seems to be the case, Yossi’s music resounds exceptionally whenever its content was in some way inspired by a personal story.

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“Road Less Traveled” opens with plucked strings and guitar ambiance, a gentle and pensive intro that is offset by the tune’s driving, latter half.  After Yossi’s brief, spoken-word critique of social norms, Sapir Fox carries the theme with strong vocals.  “Rizes Kai Dromoi” varies its meter while Yossi’s colorful vocal work resonates alongside growling guitar and bouzouki.  “Bird Without a Tree” is another highlight on this album for me: flute, acoustic guitar, bouzouki, piano, and light percussion formulate the entire instrumentation for this instrumental composition, and it is positively gorgeous.  The distant “ahhhs” and “oooohhs” give the song a sense of whimsical soul-searching.  Roots & Roads’  final track, “Stronger Than Ever,” intros as an acoustic, strings ballad, but transitions quickly into one final driving guitar track.  Instrumental but for a few lyric inserts, this song is the punctuation mark on an album that exists predominately in a metal headspace.  The acoustic instrumentation does return in the track’s final minute, however, returning the composition to the gentle place where it started.

There isn’t anything about this album that I truly dislike, though I do find it to be less inventive as Yossi’s previous release, Dessert Butterflies.  The predominate metal flavor isn’t inappropriate for the band stylistically, but it does lock them into a constant feel with only a handful of songs varying in styles of composition.  There is also a notable departure from the organic feel that made Dessert Butterflies such a warm and multilayered album: Roots & Roads’ tracks collectively exist within a fairly narrow headspace, largely constructed on electric guitar riffing and driving quarter notes.  I love the record’s extended instrumental moments, but I wish that more of them landed in the same category as “Winter” or “Bird Without a Tree” – not necessarily soft and balladic, but using contrasting textures and multi-layered acoustic instrumentation to give the album more melodic nuance.

Thematically, the record riffs on points of connection and points of potential, as Yossi’s brief lyrics in “Wings” convey: “My roots are there somewhere / My wings are everywhere.”  Tenuous though both topics might be, Roots & Roads speaks to the heart of universal human experience – the coming and the going, the dreaming and the formulation, the knowledge of “nothing new under the sun.”  This is an album that touches the past as well as the future, marking the passage of time as a journey of the soul growing and evolving, from learning to soar to populating the soil.  Roots & Roads is a narrative that encourages personal ambition while also stressing heritage – familial, cultural, spiritual – portraying the seasons of life as an exercise in developing a healthy connection to the past while still striving toward the future.

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