It’s been 23 years since the last time The Obsessed released a studio full-length, and the confluence of events leading to the arrival via Relapse Records of Sacred is duly headspinning. Even if we start five years ago with the Scott “Wino” Weinrich-fronted trio’s first reunion show at Roadburn 2012 (review here), the next few years would see lineup changes, bands coming and going, and more. After Weinrich‘s parting ways with Saint Vitus, the revitalization of the three-piece Spirit Caravan with the original rhythm section of bassist Dave Sherman (see also: Earthride) and Gary Isom didn’t last, as Isom was traded out, first for Henry Vasquez, then for Ed Gulli (a veteran of The Obsessed) and finally for Brian Costantino. This version of Spirit Caravan toured and was set to begin work on a new record — they performed “Be the Night,” which features on Sacred and was a preview track, as a regular part of live sets — before Weinrich announced a banner change.
What was Spirit Caravan was now The Obsessed, and with the lineup of Weinrich, Sherman and Costantino, they entered the studio with Frank “The Punisher” Marchand to record the awaited follow-up to 1994’s The Church Within. Following the recording of the 57-minute/14-track behemoth from this most quintessential of Maryland doom outfits, whose impact on that style is second to none perhaps save Pentagram (and that’s a maybe) and of course Black Sabbath, more lineup changes brought in Bruce Falkinburg (a former Weinrich bandmate in The Hidden Hand) on bass and Sara Serphim on guitar for a short-lived four-piece incarnation, and the actual release of Sacred finds The Obsessed retooled once more, with Weinrich on guitar/vocals, Costantino on drums and Reid Raley (Rwake), with whom the band had played live shows more or less all along, stepping in as the full-time bassist.
Somehow it’s fitting that in the midst of all the flux, of the near-constant swirl of change that has surrounded Weinrich for the bulk of his career — one album to the next, one band to the next — The Obsessed should reemerge with Sacred as a defining document of what’s made them such a landmark act in the first place. Sacred is far and away the most diverse record The Obsessed have ever done, from the rush of “Punk Crusher” and “Be the Night” to Weinrich and Sherman trading vocal lines — and sounding like they’re having a blast doing it, no less — in “It’s Only Money” to the languid nine-minute bluesy solo flow of “On So Long” and the organ-laced finish in “Crossroader Blues,” it’s an album nonetheless united by inimitable tone and by its underlying qualities of performance and craftsmanship, and while opener “Sodden Jackal” willfully hearkens back to the impact The Obsessed had in shaping what we think of as “traditional doom,” there’s just as much about Sacred that is unflinchingly forward-thinking and that refuses to compromise that vision.
With the strength of hooks in “Haywire,” “Stranger Things,” “Razor Wire” and “Be the Night,” the band provides a steady stream of landmarks throughout to keep listeners oriented as they present turns like “It’s Only Money,” the instrumental “Cold Blood” and toy with faster and slower tempo shifts across “Punk Crusher,” the title-track, “Haywire” and “Perseverance” early and “Razor Wire,” the heartfelt “My Daughter My Son” and “Be the Night” late — and that’s before the already-noted “On So Long” and “Crossroader Blues” at the end of the album — and as far as The Obsessed push sound-wise, they never lose the central identity created by the outright heft in the guitar and bass, yes, but in the emotion and execution of the material as well.
The confusion in “Haywire” feels genuine, as does the downer stomp of “Perseverance” (organ doesn’t hurt that atmosphere either), and the upbeat classic heavy rock of “It’s Only Money” offers a moment of (gasp!) actual fun when Weinrich and Sherman come together to yell, “stick ’em up!,” and while “Stranger Things” is something of a structural masterpiece to represent the work as a whole at its best, all-thrust pieces like “Be the Night” and “Razor Wire” offer a blistering appeal of their own. On paper, Sacred might feel like a work of multiple personalities, but on a front to back listen, they absolutely carry it. They make it flow.
Part of that comes down to Wino himself, and I’ll make no bones about being a fan of his work or of Sherman‘s. The guitarist makes the primary impression as frontman — The Obsessed, which as a band dates back to 1979, and across its first three records, 1985/1990’s self-titled, 1991’s Lunar Womb and 1994’s The Church Within, established itself as the original “Wino band” — but the collaboration between Wino and Sherman here is essential in giving Sacred its personality and its depth. To undersell that aspect of it would be disingenuous.
That’s a relationship that was born in the mid-’90s as Shine, which became Spirit Caravan, and like other key creative partners with whom Weinrich has worked over the years, for example guitarist Dave Chandler of Saint Vitus or the aforementioned Bruce Falkinburg in The Hidden Hand, the Wino/Sherman pairing may be one in which personalities contrast, but the work produced is that much broader and more realized, perhaps in part because of that. On that level, Sacred is almost bittersweet, because while even down to its sheer length it speaks to a highly productive writing experience — in the age of reborn LP length, one does not release an hour’s worth of material if one doesn’t have something to say — it also marks the end of the partnership that was such a major factor in its making.
At least for now. One would be a fool to try to predict what the future might hold for Weinrich or The Obsessed — and kudos to whoever in 1994 said, “I bet they do another record in 2017” — but if this is the band with which he’s going to continue writing and touring for the time being, then “this” is already a band that has changed in a crucial way that will affect any future output. Now, even talking about a “next record” from a band who just put together their first in nearly a quarter-century seems utterly ridiculous, but the point is that Sacred, true to its title, captures a moment that isn’t likely to come again anytime soon. It successfully revives and expands the palette of one of American doom’s most influential acts, and it comes across as a genuine representation of the personalities, or at least the personae, of those who made it. The next few years will continue to tell The Obsessed‘s story and these songs’ ultimate place therein, but there’s little doubt that for many, Sacred will rank among the top albums of 2017, and I have no argument against its consideration as such.