As the co-founder of Israeli outfit Orphaned Land (which he left in 2014), it’s fair to say that guitarist/singer/songwriter Yossi Sassi has played a major role in the increasing popularity of (as he deems it) Oriental prog rock/metal. By combining an array of Arabian and American influences and instrumentation into a dense and colorful amalgam of metal, folk, and rock, he creates music that’s highly challenging, alluring, meditative, and inspirational, and the same holds true for his newest endeavor, Roots and Roads (the first to be released under Yossi Sassi Band). Brimming with insightful and personal lyricism, rich sonic tapestries, and wise thematic continuity, the record showcases everything that makes Sassi (and the subgenre) so remarkable.
A major reason why Sassi stands out is his Bouzoukitara, which he invented in 2011 as a way to combine American electric guitar and Greek acoustic Bouzouki. In addition to featuring over a dozen guest players (including his daughter, Danielle, on flute), Roots and Roads features a core band consisting of Sassi, Or Lubianiker (electric bass), Shay Ifrah (drums), Ben Azar (electric guitar), Sapir Fox (vocals), and Roei Fridman (percussion). As for its central message, the following excerpt from “Rizes Kai Dromoi,” which appears on the inner jacket of the CD package, expresses it well: “Roads, there are so many. How can you choose which is right and which is wrong, if you don’t know your song?”
The LP starts with “Wings,” a charming and empowering blend of tight acoustic guitar fingerpicking, steadfast percussion, and fanciful flute. Its initial moments are already spiritually vesting, and when Sassi’s deep character and self-reflective words—such as “I wish I had my wings / I know I could fly high up in the sky / But trees have roots down deep / So I’m bound to fly up in my mind”—are added, it becomes even more liberating. The arrangement echoes and dances around his decrees expertly, making the track feel expansive and breezy yet also focused. It’s quite a captivating opening.
“Palm Dance” definitely learns towards the harsher side of Sassi’s aesthetic, as the instrumental includes that kind of sharp riffs, speedy solos, and booming rhythms that makes genre kings like Dream Theater and Symphony X soar; however, there’s a fair amount of lighter moments interwoven throughout, too, and it’s all wrapped in the kind of melodic intrigue that’s unique to Middle Eastern music. It segues smoothly into “Root Out,” which is highlighted by the dominant bellows of Diana Golbi, as well as a slightly ‘80s metal tinge. Like much of Roots and Roads, its topsy-turvy trajectory keeps it surprising and inventive.
Halfway into the sequence, “The Religion of Music” balances tranquil interjections with a principal aggressiveness (due in part to guest singer Zaher Zorgati) that would fit nicely on an Ayreon opus. It’s towering without being overbearing or stagnant, as the band’s consistent usage of varied timbres keeps it vivid. That same could be said for “Winter,” another instrumental whose movements run the gamut from fiery virtuosity to gentle acoustic ballad to demonstrate how diverse this band can be. There’s also the sorrowful but warm “Thundercloud,” a brief and confessional ode that definitely captures Sassi at his most earnest and brave. Even more impressive, lines like “You gave me all the wings I need” reaffirm the aforementioned thematic continuity, making Roots and Roads feel like a connected voyage instead of just a collection of songs.
“Road Less Traveled” finds Fox evoking the forceful passion of Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering, Ayreon, Devin Townsend Band) over a dizzying display of biting tones, which move around her with great momentum. On the other hand, both “Rizes Kai Dromoi” and “Bird without a Tree” feel essentially Arabic in their instrumentation; the former continues the “roots” motif with plenty of tricky percussion and fast guitarwork, while the latter is brighter overall, with heavenly female chants, delicate pianowork, and tribal syncopation fusing into a majestic, wordless work. Lastly, “Stronger than Ever” brings the journey full circle by first introducing its soft sentiments—“Now my leaves have fallen / My timbre fades / And when they’ll cut me down / My roots are stronger than ever”— with acoustic arpeggios (which also conclude the piece) before launching into some of the fiercest music yet. Its apocalyptic majority juxtaposes its cathartic beginning and end brilliantly, yielding a very effective closer.
As any fan of Sassi’s would expect, Roots and Roads is a tour-de-force of introspective writing, convicted singing, and wildly sundry and sophisticated music. Sassi is clearly a masterful musician and arranger, as well as an endearingly altruistic, reflective, and philosophical thinker; likewise, his band and guests do exceptionally well bringing his visions to life. All in all, the record is a distinguishing and rewarding experience that feels steeped in tradition yet is also very relevant and prophetic.