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(49: 41, Aaarrg Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. Intro 2:18 2. Ouverture 2:50 3. A Certain Fool 3:37 4. Interlude-1 0:52 5. The 5th Element 6:32 6. Interlude-2 0:34 7. The Apocalypt (World in Shards) 5:43 8. Interlude-3 2:03 9. King with Broken Crown 5:41 10. Intermezzo 5:23 11. Interlude-4 2:11 12. Affection 2:53 13. Interlude-5 0:51 14. Mistaken Truth 5:10 15. Finale 2:56 LINEUP: Ralf Hubert – basses and concert guitar Erik Grosch – el. and ac. guitars Martin LeMar – all vocals Benedict Zimniak – el. guitar Alex Landenburg – drums, percussion
Prolusion. The brainchild of bassist Ralf Hubert, German-based band MEKONG DELTA are one of the earliest representatives of the technical progressive metal subgenre. Initially formed in 1985 as a ‘mysterious’ band, with all the members operating under pseudonyms because of contractual obligations with other bands such as Rage and Living Death. They released eight albums between 1987 and 1997; then disbanded after the release of “Pictures at an Exhibition” (based, like ELP’s album of the same title, on Modest Mussorgsky’s composition). In 2007 Hubert resurrected the band, though with a new lineup, and released “Lurking Fear” (inspired, like their second album “The Music of Erich Zann”, by the work of H.P. Lovecraft) – followed in 2010 by “Wanderer on the Edge of Time”, Mekong Delta’s tenth full-length album.
Analysis. In spite of their obvious creativity and originality, Mekong Delta have never reached the level of fame of other bands engaged in the production of quality progressive thrash metal. Therefore, they remain to this day a sort of ‘cult item’ even within a subgenre that is in itself targeted to a niche audience. Though Germany enjoys a strong reputation on the heavy metal scene as a whole, it is better known for bands that play in a more traditional power or thrash metal vein than in a really progressive one, especially if we rule out the inevitable Dream Theater wannabes. If we want to draw a comparison with seminal, progressive/technical thrash outfits such as Watchtower, Cynic or Voivod, the only names that come to mind are the sadly disbanded Sieges Even, and, of course, Mekong Delta themselves. Unlike most of their contemporaries in the original thrash metal movement, though, Mekong Delta have always had an ace up their sleeve: their solid classical foundation, which has become increasingly pervasive over the years. With Russian Romantic composer Modest Mussorgsky as their most recognizable influence in this respect, the band have evolved in a classical direction as regards the very structure of their albums – as shown very clearly by their latest effort, “Wanderer on the Edge of Time”. Barely under 50 minutes in length (in my view, the perfect running time for an album, especially such a dense one), and a concept of sorts – based on some of the ‘major arcana’ of Tarot cards – the disc presents a rather fragmented appearance. Indeed, none of its 15 tracks runs longer than 6 minutes – highly unusual in an age when 30-minute epics seem to have become the rule once again. It is the titles, however, that most reveal the classical pattern of this work – with an overture, an intermezzo, a finale, and five short interludes separating the main pieces of what is basically a single composition, without any real pauses between tracks. The interludes, in conception if not in sound, bring to mind the “Promenade”, which fulfills the same function in Mussorgsky’s enormously influential “Pictures at an Exhibition” (reinterpreted by Mekong Delta in their eponymous 1997 album). Besides these ‘functional’ tracks, only Intermezzo is completely instrumental, while all of the others feature Martin LeMar’s powerful vocals. It is precisely LeMar’s excellent vocal performance that lends the album a neo-classical feel akin to bands like Symphony X – though without the grandiosity and occasional cheesiness. The contrast between his commanding yet clean tones and the often frantic dynamics of the music, together with the stunning guitar work of Erik Grosch and Benedict Zimniak, adds further interest to the compositions. With such a seamlessly interacting pair of guitarists providing both aggression and melodic input at appropriate moments, Mekong Delta do not need keyboards (which often are a detriment rather than an enhancement) to beef up their sound – though the discreet presence of an orchestra can be occasionally heard. Alex Landenburg propels the music along with its manic drumming, unleashing volleys of rapid-fire bass drum patterns – though it is mainman Ralf Hubert’s flawless bass work that holds everything together. The band do not waste even a second in the pointless noodling that has all too often become associated with prog-metal. Even if the sound at times borders on the claustrophobic, Hubert is an experienced enough composer to provide some breathing space when things heat up. If I had to compare Mekong Delta with another band, my choice would inevitably fall on Voivod, another seminal outfit in the genuinely progressive metal field. “Wanderer on the Edge of Time” sharply reminded me at times of masterpieces such as “Nothingface” and “The Outer Limits”, though with a cleaner, less gritty sound than the French Canadian band’s. The compositions display a lot of variety: the album opens with the beautiful yet subtly disquieting classical guitar piece Intro, then plunges headlong into the technical thrash of the frantic, yet controlled, guitar-led Ouverture. From then on, the album unfolds as a rollercoaster ride of classically-influenced, soothing acoustic moments juxtaposed with breathtakingly fast and complex, riff-laden thrash. The dramatic The 5th Element combines the two main strains of progressive metal – the neo-classical one, and the technical-extreme one, while King with Broken Crown, driven by Hubert’s powerful bass lines, offers a haunting, almost Black Sabbath-ian atmosphere with some Middle-Eastern nuances in the guitar work, and sinister, echoing voices in the background. The Interludes are also very varied, some longer, others shorter; some acoustic, others more on the metallic side of things. Affection, with its almost catchy chorus and melodic bent (not surprisingly, seen the subject matter), feels almost out of character amidst the overall intensity of the album – which is then driven to a powerful crescendo by the ultra-intense, textbook-perfect progressive thrash of Mistaken Truth and Finale. Unfortunately, “Wanderer on the Edge of Time” has received little attention so far from progressive rock sources, and even in metal circles its profile has remained rather low. This is, however, a disc that does a much better job of representing genuinely progressive metal than the myriad of Dream Theater soundalikes releasing albums with alarming regularity. Mekong Delta, in a way, have directly inherited the approach of the prog bands of the Seventies towards classical music, both as an influence and under the compositional aspect. This is a very eclectic, impressively constructed album that will offer many rewards with each new listen.
Conclusion. A very accomplished album, though not always easy to digest, “Wanderer on the Edge of Time” is highly recommended to those progressive metal devotees who are weary of the slew of cookie-cutter bands clogging the market. Undoubtedly one of the best prog-metal albums of the year, and one that may also appeal to open-minded fans of symphonic prog on account of its strong classical matrix.
RB=Raffaella Berry: September 20, 2010
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