Review Summary: Setting up a standard of technical thrash metal for others to match upon.
Music never stays in one place. It constantly changes, evolves, transforms itself into new, mysterious ways that sound shocking and unusual at first. The most famous example of this is Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring which almost sparked a riot on its 1913 premier due to its unorthodox composition. In the same way we can find this kind of evolution in rock music and heavy metal as well, thus there are albums that many have sparked harsh reactions due to their bewildering musical choices, which defied the norm. I don’t know if Mekong Delta’s second album, “The Music of Erich Zann” received such reactions back in it's release, but I’m more than willing to bet, it raised the eyebrows for many metalheads.
It’s important to note that by 1988 thrash metal itself was entering into its adulthood. The underground which was the main host for Mekong Delta was flourishing with bands who took the usual speed-driven and aggressive riffing of thrash only to spice it up with complex structures, unusual timing and an input of other musical influences that gave each band a different yet recognizable sound. The examples are numerous from Denmark’s Artillery to Switzerland’s Coroner and Belgium’s Target, and even the big American bands like Metallica and Megadeth started to flex their instrumental muscles. This movement reached its apex in the early 90’s, but Mekong Delta managed to stay one small step ahead of the big crowd and release their defining musical testament only a year after their debut. An incinerating, furious, crazy, jarring and compelling testament.
The band’s debut already pushed the envelope with its unusual song structuring, unpredictable time signatures and the twisting, turning guitar riffs that despite their technicality managed to pull the listener in. For the follow-up the band not only doubled down on these aspects, but they also heightened up the influence of classical music, thus resulting an album that has the style, the tone and flow of a symphony. Only here the instruments are electric guitars and approach is a “bit” more aggressive.
Beginning with quick arpeggios, then going full on fast paced fury, “Age of Agony” already stars the album with incredible fashion. This song along with “True Lies” are easier to digest due to their catchy choruses, but I would be lying if I were saying that it only took me one listen to fully catch on with their flow. Guitarists Reiner Kleich and Rolf Stein truly do a remarkable job on this record. Their fretwork ranges from lightning fast power chords to melodic lead refrains, while also mixing in aggressive shredding, weird harmonizing and feedback. Not to mention compiling sometimes more than a dozen different riffs into one song. The riffs and solos twist, jump and swirl around like violins which is I think was exactly the band’s musical brain Ralf Hubert wanted to achieve.
Even songs like “Confession of Madness” or “Prophecy” that follow the “verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus” formula closer indulge into hectic tempo changes and bizarre patterning, like an unexpected clean guitar breakdown in the middle or a downright dissonance of the vocals and rhythm section. The songwriting is so dynamic and creative that it almost every song shows a new and head-twisting side of the band’s musical arsenal and that’s not a small accomplishment. The fast paced songs serve up most of the album, but even a more mid-paced song like “I, King, Will Come” is delivered with non-traditional approach. “Interludium (Begging For Mercy)” is particularly intriguing as Hubert and the gang takes the infusion of classical music and thrash into another level here, with a clash of real orchestra and electric instruments, going as far as the guitars and bass imitating the other instruments.
I’ve spoken high praise of the guitarists, but quite frankly the work of the other band members is truly outstanding as well. Bassist and band leader Ralf Hubert lays down equally complex and amazing basslines especially on “Memories of Tomorrow” where his pummeling bass pretty much drives the whole songs energy. Jorg Michael tops it up with drum work that doesn’t stops with the usual straight bass snare, but goes all over the map with its wicked, adventurous sometimes jazzy fills that brings another element into the mix. And finally the last piece of the puzzle is vocalist Wolfgang Borgmann and his falsetto vocals that sometimes aids other times counters the frenzy riffing, giving another layer to the increasingly dense musical texture.
With such dense and complex structuring, the mixing must have been one hell of a task, yet Hubert has done an excellent job of making this album sound the way it does, particularly in accenting instruments when needed and using plenty of extra layers, highlighting every small nuance. The guitars, the drums, the bass, and even the vocal overdubs are balanced well, showcasing a sound thick and powerful.
By the time the time we reach the organ-driven closer of “Epilogue”, little doubt remains on just what kind of a powerhouse Mekong Delta is as a band. With “The Music of Erich Zann” they truly defined themselves as one of the most auditions, adventurous and innovative groups of the thrash metal scene, with fearless musicianship and instrumental prowess that serves as true creative inspiration even to this day. The band continued their evolution on the next album, traveling even deeper into the musical outer regions, but this album is what truly set there course for the warp drive.