Review Summary: The 9th Symphony of progressive thrash.
By the time we reached the last decade of the 20th century, much has changed. The Berlin Wall fell down. The USSR dissolved, George Bush became president, and the world made a few steps away from the threat of nuclear holocaust. Same could be said about the thrash metal genre as well, which came a long way since the humble beginnings. What used to be a more sped up version of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, became a large hub of bands that cdould approach it with their own unique style. Higher technicality, multi-layered song structuring, open flirting with other genres from death metal to progressive rock, were not uncommon. Especially the latter.
Along with other groups like Watchtower or Coroner, Germany’s Mekong Delta were among the first ones to pave the way for the more technical and musically adventurous approach that became almost a standard by the early 90’s. Their unorthodox, often jarring, mind-bending riffing and infatuation with classical music were evident right from their first album. Whether it was covering well-known musicals pieces or structuring their original songs like symphonies, bandleader/bassist Ralph Hubert and his bandmates always set their main goal around infusing two widely different worlds together and create a new breed.
While the band already developed and explored their sound in releases like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “The Principle of Doubt”, their fourth record; 1990’s “Dances of Death (and Other Walking Shadows)” is an album that can been seen not only as a culmination of everything they’ve done before. But also as the most well realized, most crystallized achievement of their main concept. Neo-classical, baroque-like, densely textured and operatic metal symphonies with electric instruments.
Clocking in just 38 minutes and four songs, the album centerpieces around mainly the opening and the closing track: The latter being a cover of Mussorgski’s “Night on a Bare Mountain” while the first one is the title track “Dances of Death”. Expanding through an impressive (as well as frightening) 19 minutes and 8 major parts (including an overture and a finale) this song is a dazzling accomplishment of some of the most technically refined and creative musicianship you’ll ever find in the thrash metal genre.
From its flamenco-sounding intro and its fast-paced, violin-like arpeggios to the more stomachable yet equally abstract mid-paced riffs, “Dances of Death” is a beast that goes through many phases and changes, yet never becomes boring and incomprehensible. Hubert fully understands that even if they are making music for a smaller, more fanatic and open-minded crowd, there has to be certain things that we can hold unto. Despite its length, the song always has a catchy riff and a sense of constant motion. The larger parts, with vocals and verses all have their distinctive, unique structure and feel, while also getting the right amount of build-up and introduction. Similarly to classical music we have the overtures that flow into the main composition than we transition into the next one.
We have the intense thrash pieces, with blazing instrumentals and complex rhythms, as well as the more atmospheric breakdowns, shredding solos, jazzy, plumping bass sounds, and some Jörg Michael’s most abrasive and impressive drum work to date. Also we have to mention new vocalist Doug Lee, whose high pitched, manic shouting and screams make for a perfectly fitting schizophrenic clash with the musical chaos.
With its more straightforward approach, 3 minute length and more melodic passages “Transgressor” feels like a short breather inbetween the bigger epics, while “True Believers” is standard Mekong Delta fare. Which still means a highly technical rollercoaster-ride of swirling accords, unexpected signature changes, and other antics (also one of the best solos on the record). And last, but not least we have the Mussorgski cover, a supreme instrumental blend of classical structuring and aggressive thrashing shreds with a memorizing main theme and furious guitar exchanges before ending in a meditative, balladic finale that perfectly channels the Russian motifs of the original work.
In closing what can I say" “Dances of Death (and Other Walking Shadows)” is already considered by many among the finest, most progressive and excelling work in tech-thrash and I can’t disprove these claims for a second. Dense and impenetrable at first sight, once grab a hold on Mekong Delta’s musical madness will not let you go.