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March 13, 2004

Mekong Delta - Kaleidoscope

Many bands have been involved with or associated with the progressive metal subgenre over the years, but few have managed to retain a detached awesome-yet-little-to-speak-of status. Mekong Delta are highly referenced, yet few have heard them and I assure you that this has nothing to do with difficulty in acquiring the music, all of which is still quite in print. No, somewhere along the way, progressive metal’s Watchtower and Mekong Delta get forgotten and passed over by fans interested in something of lighter fare: Dream Theater and Fates Warning are not thought of as axe-wielding bands in the same sense as your standard thrash and power metal artists are. This inaccuracy comes to the surface to a large degree with Mekong Delta, who are best described as a high-speed, high-intensity thrash band with a classical fixation. They turned it up to eleven in every sense. I hope for a day when they are appreciated for the masters that they truly are.

Mekong Delta are/were:
Doug Lee - wail
Uwe Bastrusch - axe
Ralph Hubert - slappy
Peter Haas - skins

The subject of this review, Kaleidoscope, is an album of theirs which came at a time of transition for the band. The prior albums’ songwriting consisted of a heavy thrash base, with frequent time signature changes and an overall level of complexity surpassing that of other thrash bands. The album right before Kaleidoscope, Dances of Death, is also a classic (albeit a less diverse album) and I recommend it to everyone with an enjoyment of thrash. Kaleidoscope, on the other hand, shows the band willing to take some chances: a Genesis cover (“Dance on a Volcano”), an instrumental not from a classical composer (“Dreaming”), and a general shift away from standard thrash structures and base, towards a more flexible though extremely high speed technique.

“Innocent?” opens the album with a very standard Mekong Delta thrash piece: high-energy, mad complex, wailing ghostly vocals. Lyrically the standard of writing is extremely high: “Wading through the oceans of minced dreams/While they puke some little pieces of/Surreal truth to feed the stupid crowd…” The tone of the album is set: the fall of the Western world and the selling out of the human soul.

“Sphere Eclipse” starts of as a midtempo (for Mekong Delta) bob-and-weave tune. The complexity level of the song structures goes up in this song: there are three modes, the second is a high speed and energy barn-stomper section, and the third is a low-speed introspective zone wherein we are presented with an opportunity to hear several layers of inventive solo from our man Uwe along with a tasteful bit of keyboard. A masterpiece in its own right, but winds up not being the star of the album.

“Dance on a Volcano” is a cover of a relatively awesome early Genesis prog rock piece. The performance is awesome, and very true to the original, giving a feel of the different flavors but comparable talent of Mekong Delta. In all ways better than the Death cover of Judas Priest mentioned in my previous review, but at the same time the song itself is such a departure for Mekong Delta from (essentially) a club of two or so dead white composers. It truly marks the change: this is the moment when you realize Mekong Delta transcended the ordinary, even in the category of progressive music which seems like it should not have the concept of ordinary. You are intrigued.

“Dreaming” is very much the bright classical piece you never expected to hear from Mekong Delta. It is also an excellent prelude to the awesome things which are to come from the band: the next album, Visions Fugitive, contains a several track middle section entitled “Suite for Group and Orchestra” which recalls this piece quite well. The final release, Pictures at an Exhibition, is a complete implementation of Mussorgski’s suite of the same name (with and without orchestra, on one disc). Not as nice as “Voice of the Soul” but also not as bittersweet, a nice warm track that belongs where it is, separating the strange cover from the next two intense tracks.

“Heartbeat” is, hands down, my favorite Mekong Delta song. It opens with a few industrial-sounding crunches, followed by a throbbing mechanical sound, overlayed with inventive classical bass from Lord Hubert. Then the track collapses and the metal rages outward. Lyrical except:

“In the shadow of our industry
we constructed all these big machines
symbolizing what we want to be
superpowers of insanity
Accepting all of this bureaucracy
content to be another wannabe
obscured by all of this complexity
consumed as fuel for even bigger dreams
[cut]…and the endless sound of moving parts
replaced the rhythm of their strained hearts”

This is about the feistiest I can recall them ever being, biting social commentary on top of driven, technical riffing. You want to sing along, and you love the words. Every line in this song speaks to me. You consider finding out where Doug lives to go give him a hug.

“Shadow Walker” is the rip-roaring “oh-yeah?” response to “Heartbeat.” It’s nastier, darker, less groovy and more head-bangy. It wins the award for most frustrating sing-along, but the lyrics are also on display and work extremely well with the music: “Out of the dark - I will dive into the light/I will - gonna rise up from the crowd/I will - be a star in TV land/That’s right - be a hero for a day” Straight up barnstorming awesome headbangin’ glory. One, maybe two modes.

“Sabre Dance” - Khachaturian’s well-known classical piece. You’re exhausted by now and this really isn’t helping. They are still Mekong Delta, so true to form, you don’t get off easy.

“Misunderstanding” is the final moment of glory on this album of absolute madness. When I first got the CD I liked “Heartbeat” and that was about it. Then I started to like “Shadow Walker.” A few weeks later, I got this tune in my head and I couldn’t recognize it—it turned out to be Misunderstanding. This is a hook-laden prog-thrash festival. Uwe’s wailing axe action on top of some highly addictive riffs sets the stage. Then, when Doug comes in, Uwe starts playing triplets for the notes instead of straight riffs. Doug alternates between low wails and high screams almost at random, creating a wonderfully strange yet sonically pleasing atmosphere. Just after this section there is a bit of buildup and some interplay with Ralph’s bass and the guitar which is very addicting. I’ve about made it to the solos which, of course, are classically influenced and interesting. The story has something to do with aliens, which I am a fan of as a song topic, so the whole song is one of my favorite Mekong Delta creations: expertly tuned and awesome in all regards.

“About Science” is a good song in a thrash vein, but I admit that thinking about it always brings to mind Watchtower’s “Control and Resistance” due to their both containing the lyrics “Controlled by confusion/Confused by control.” As a result, I consider it at least partially a tribute to that band and their magnum opus. A capable track in it’s own right with at least three sections, but not a particularly memorable closing entry.

Much like Death’s The Sound of Perseverence, this is one of my favorite albums of all time, and certainly Mekong Delta’s finest hour, though they have many hours and almost all of them are fine. Recommended to fans of music, thrash metal, and progressive metal, classical music also. Classical fans not intrigued here would do well to purchase Mekong Delta’s “Classics” disc which is vocal-free and just has their classical works. :) Check it out.

Posted by FusionGyro at 07:14 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack