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The Swiss masters of technical thrash concluded the decade with a great album, which was largely considered the culmination of their career; at least by those who never had the patience to wait for two more years, in order to hear the grandiosity which "Mental Vortex" turned out to be. The trio have already managed to prove themselves as true auteurs on the metal field by the end of the decade: well, they have not added a groundbreaking album of the "Into the Pandemonium" proportions into their catalogue, but at the same time they haven't humiliated themselves beyond recognition with something as degrading as "Cold Lake". The new decade was arriving with new territories to be explored. How would the three youths from Zurich be able to answer to those new demands...
"Mental Vortex" is the musical analogue to the immaculate machines which the Swiss watches have had the reputation to be all these years: the riffs click and clock with the utmost precision until the very end(including on the very individual, kind of frivolous, take on the The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", with not a single note played just for the sake of it. Every riff and lead have been carefully calculated, as though an invisible clockwork mechanism, which makes absolutely no mistakes, has been working behind the scenes the whole time. Well, so where is all this spontaneity with which this genre has been so proud with eversince its inception? The answer in this particular case is: nowhere. But when this perfectly constructed work has been done the Coroner way, it's anything else, but boring and soulless. On the contrary: it has been made into one of the finest albums to ever grace the metal scene in general.
The sample introduction, which is taken from the Stuart Gordon cut film "Re-Animator" (based on a Lovecraft story), may be viewed as a cliche pretty common for the genre, and probably not promising much in terms of originality. But once the clinical, sterile riffs of the opening "Divine Step (Conspectu Mortis)" start cutting, twisting and turning into the least expected directions, one would quickly realize that there is quite a "metamorphosis" witnessed here, and one which is by all means worth delving into. Before continuing, however, one should also leave all his/her illusions behind: there would be neither warm subtlety here nor any lyrical, melodic digressions which worked so well on "No More Colour", giving it another unique, but in a different way, character. With those illusions left aside, one can continue to enjoy the otherwordly technicality on the string of tracks ("Son of Lilith", "Semtex Revolution", " Sirens", "Metamorphosis") which follows, containing the definitive technical compilation of riffs on the whole scene. The compositions are encyclopaedias of puzzling riff-patterns and labyrinthine song-tructures which are utterly logical, and never get lost in a senseless display of mastery, like it has been the case on other, less cleverly "plotted", efforts.
The dynamics is so big that one would hardly notice the reduction in terms of speed, the latter handsomely provided by "Pale Sister" and "About Life", consummate technical headbangers with a unique mechanical feel, which was strange even to Meshuggah at that time; there the band's infatuation with the horror genre springs up again: the closing voice sample at the end of "About Life" has been taken from Clive Barker's "Hellraiser". So far, so perfect... Having already covered Jimmy Hendrix's "Purple Haze" on "Punishment for Decadence", the ever unpredictable trio decide to "massacre" The Beatles this time in their own way, and here comes the already mentioned cover of the Brits' ""I Want You (She's So Heavy)", which is "so heavy" indeed, that it may have tumbled everything, which has been heard previously, down on any other album; but not here. This slightly off-context track scores highly on originality thanks to the "heavy" doomy approach which the guys epitomize as a welcome shift from the very demanding, clockwork delivery served so far. And it works...
This album showed an obvious move towards a more updated, modern sound which, mixed with the still prevailing old school patterns, could only have split the fanbase into two camps: those who would embrace the new ideas whole-heartedly and follow them all the way to "Grin"; and those who would start pulling out due to their conservative views and stubborn devotion to the dying classic formulas. Neither side should be blamed for its stance, of course, but those with ears (and heart; and soul) for the innovative and the pioneering would simply keep silent in wonder before another monument of a musical genius, which literally closed the chapter of classic thrash, along with other works released the same year, by subtly (so there was something subtle here, after all...) drawing paths to be explored in the near future. The band themselves never bothered to follow them, though; instead, they branched out into a less thrashy, industrial direction with "Grin" to wrap it up, thus opening another lane for a further exploration...
So what do we know about life, folks? Exactly.
After an album like No More Color, Coroner might have just pulled up their tent posts, packed in their supplies and left the rest of us stunned and wandering through the ashes of astonishment, unable to escape the grim new reality they had opened through a window of precision craftsmanship. But this was a touring band, a power trio trying to make their stamp on the world beyond the cult following they had developed. To this extent, they have gone all out with the 4th full-length, Mental Vortex, so far as to record it down in Florida at Morrisound with Tom Morris. One can certainly ascertain the difference here; it's far more controlled and 'zen'. Not to say that the band have lost their touch for a climactic escalation through Tommy Vetterli's performance, but in all this feels like a stripping down of the spiraling wonders of their previous albums.
Unfortunately, this dive in complexity is relative to a descent in overall quality, a trend that would continue into their even more minimal follow-up, Grin. Mental Vortex is still a great album, with five near legendary Coroner tracks in its eaves, but this is the first case in which I felt any of my attentions slipping. Part of this is the cover of The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" included as a core element of the album. They perform it effortlessly, and even manage to extract its sullen, bluesy darkness to a new height, but it simply does not concur with the band's sharper, original material. I'm also not an enormous fan of the opener, "Divine Step (Conspectu Mortis)". It creates a steady, frantic step through the punch of its discordant verses, so it's a decent enough start to the proceedings, but it's about 7 minutes without that one riff I always expect from a Coroner track to blow my mind clean out of my temple. I enjoy its mellow, spacious bridge segment for the contrast against the band's typical busiwork, but that metallic, misanthropic orgasm of guitar is nowhere to be found.
"Son of Lilith" is likewise not a favorite of mine, but there are a few pretty killer riffs hovering there that do well to build appropriate tension. As for the rest of the content, it's superb, if somewhat drier than Punishment for Decadence or No More Color due to the polish of the mix. "Semtex Revolution" alternates a flowing if simplistic speed lick with a swaggering, arching melody and some nice vocal finesse, all to a steady rock beat. "Sirens" follows at largely the same gate, with some more amazing verse vocals, and a killer breakout groove that they steadily lift the thrashing towards just before 2 minutes. "Metamorphosis" is inaugurated with some whale like squeals and smooth bass, before the choppy melodic guitars lead to a glorious, marching riff so incredibly bare boned that you have to wonder how no one had come up with it before; and "About Life" is perhaps the closest track on the album to the material of No More Color, with a superb charging note pattern in the verse. Best of all, though, is "Pale Sister" with its frenzied Vetterli cycles, some of the fastest on the album, another sweet groove in the chorus, great leads, and an unexpected but catchy breakdown after the final chorus.
Perhaps it's a symptom that the band were so busy the previous few years penning labyrinthine exercises in genius, or perhaps a conscious decision to boil the writing down to what they felt were the important, underlying musical themes. Coroner was not the only band doing so in 1991, there was a far more visible example (Metallica), but the Swiss clearly weren't deviating that far from their origins in R.I.P. That said, Mental Vortex does not have nearly so much to offer as its elder siblings. The material is sufficiently dark, riff-strewn and superior to the lion's share of thrash in the early 90s which was grinding the genre to a halt, but it half turns its back on the frenetic displays of passion that brought the band to the foreground of Europe's most promising bands. Creative. Curious. Not all that exhilarating. Sadly, there would be no turning back, as the following, more groove turned, mechanical album would prove to be the straw that broke this camel's back.
For many great music artists, the fourth album represents something special, a defining statement or culmination of career ambitions. Led Zeppelin had their untitled fourth album, Megadeth gave us Rust in Peace, and Darkthrone unleashed the nightmare of Transylvanian Hunger upon this earth. Even the Beatles, whose early efforts could be characterized as bubblegum and pabulum, began to develop an identity and artistic vision with their fourth album. Coroner gave us something truly beautiful. Mental Vortex.
As the ‘80s rolled into the ‘90s, many thrash bands lost steam. The style fell out of favor in Europe, and mutated to a more blues-based “groove metal” variant in the States. Coroner never had a presence in the US, and so their following waned from its already modest numbers. Noise Records found itself in financial trouble, and consequently the last two Coroner albums saw limited distribution, with almost no promotion. It’s a crying shame, because Mental Vortex is an earth-shattering masterpiece.
The first three Coroner records all raced towards thrash metal’s limits of speed and complexity, seemingly reaching a limit on No More Color, an album which could also have been called “No More Breathing Room.” Realizing that there are only so many notes you can pile onto one piece of music while calling it a “song,” the band opted not to cram twelve gallons of shit into a six gallon jug. It’s a lesson latter day Dream Theater might well take to heart.
Coroner instead peeled back the layers of guitar, tweaked up the bass to fatten the texture of their riffs, and let the melodies hang by sinewy threads. The boys were moving years ahead of the game now, foreshadowing the rise of melodic death metal. Time and tempo blurred like a molten alloy. Edelmann and Vetterli were playing with fire, and you could hear them cackle with glee as the rulebook burned. Songs like Metamorphosis and Divine Step are staggering and obstinate monoliths of artistic vision. The best aspect of Mental Vortex is that if it were recorded today, no one would think it out of date.
This album is slightly controversial with thrash fans, due to its simplified sound and reduced tempos. There is a genuine perception that most thrash bands sold out in the 1990s, slowing and simplifying their sound in order to attain commercial success. Much of this is true, but Coroner do not deserve guilt by association. This band had no chance at gaining play on radio or MTV, and they knew it. Broken English was their second language, the lead singer had a skullet, and perhaps most importantly, this album still sounded distinctly like Coroner, not Metallica or Pantera. There is a slight Megadeth influence, but that leads to a more affirming conclusion: this is the sort of album that should have followed Rust in Peace
And unlike most of their contemporaries, Coroner knew enough to quit while they were ahead.