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Meet Ralph Hubert, the man who single-handedly created the technical/progressive thrash metal scene in Europe; one of the most important people in metal history. The man’s originality and eccentricity clearly shows from the band name choice unless he wanted to provide a painful reminder of the Vietnam War, and which may also have inspired quite a few metal fans from around the world to visit this part of Asia looking for clues, or rather substances that may have been the foundation for these distorted, hallucinogenic musical visions presented on the band’s works. And, if these hallucinations come armed with amazing technical riffs and sweeping classical arrangements, then we’re talking the most original innovative thrash metal band on the planet, alongside Voivod.
One would be perennially mystified as to what Hubert saw in the Living Death guys (the guitarists Frank Fricke & Reiner Kelch) to invite them to take part in the recording of the self-titled debut… at the time the Deaths were just bashing with vigour and enthusiasm without any particular display of technical skills or the likes. During these spawning stages the musicians had to use pseudonyms since all of them were involved in already existing formations around Europe, including the drum wizard Jorg Michael who was a full-time member in Rage. Anyway, they showed their much more proficient side and hung around long enough to participate in the making of the sophomore album and the EP's surrounding it. Having launched the career of his own act, Hubert embarked on a journey to propel the efforts of other similar European technical/progressive (and not only) thrash outfits through his label Aaarrg Records. Thanks to him the fans saw the appearance of Calhoun Conquer, Target, Holy Moses (who had already signed with him before Mekong Delta became a fact), the Living Death more technical period, Pyracanda, Ravenous, as well as "outcasts" from the States, like Last Descendants and Siren; etc.
Mekong Delta was a fairly regular presence on the scene ever since their inception unerringly producing their ultimately complicated progressive/classical thrashisms and managed to survive during the troublesome early/mid-90’s which “took” the lives of many of their contemporaries thus leaving the technical/progressive metal sector quite barren at the time when “Kaleidoscope” was released. This same sector was started with Watchtower’s “Energetic Disassembly” in 1986, and was brought to its culmination on the album reviewed here in 1992 within the span of 7 years. Logically, this same culmination unleashed a wave of creativity which swept Germany and gave birth to some of the finest metal acts of the 90’s: Depressive Age, Lost Century, Skeptic Sense, Megace, Entophyte, the amazing two-demo-wonder Tokkata, the Deathrow/Psychotic Waltz collaboration End Amen, its reverberation heard in the adjacent countries leading to the springing of other talented “offsprings”: Acrimony (Poland), Braindamage (Italy), Psycho Symphony (Romania), Donor (Holland), Chemical Breath (Belgium), Unleashed Power (Denmark), Chirurgia (the Czech republic), Aspid (Russia), Valkyria (Russia), etc.
“Kaleidoscope” is Mekong Delta at their most comprehensive and most accessible. All the previous ingredients, which made the band the leaders of the progressive thrash movement, are here, but their application in this case is not so undecipherable, the song structures are not so labyrinthine, and the riff-patterns are a tad less weird and less abstract. By all means “The Music of Erich Zann” and “The Principle of Doubt” will find hordes of fans who will determinedly stand by them as the band’s finest achievements, but if for nothing else, “Kaleidoscope” boasts the presence of Hubert’s three finest “fruit” he ever produced:
1) the otherworldly opener “Innocent?” which “innocently” attacks you from the get-go with some of the most technical and at the same time pummeling riffs in metal history, not to mention the haunting chorus and the abrupt time and tempo-changes; heavenly stuff;
2) the extraordinary technical masterpiece “Shadow Walker”, a shredder second to none, a mazey schizophrenic anomaly of spasmodic constantly- shifting music amazingly put into a coherent compositional frame;
3) the supreme closer “About Science” which “shoots” you immediately with the overwhelming main motif, hallucinogenic amorphous music at its most ingenious throwing the towel with an exiting portion of superb atonal backward riffing: “That’s all, folks! We’re done here, and we’re aware that we just provided the model people have been searching for the past few years with which to compare any other work on the field! Enjoy!”
Game, set, and match; the three “goalscorers” ably assisted by the rest of the team among which one would notice the unusual cover version choice in the form of Genesis’ “Dance on a Volcano” which, mind you, fits like a glove into the weird “kaleidoscopic” landscape, and would pass for the most relaxed piece on the album along with the short idyllic instrumental “Dreaming”. Another cover is seen later, Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” reshaped as a thrashy speedster consequently sounding better than the original (ha ha!… seriously) and almost as good as the Brits Skyclad’s version made four years later. Every song here stands for itself and is not a part of some gigantic sprawling "opera" which consists of ten and more parts and goes on and on to eternity. This is the only Mekong Delta album where the tracks work separately from the whole, every single one of them, the main reason why "Kaleidoscope" appeals to fans outside the progressive thrash spectre, and the main reason why one will remember 90% of it after just a few listens, unlike the other works, before and after, which are largely compact inter-connected puzzles that would be hard to grasp with just one piece missing.
So who were the musicians behind this feat? Well, Hubert of course, who outdid Steve DiGiorgio himself with his exploits on the bass: just check out the beginning of “Heartbeat”, and search no more for virtuoso bassisms, even on the Primus albums. Peter Haas, a Swiss drum stalwart who had taken part in the hard rock veterans Krokus, but also in the aforementioned Calhoun Conquer, and the progressive death metal one-album-wonder Babylon Sad. The vocalist Doug Lee, a very nice dramatic versatile throat with a characteristic blend, producing his crowning performance here, also a member of the previously mentioned Siren. And finally the unknown at the time Uwe Baltrusch, a wizard of Hogwarts… sorry, Shrapnel proportions who later took part in the progressive metal formation House of Spirits which line-up again comprised the omnipresent Jorg Michael.
Hubert never managed to release two consecutive albums with exactly the same line-up which is a pity since at least in this particular case he should have kept the guys for one more exploit. He returned to the more elaborate classical variations on thrash on the next “Visions Fugitives” thus leaving “Kaleidoscope” the jewel in the crown, a brightly shining “diamond” with which the search for technical and progressive metal for many a metal fan around the world must have ended. On the other hand, that would be sad if a fact since the aforementioned progressive/technical thrash metal wave of the early/mid-90’s instigated by it bore some great works showing the young practitioners trying hard to reach the established model here, some of them coming quite close to it, as a matter of fact. Then the man decided to take a break from thrash with “Pictures of an Exhibition” (1996) and extended this break further by taking a time off from Mekong Delta and music in general which lasted for over 10 years…
The comeback with “Lurking Fear” (2007) is arguably the finest thrash comeback of the new millennium so far showing Hubert and his new cohort on top of their game producing a stellar album of complex schizophrenic thrash which at times touches the “kaleidoscopic” album with all the ten fingers. It looked as though the next installment may even reach it, but the band slipped into less thrashy dimensions on “Wanderer on the Edge of Time” (2010) concentrating on their staple classical escapades more for the umpteenth time. Then came the needless reworking of old compositions on "Intersections" (2012) which didn't add up much to the band's already voluminous discography. The freshly released "In a Mirror Darkly" is a fairly cool return to the roots seeing the veteran(s) well equipped to compete with the rising forces (Vektor, Replacire, Exeloume, Myopia, Varga, Skeptor, etc.) although the magic achieved on "Kaleidoscope" seems to be elusive at this stage...
The feat from 1992 can't be repeated, and this is hardly Hubert's most urgent agenda. The band released what could be viewed the finest progressive/technical thrash metal album ever, and never faltered from their chosen path through the years staying on track, painstakingly following the twists and turns of the Mekong River all the way to its delta, into the sea and ocean, and far beyond where there's more waiting for them, be it "dancing on a volcano" or "walking in the shadows"...
The story of the birth of Mekong Delta says that Ralf Hubert, after being introduced to Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, said that he liked what he had heard, but thought that he could do it better. Better, for Hubert, a classically trained musician and a nimble bass player, who had seen too many amateurish heavy metal bands in his capacity as a record producer and the owner of Aaarrg Records, meant more technical and better rooted in music theory. This makes for a good anecdote, but it is misleading in that it doesn’t capture the appeal of the band’s music. While a flawed band, the early Mekong Delta went far beyond playing merely an excessively technical type of thrash metal. Their best albums of that era often evoke a bizarrely alien sort of mood, worthy of the late 80s Voivod.
By the time of Kaleidoscope, however, the band had gone through some significant stylistic changes. A certain messiness in the guitar playing present on those early albums, which was admittedly in part an artifact of the production, gave way to a cleaner, more precise approach. This is reflected in a tidied up sound, which is almost crystal clear on this album. Uwe Baltrusch, the band’s sole guitarist on this and the previous album, plays in a way that is no less technical than what was heard on their 80s albums, but much more accessible nevertheless. Even a layman’s ear should not miss his unusual harmonic and rhythmic solutions.
As a soloist, Uwe often competes with Ralf Hubert himself. His being the mastermind behind Mekong Delta and the band’s main author means that their albums always feature his bass pushed forward in the mix, and with good reason, too, as his lines usually provide the counterpoint to the guitars instead of merely underlining them. The clarity of the production on Kaleidoscope allows the listener to follow the interaction between Ralf’s bass and Uwe’s guitars more easily. This interplay is the core of the album’s, and indeed Mekong Delta’s, appeal.
The vocals of Doug Lee, who made his debut with the band on Dances of Death, their previous album, fit well with the clear, even slightly antiseptic atmosphere of the album. His timbre might prove to be grating for some, and the lines in which he adopts a sarcastic tone to match the lyrics are his weakest moments on the album, but he is a remarkably skilled singer nevertheless. The seemingly effortless way in which he delivers these unusual melodies, all the while following the numerous rhythmic changes of the band playing behind him, is alone worthy of admiration.
While the speed/thrash metal style of their first four albums can still be heard here, it is toned down. On several songs, the band seems to be edging towards a more traditional progressive rock/metal style, not too far removed from what Fates Warning and Dream Theater were doing around the same time. The best example of this is “Heartbeat”, the album’s centerpiece and one of its most melodic songs. That is not to say that Mekong Delta suddenly started playing music in the style of those two bands. They remained too acerbic and angular to completely make that transition. The band does do a good cover of Genesis’ “Dance on a Volcano” here, but that song is not indicative of the sound of the rest of the album. What they did do is sacrifice some intensity for a clearer sound. Their music remained complicated, if no longer as convoluted as it used to be on The Music of Erich Zann and The Principle of Doubt, but in cleaning up their style, they lost some of the excitement of those imperfect, but more viscerally potent albums.
Kaleidoscope, however, while neither their most daring nor their most exciting album, might represent the best way to become familiar with some of the peculiarities of Mekong Delta’s style. It contains remnants of the style of their previous albums, while providing hints of some of the changes they went through on the following ones. As such, it acts as a good sampler of the band’s rich body of work. Beyond that, it is simply a very good album on its own, well-flowing and consistent in keeping things interesting through numerous contrasts and changes.
Kaleidoscope is a step forwards and back for Mekong Delta, at least for the Doug Lee-fronted lineup. Lee has integrated himself very well on this recording, with a presence both ethereal and clinically malign. On the previous album, he felt like a fish oh so slightly out of water, but here you would never know that he wasn't always the preeminent voice of the German band. This is also the most cleanly mixed effort the band had come up with, its clean studio polish going a long way to the distinction of each note cast through its labyrinthine journey into the id. Unfortunately, outside of 3-4 firebrand numbers, Kaleidoscope swerves so far into a pure, dry progressive metal terrain that it comes up well short of the inspirational blaze of their past works.
Not the case for "Innocent?" and "Sphere Eclipse", both of which channel the band's frenetic, high pitched thrashing circa The Principle of Doubt and The Music of Erich Zann. But once the reins are loosened, beginning with their cover of Genesis' "Dance on a Volcano", the album falls off the tracks. Don't get me wrong, they do a fair job of handling the prog/rock staple, but with the tranquil instrumental "Dreaming" and then the middling, melodic turmoil of "Heartbeat" and "Shadow Walker", there are very few riffs of note, despite the sporadic, spastic outbreaks that dominate the latter. Then they lurch into another cover, that of the Aram Chachaturian classic "Saber Dance", metalized in full, curious and spunky, yet somehow less silly than the original. The closing tracks, "Misunderstanding" and "About Science", are actually quite good, the best on the album, the former with some great Ralph Hubert bass work that creates a mesmerizing substrate to the shifting, melodic thrash that brought me right back to what I so enjoyed about the band in the past.
I'll admit though, that even at its best, Kaleidoscope sounds derivative of the time signatures and riffing complexes manifest on prior albums. It's stagnant yet proficient, the type of album that might thrill the prog rocker or intellectual metalian but leave everyone else craving. I've got no problem whatsoever with Lee's performance, or the instrumentation, through which Uwe Balstrusch and Ralph Hubert re-affirm and possibly sharpen their personal skills, but the songs almost unanimously fail to impact me like the band once did even under the shaky tutelage of their earlier vocalist, Wolfgang Borgmann. Mekong Delta is nothing to scoff at here, because they can play most other musicians under the rug even on a bad day, but despite the glint of the production, and the professionalism on parade, this is one of my least favorite in their catalog.
When I started getting into technical and progressive metal bands, I was (and still am) fascinated by the notion of taking the virtuosity and musical ambition of progressive metal and combining it with the rawness, brutality, and speed of thrash metal. I always wondered how it would sound, and I ended up finding a few bands where this fascinated me greatly. Most of these bands however, come from the United States (like Watchtower). The only one that I knew that came from outside of the United States was Coroner.
Then, I heard of a little known mystery band from Germany run by a classically trained bassist named Ralf Hubert called Mekong Delta.
What separates Mekong Delta from an American band like Watchtower is where they get their influences from, and how this is put into the music. Watchtower used primarily the loose, improvisational, yet highly complex nature of jazz music as their influence when it came to making their progressive thrash metal. On the other side of the scale, Mekong Delta used the heavily theorized and tight knit nature of classically composed music for orchestras for there kind of music. While still being as progressive and skilled as bands to come from the United States who played their kind of music, Mekong Delta proves to be a bit more catchy and easier to head bang to considering their progressive nature. This, in my opinion makes Mekong Delta a really good band.
For people who wish to get into Mekong Delta, the best place to do it is here, on Kaleidoscope. The reason is that this is when Mekong Delta is for the most part at its best for the most part. The band is top notch, the compositional skill is great, and the music is catchy. Kaleidoscope provides an interesting listening experience for fans who really want to hear the boundaries of making music complex and making music catchy to the very brink (something Watchtower, as good as they were, could never achieve). This is the reason why most do not want to listen to progressive metal, because you cannot headbang or mosh to it most of the time. But on Kaleidoscope (as on most other Mekong Delta releases), you can do that. So lets get into why the music here is great.
A band needs musicians, and Mekong Delta has quite the cadre of musicians playing here. First off is vocalist Doug Lee, who replaced original vocalist Wolfgang on the album Dances Of Death And Other Living Shadows. Compared to his German predecessor, the American born Doug Lee is honestly a better singer for Mekong Delta. The ambient, "techno thrash" metal that the band plays is more suited for Doug, who's vocals are better fit for all the guitar harmonies and other parts that are with the band. He primarily sings in these odd sort of springy vocal patterns, as in his voice will get higher and louder as he sings, then descend as he goes to sing more or stops. Some could find this annoying, but compared to Wolfgang Borgemann, Doug proves that his voice is just more articulate then Wolfgang's (who could not achieve any high notes at all). The only problem I have with his voice is that he can't seem to really do low vocals very well. But then again, the band accommodates this so well that their music (despite being more melodic) is still in the same vein with what any band in their field would craft. Besides, he is not as high in pitch as Allen "grabbing my balls" Techio, so give him a break.
Just like on Kaleidoscope's predecessor Dances Of Death, we find Uwe Baltrusch alone on guitar once again. This is a very good thing. Living Death guitarists Frank Fricke and Reiner Kalt simply were not as good at playing guitar as Uwe Baltrusch is. While not as good as any of his American progressive thrash counterparts (or Tommy Veterelli of Coroner or future Mekong Delta guitarist Peter Lake for that matter), Baltrusch proves that he can play the guitar. His main style consists of tapping and high speed tremolo picking in a heavily theorized and choppy manner with loads of melodic undertones and whammy bar use. Besides the melodic use, Baltrusch is really no different then any of his other German thrash metal guitarists who played in other thrash metal bands that were more brutal then Mekong Delta (like Frank Blackfire of Sodom and Kreator). However, how well he adapts to the progressive changes and the harmonies he makes are just amazing here. While his lead parts are a tad reserved compared to previous Mekong Delta efforts with him playing, Uwe is still a good fit the band.
On the bass, main composer Ralf Hubert is just plain awesome. Hubert has always been a great bass player for a guy who just all the sudden sort of picked up the instrument after Peavey Wagner left the band (although I think it is feasible to think that he probably had experience with it before hand). Though Hubert plays with a pick, the lines he plays are so incredibly impressive they will give anyone who plays finger style a run for their money. He even does some radical bass solos (check Sphere Eclipse for this), and applies cool effects and odd tunings to make use of in other tracks for ambient work and fills (check Heartbeat for this). The lyrics that are used here that are written by him are just plain odd and metaphorical. They range from themes such as religion infiltrating the government (Innocent), metaphysics mixed with racism and greed (Sphere Eclipse), industrial over development and how it is encouraged (Heartbeat), schizophrenia (Shadow Walker), and scientific alteration of humanity (About Science). This is really awesome compared to most American thrash metal bands or German thrash metal bands who could not show what they wanted to get across in their lyrics and had to tell them (as a writer I care about this). His highly skilled and deeply emotional nylon acoustic finger work is also amazing on the track Dreaming is also amazing, as it provides the listener with a good relax from the previous tracks and a look at the amazing compositional genius that is Ralf Hubert.
Peter Haas proves once again that he is a good choice for the band, even if I don't really like him. While I cannot deny Haas is a talented drummer and is very good for the progressive nature of the band, but I just like drummer Jorg Michael a bit more. Haas's double bass speed and double bass technique is not as good as Jorg's, but he is capable of doing dual tempos really nicely. Another good choice for the band.
Hubert's production on the album is one thing that you either love or hate. I love the fact that all the instruments (vocals included) can be heard. You do not normally get this a lot with most metal bands these days, so this is a good thing. The downsides to this are somethings the progressive nature makes everything sort of seem swirled together and sloppy, but then again Hubert was aiming for the kind of production used on a live classical recording, where every instrument can be heard with ease as well. Another problem is that to accommodate the bass being heard so well, everything else kind of seems quieter (especially the drums). Do not take the production here for granted, because you probably will not hear something like it ever again.
Song wise, all of them have thrash metal running through them. Sometimes the thrash is more prevalent on some tracks then others. Good examples for this are the opening track Innocent (which is probably the heaviest song on the album), and closer About Science. The rest of the tracks seem to be a bit more progressive metal and more ambient driven then thrash metal (something fans of more brutal and heavy thrash metal will not enjoy). However, that does not stop some of these songs from being truly brilliant. The cover of Genesis's Dance On A Volcano (OMG thrash metal bands covering Genesis, that makes them sellouts!) is done to a stellar effect. All of the songs have their moments to make them really really catchy sounding. Such as the catchy vocal patterns in Heartbeat, the volleying of words and perspective changes on Shadow Walker, and Doug's ambient style more clean vocals on Sphere Eclipse that follow Ralf's bass are just amazing. Probably my favorite song on here is Shadow Walker, because it shows Hubert and the rest of the band's musical prowess at it's best, along with providing the best balance between thrash metal and progressive metal.
Really the only downside to Mekong Delta is the music is so out there and ambitious to appeal to a really broad range of people. Fans of more brutal bands will not exactly like it, and even first time listeners will have to listen to the album a few times through to get used to it, but by this point they may not like it anymore. Still, if you want to hear something odd and have the ears (and patience) to listen and enjoy this kind of music, Mekong Delta's Kaleidescope is for you.