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After a positive experience with Mekong Delta's debut, I was hungry for more of their material. Taking the name of one of H.P Lovecraft's better known tales, 'The Music Of Erich Zann' is the second album by these German thrashers, and despite a short time between the release of the two albums, there has been some significant development regarding the sound of the band. While the overall style of the band has improved however, it lacks the same naive charm that first attracted me to the debut. This has resulted in a sophomore that I more or less regard on equal grounds with the first.
From the first minute of music here onward, Mekong Delta are certainly not the band that was making straightforward, slightly offbeat thrash on their self-titled. Here, they have evolved into a much more technical and classically-leaning act. The improvements are most noticeable in the guitar riffs here. Instead of an early Voivod-esque style of slightly dissonant riffing, Mekong Delta turn their sights on neoclassical leads, harmonies, and complex instrumental passages. Also notable to the second wave of Mekong Delta is the most greater influence of classical music, particularly an instrumental segment here that contrasts guitars with eerie violins, creating a very modern piece of metal-fused classical music. The symphonic thing has been done countless times in metal, but its rare to hear it compliment the existing mood that the metal would have created on its own.
The downside of 'The Music Of Erich Zann' are the vocals. On the self-titled debut, I loved Wolfgang Borgmann's really energetic delivery. It felt really unpredictable, with him sometimes going for a melodic approach, or a thrashy rasp, or even a falsetto wail that would send chills down my spine. This time around, these things are still there, but they feel arranged in a much less effective way. Borgmann's voice also feels much weaker, especially with the falsettos, which come off as flat and borderline irritating. The rest of the music here is generally more intelligent and stronger than what Mekong Delta was doing on the debut, but this drags the band back down a bit. Largely due to the vocals as well, there aren't any songs that got into my head here, whereas on the debut, I found myself remembering some of the best moments of that album for days to come.
'The Music Of Erich Zann' is certainly an improvement overall for Mekong Delta, although I cannot call it a resounding success in every respect. In their transit to a more serious, and progressive style of thrash music, they seem to have lost some of their raw magic. However, this band's sophomore is a much more promising work, and hopefully on subsequent albums, they will take these intriguing new developments and refine them.
So arguably on this album, Mekong Delta became the first band to pull off a full fledged fusion of metal and symphonic music, with “Begging for Mercy”. It’s half “Psycho” prelude by weight, but the band does well with covers. On the other hand, they weren't really the first to attempt the mix. For example, Celtic Frost added female operatic vocals and a horn section as accents on “To Mega Therion”, which made it all the more crushing, but they're just ornamentation – they could be stripped out without removing the essence of the songs. In addition, Black Sabbath did this more comprehensively on "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", although I'd say they approached the orchestrations from an early heavy metal/'70s progressive rock perspective. Regardless, it was many years before symphonic metal bands started popping up en masse, and bands like Therion, Rhapsody of Fire, and such added classical instrumentation to their works. If not the first metal band period to imbue their music with classical orchestration, they were at least the first thrash metal band to do it.
In the long run, the interlude just goes to show that the ambitions of this group had multiplied over the course of a mere year. Erich Zann is a full fledged concept album – based on the Lovecraft story about a viol player who uses his music to keep eldritch horrors away. It's still a lineup composed of German speed/power/thrash metal musicians, and therefore, the compositions remain fast, riff happy, dissonant, thrash metal. However, the songwriting here is probably more complex than the songwriting on the debut. By the time we head into the second track (“True Lies”), the album has already defined itself – possibly less manic than its predecessor was at times (Nightmare Patrol), but with even more insane instrumentation and compositions. True Lies is probably the best song on this album - it goes through a lengthy riff set, and strikes a good balance between melody and dissonance. In addition, it's full of cool guitar leads that add lots of depth to the music. Some other things have improved – Keil continues to be all over the place, but when he’s properly singing, he matches pitch better. Mind you, he still sings against the riffs and melodies. This comes to its logical conclusion on Hatred - he puts out his most insane, aggressive performance yet. In addition, the guitar leads and solos are better – I’d say they’re more creative and varied, if about as technical as the ones on the self-titled.
If this was just an increase in complexity over the debut, it'd be near-perfect. Unfortunately, the songwriting isn't as consistently good as it was on the debut, even if the average song is better. Outside of the such peaks as the aforementioned tracks, there’s a lot of filler, and the songs sometimes stagnate in their own riff poop (The canonical example being “Time Does Not Heal” by Dark Angel, which probably does have 246 riffs, but manages to be monotonous and and uninteresting). The overall mixing is inferior to the last album, mainly as the bass is harder to hear. In this sort of music, that's never good. On the other hand, the production has improved – even if the instruments interfere with each others' sound space, the drums are still more intense, the guitar tone is more abrasive, and Keil’s vocals are emphasized a bit more. From what I've read, people are divided on whether the sound on this album is better than the debut's. Myself, I slightly prefer this one.
Over time, my opinions on both albums have equalized somewhat. The debut is consistently good, but it doesn't really have anything that rises to the level of True Lies, Hatred, Prophecy, Begging for Mercy, or otherwise. Of course, it doesn't have stagnant, boring songs like "I, King, Will Come" You could say that they “bit off more than they could chew”, but even in 1988, Mekong Delta had large metaphorical mandibles to masticate their musical ideas into albums.
Overall I'd say it's on par with the debut, but with time, my personal preferences have shifted towards this one.
When you've lifted your album title verbatim from a famous H.P. Lovecraft story, then you owe it to us all to not fuck up, and in no way were Mekong Delta about to still the pendulum that they had started swinging a year prior. The Music of Erich Zahn serves as a direct successor to the s/t debut, not only chronologically, but stylistically; and yet it begins to flex more of the band's classical influence and technicality for a stronger overall impression. This is schizoid speed/thrash metal comparable to Destruction's Release from Agony or Deathrow's anomalous Deception Ignored, though there is perhaps a little less brain busting to absorb in the grander scheme.
I'm not sure if I'll ever understand why Mekong Delta's members felt the need to use their pseudonyms. Perhaps they had an overinflated sense of their own fame, which at this time was only whispered in relatively small circles, but I can't say it's not an entertaining tactic. Legendary drummer Jörg Michael returns as 'Gorden Perkins', and lays down one of his most incredible, intense performances, but perhaps the most distinct element of the band at this point was 'Keil', or vocalist Wolfgang Borgmann, who continues to sound like the asylum bound sibling of Rage's Peavy Wagner (who was also once in the band). Borgmann can offer teeter off key, and it can prove distracting, but what I like most is the tonal, ghostlike vocals he uses primarily on the tranquil outro piece "Epilogue", but also in bits and pieces of the harder hitting material.
Speaking of which, it hits pretty damn hard, the riffs always carefully woven into intricate and interesting patterns. "Memories of Tomorrow" uses the ghostlike vocals alongside a melodic, complex chugging pattern that sees the rhythm section in total freakout mode, and it's one of the brightest gems on the album, but I also love some of the more frenzied material like "Hatred", the manic "Confessions of Madness", or the explosive "True Lies", a song which the band are still making 20 years later. "I, King, Will Come" also deserves a mention for its gradual escalation into the plodding riffs and shrill, dual vocal harmonies. When Borgmann hits the lower end of his range, he sounds even MORE like Peavy Wagner. Do you think? Could it be? I mean, he must have been at least tempted, being that he wrote the lyrics for the first two Mekong Deltas.
"Interludium (Begging for Mercy)" foreshadows the band's future neo-classical direction with some hypnotizing acoustics that explode into chugging and swelling, paranoid string sections, with a nice synth guitar lead. There's not really a sore spot to be had here, but I will say that a few of the tracks do lose my attention span from time to time, in their staggering attack. For one, I don't care for the vocals in the opener "Age of Agony". He eventually starts wailing fruitfully, but they feel a little rough in the verses. "The Finale Deluge" also warrants a mixed reaction. I love most of the guitars, and the vocals are cool enough, but the attention does wane in the waking seconds. That said, The Music of Erich Zann is certainly one of the more adventurous German thrash efforts of the 80s, a virtue that the band will compound over the next decade, able to stir up enough interest that they were never left completely behind like a number of their peers.
Mekong Delta's first self-titled album had generated quite a stir in the metal community with its original and highly technical thrash metal. Their intricate, complex and compelling take on thrash metal was at the time something quite unlike just about anything (the only parallel to be drawn at the time (to my knowledge) was with Watchtower, who had released their first effort Energetic Disassembly in 1985). The mysterious quintet would follow this up in 1988 with The Gnome EP. Behind the facade (all members still at this point were working incognito), Jorg Michael (Gordon Perkins) would take a small break from recording duties due to touring commitments with his main priority Rage. For the recording of The Gnome, Uli Kusch (Patrick Duval) would take over behind the kit. Later that year Jorg Michael returned to the fold and Mekong Delta would reconvene to record their second full length effort, a concept album entitled The Music Of Erich Zann.
While the first album was complex and intricate, this second effort would set the bar even higher. Each song here features inventive song structures, complex time signatures, unpredictable time changes and incredible instrumental prowess. However, unlike the first effort, the composition is well executed. Whereas the first effort hada few songs that didn't sit well, this effort features songs that in spite of their unbelieavable complexity flow well and are quite infectious. It's difficult to headbang to 11/8 sections, but this album will make you try anyway. For the most part the album is quite pacy in it's insanity, with the bulk of the cuts, such as Age Of Agony, True Lies (which features perhaps their catchiest chorus since Kill The Enemy from their self titled), Hatred being in this manner. There is one slow plodding number in the vein of Black Sabbath from the self-titledin the form of I, King, Will Come. Perhaps the song that best illustrates the immense musical capabilities of the band is the classically-derived and heavily orchestrated instrumental Interludium (Begging For Mercy). The only clunker on the record would be the closing track Epilogue, which is basically vocals and keyboard only. This particular track is here for storyline purposes only, but it's bland nature (it's basically a keyboard drone) pales in comparison with the spectacular compositions that comprise the rest of the album.
Frank Fricke and Reiner Kelch (Rolf Stein and Vincent St John respectively) churn out some unbelievably complex riffing in a whole manner of complex signatures and near-impossible time signature alternations. Their approach is for the most part different to the one they took while in Living Death, as they rarely employ the lightning-fast single-note palm-muted riffing that was an integral aspect of Living Death's sound (one notable exception being Prophecy, which in certain places wouldn't look too out of place on Living Death's Protected From Reality). Here we see a riffing approach more akin to Destruction, Coroner and the aforementioned Watchtower, laden with twisted single-note riffing, fast moving power-chords and weird harmonising. Their leadwork ranges from the more understated melodic and simple lead refrains to more frenetic and aggressive shredding typical of their work in Living Death.
The drumming of Jorg Michael deserves recognition as well, playing some truly inventive drum parts and using just about his entire kit to craft his intricate drum lines. Where most thrash drummers were content to play straight bass-snare patterns (in particular a certain Danish chardonnay-quaffing troll), Michael's creative drumming put most other drummers to shame. Dropping in jaw-dropping fills more adventurous than anything Dave Lombardo or Charlie Benante had attempted at the time, using double bass in a manner that would accent the riffing not dissimilar of Gene Hoglan's work on Time Does Not Heal, and all the time keeping together this complex musical effort that was in constant danger of dissolving into chaos. This is certainly no easy task, but Michael accomplishes this admirably.
Mastermind Ralph Hubert (Bjorn Eklund) also puts in a great performance, laying down some unbelievably complex basslines, especially prominent in Memories Of Tomorrow (where the bass pretty much drives the entire song) and Interludium. The work this man put out here is peerless, and definitely should get the recognition of other thrash bassists such as Burton, Newstead, Bello, Ellefson, Lilker, etc. as he could easily take it to them.
The final piece in the puzzle is vocalist Wolfgang Borgmann (Keil), who puts in an admirable performance and shows off new aspects to his voice. For the most part he employs his cleaner delivery, not too far removed from an early John Arch in places, where in other places he uses a harsh Udo Dirkschneider-esque howl (see the last chorus in True Lies). Borgmann also introduces us to his falsetto, which he uses quite frequently. The falsetto is quite clean, but not piercing like King Diamond. He uses it at times as a vocal layer (one particularly interesting section is in Age Of Agony, which up until the time of writing I had previously assumed was a guitar line!) although he occassionally allows it to take the main melody.
With the incredibly dense and complex nature of Mekong Delta's music, it would be exceedingly difficult to produce a mix that would adequately highlight every nuance of their sound. Ralph 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. The guitar sound is warm, heavy and aggressive, but retains a unique clarity essential for music of such demanding nature. The slightly distorted bass tone adds weight to the band's sound, and unlike many other thrash bands actually has a presence in the mix. The drums are mixed evenly and are prominent in the mix, but unfortunately the bass drum sound is a little flat (triggers maybe?). The vocals are mixed prominently with the overdubs being more in the background.
The sheer complexity of this album coupled with its interesting arrangements and infectiousness should arouse interest in just about anyone, even if it is just to satisfy their curiosity. Fans of incredible musicianship and instrumental prowess will definitely enjoy it, and others who want some interesting thrash far removed from aping the Big Four will more than likely be satisfied with this.