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The Principle of Doubt is the third Mekong Delta full length and perhaps the best proof of life of the band's manic, schizo thrash progression to date, before they took a slight dive in quality through their even more highbrow 90s conceptual material. All elements of The Music of Erich Zann have been refined here, carved into even more frenetic blocks of post-modern speed/thrash with the blood of jazz and abstraction coursing through it, and though Wolfgang Borgmann's vocals can still tend towards whiny and annoying, he turns in at least his finest performance at the helm of this band, and coincidentally his last, before the band would acquire Doug Lee from Aaarrg Records labelmates Siren.
This has arguably the strongest opener of the band's entire career in "A Question of Trust", a flipped out diatribe of shifting, thrashing guitars laced through with surgical threads of melody and brilliant, oozing bass lines that create a paranoid, multi-planar dementia. "The Principle of Doubt" itself is quite similar in style, with some cleaner guitar breakdowns, and they continue to layer on the choppy tech thrash with the more moody, lurching "Once I Believed". This trio of tracks alone would represent the pinnacle of the band's 80s work, but they're followed by the charismatic "Ever Since Time Began", with its spastic but memorable vocals in the verse, and the winning streak continues. "Curse of Reality" follows with a throbbing, synthesized martial intro, Borgmann performing some of his eerily close to Peavy Wagner tones, while the drums escalate into the resonance of the slicing chords, and an almost femme vocal line. It's simultaneously the least heavy and most unnerving piece on the first half of the album.
So I suppose it's not a huge surprise when they toss out their frantic, instrumental cover of the "Twilight Zone" theme music, which almost seamlessly blends with the original Mekong Delta fare. A few more static-charged thrashers await in "Shades of Doom" and "The Jester", both of which offer their share of curious composition, though the vocals in the latter do become rather strained in the mellower sequences. "El Colibri" is essentially Ralph Hubert flagellating over the Julio Sagreras original, one of those rare cases of the band's over-indulgence, but well paid for by the album's closer, "No Friend of Mine", which is very well written, with wondrous melodic swells, thick writhing bass and effective, thoughtful chugging.
The Principle of Doubt also sounds cleaner than its two predecessors, and in particular I love the guitar tone, perfectly balanced between airy, rare chords, low end driving mutes and dazzling crescendos of melody. The lyrics revolve around subjects like self determination and the place of the individual within the greater foundation of society, and while they often steer into cliches that don't seem nearly as smart as the musical half of this equation, they seem suitable to the band's conceptual hunger. This album is actually the best place to start if you're mining Mekong's classic catalog for the first time, and it certainly secured the band in the company of other tech thrash wizards like Watchtower, Realm, Toxik, or the then-recent transformation of Deathrow.
Mekong Delta has to be simultaneously both one of the most underrated bands ever and one of the most overrated bands ever. From one point of observation they might be a boring, badly produced band with sucky vocals and strange songs. From another point of view they have some of the best early progressive thrash songwriting, strangely catchy ideas and riffs, and truly strange and ominous soundscapes. The latter opinion, of course, is the correct one.
The first associations the band's name brings to mind are the Vietnam War, Far East and humid warmth. The music on their albums, however, is the total opposite: it's eerie atmosphere has a cold and merciless quality, the production is harsh and somehow oddly balanced, and the ease of living in a tropical paradise is not there. It still maintains its own logic, and does not collapse into chaotic war, despite the layered complexity and harsh sound.
The usual career progression of those few thrash bands that dabble with the progressive end of their genre seems to go from aggression to something a bit mellower but much more complex, and the ambition in the compositions increases with the skill level of the musicians. So does the average song length, with the number of various parts increasing and the essential thrashiness decreasing. Mekong Delta hasn't quite gone the usual route, but their infatuation with classical music, especially that written by Modest Mussorgsky, has perhaps sidetracked them a bit; Pictures at an Exhibition can be considered a misstep, or, rather, overshooting of the theme.
On The Principle of Doubt the classical parts are still confined to a single track, "El Colibri", and the only other oddity is the theme from Twilight Zone. The follow-up to this album, Dances of Death (And Other Walking Shadows), started Mekong Delta's Mussorgsky craze, but some borrowed parts can be found already on the earlier two albums. "Twilight Zone" has the most prominent orchestral parts on the album, and as the band was later to show, their way of combining the orchestra's sound with that of a progressive thrash band works well. Both have their personal spaces, and a workable ratio of ingredients is found by mostly avoiding overstepping the borders between the two. They stay in their comfort zones, and the overlap is kept to a minimum.
What does the music sound like, then? Well, it's progressive thrash, blended with some symphonic instrumentation, timpanis and horns being the easiest to notice. The overall production does a fine work of hiding the talent, especially the complex twin guitar parts. Actually, their character could easily be changed, with different production, to immense displays of musicianship, but with the clunky soundscape, they simply are there: no matter how finely tuned and balanced the co-operation of the two guitars is, they simply sound like they were just doing what they were supposed to be doing. In other words, instead of dazzling with technicality and sounding impossibly complicated and difficult, the guitars serve the greater good, the songs, and while their intertwining beauty is there to be found easily if wished, they do not disturb the main agenda, the ten songs on the album. And that, people, is what true progression should be in its deepest essence. Not wankery, not song durations in excess of a quarter of an hour, and definitely not technicality for technicality's sake. Every song on The Principle of Doubt works like a charm, and no part of it seems like ego-tripping by a loony guitar god.
The rest of the band has a character, too. The drumming is excellent, but not overdone, and has a lot of interesting parts in it, especially considering the year of the album's release. The basswork is on par with the progressive metal of the era, in other words way beyond that of more classical heavy metal acts of the late 80s.
The vocals of Keil have an atmosphere of an instant opinion-splitter. His style is rather difficult to describe, but mostly he resorts to a kind of melodic wailing and lower grunty shout. His style is easy to dislike, but even if it's an aquired taste, the trouble of aquiring it pays itself back many times over once the listener finally gains access to the inner workings of the album. Because, obviously, this is not an easily accessible piece of art: the coarse production is the first hurdle to overcome, and the progressively alien songwriting with its eccentric tones and atmospheres full of feelings such as despair, aggression and plain strangeness does not help the first-timer to get an idea of the brilliance within. This album does not want to be liked.
The drawbacks are mostly products of time. The production would surely be different today, just to better display some of the genius in here. Perhaps the creative process would be different and more constrained in 2008, but two decades ago the idea of making a metal version of an argentinian guitarist's song did not sound cheesy at all. Because it simply works in this way. And in the late 80s, this was ruthlessly progressive and even avant-garde.
Get this album. It can be argued that this is the pinnacle of Mekong Delta's career. The songwriting has improved even further from the days of Mekong Delta and Music of Erich Zann, and Dances of Death (And Other Walking Shadows), in its own brilliance, already sounds much more polished, and perhaps gave in to the demands of modern days. Just remember, understanding this piece of work takes effort. Don't give up, it's worth it.