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Prior to the release of 'Visions Fugitives', Mekong Delta had been no stranger to classical music. Their style of thrashy progressive metal exuded the influence of many a composer, particularly those with a darker sound to their orchestral observations. When it came to actually performing classical music however, the band up to this point had more or less limited themselves to using neoclassical tricks within their metal context, even doing a cover or two. With that in mind, 'Visions Fugitives' and its centerpiece 'Suite For Group And Orchestra' was quite a long time in the making. Although some may go to criticize the band for never going as far as to use a real-life orchestra in its recording, few albums within the 'thrash metal' umbrella have engaged me so much. Throw in a few pieces of cerebral prog metal to flesh things out, and you have a piece of work that would make the old giants of progressive rock proud.
Although 'Suite For Group And Orchestra' is planted right in the middle of the album, there is still a clear division here between the ornate classical 'epic', and the more traditional songs. Like Rush's '2112', or Fates Warning's 'No Exit', Mekong Delta follow prog metal canon by giving listeners a clear cut of both gears, although every track on 'Visions Fugitives' falls firmly within progressive metal territory. As they have in the past, Mekong Delta shares the neighborhood with Voivod and Watchtower, in that their brand of thrash favours the cerebral over the speedy riffage of many of their contemporaries. Besides band founder Ralph Hubert, Mekong Delta has been a revolving door of musicians since their inception, and 'Visions Fugitives' is no exception. Mark Kaye brings a guitar performance to the band that fits their mission statement like a glove, fusing technicality with the sort of frantic atmosphere Mekong Delta had been capitalizing on with prior records. As far as Mekong Delta's metal edge is concerned, Douglas Lee's vocals may be the most controversial aspect of the sound. Although the complex vocalizations at the end of 'Them' declare that he is definitely has the ear for singing, his vocals have a tone to them that would fit much more comfortably in prog rock rather than thrash. Fortunately, Mekong Delta's metal side is never far ahead of the 'prog', and his performance here works just as well for the context as Wolfgang Borgmann's did on their debut.
The classical aspect of 'Visions Fugitives' is without a doubt the most important part of the album. Though the four progressive metal songs are too worthy of being deemed masterful in their composition, 'Suite For Group And Orchestra' takes up a damned half of the record, and a listener's appreciation of the record will brink largely on their openness to heavy metal being crossbred with classical music so openly. Although classical music has been going steady with metal since the days of Yngwie Malmsteen and even long before, it rarely gets to the point where the two sounds are mixed to the extent where neither is the dominant force. This is the case with 'Suite For Group And Orchestra', an elaborately composed twenty minute piece worthy of the highest commendation. Here, Mekong Delta mimic the atmosphere of Romantic-era classical music rather than the erudite complexity of composers before, the result being a piece with plenty of epic melody and variety, not to mention a fair deal of room for the band to incorporate their rock instruments into the fray. The soothing acoustic 'Introduction' leads into an eerie 'Preludium', complete with low horns and eerie bells to make it sound like something out of the haunted mansion in Super Mario Brothers. 'Dance' and 'Fugue' bring the piece into less frightening and more proggy, technical realms, often letting the band play powerfully without getting in the way of the orchestration. As far as the composition itself goes, it's remarkable to hear how many places both emotionally and sonically Mekong Delta can take a listener within a twenty minute period.
In terms of flaws, the use of a computerized, or 'fake' orchestra may not hurt the compositions or music, but there is always the feeling throughout listening to 'Visions Fugitives' that things could be even more impressive, had the band had the resources to make a full orchestral rendition of their music a reality. A less-than-excellent production quality carries over to the prog metal songs as well, with the vocals sounding somewhat muffled and less mixed than they rightfully should have been. None of these studio issues are ever enough to take away from the excellence of the band's 'vision' however; it might even be said that the muffled sound and artificial instruments even add to the atmosphere. Mekong Delta have long been one of the most engaging acts to come out of German thrash metal, and 'Visions Fugitives' sees them finally realize their dream of bringing classical music to the thrash realm. Even still, it feels as if this project left open room for improvement, but if Mekong Delta never tops the majesty they have created here, I won't be one to complain.
Mekong Delta had tried their hand many times prior to Visions Fugitives at incorporating classical music into their dynamo of schizophrenic, cerebral thrash metal, but this was normally manifest through the covers of various composers like Mussorgsky, unusual when many of the band's peers were covering rock, punk or pop pieces. With this, their sixth album, they actually go ahead and create a 21+ minute symphonic centerpiece, which could be seen as the ultimate manifestation of their desires, and a practice they will more or less continue through later albums like Pictures at an Exhibition or Wanderer on the Edge of Time.
My reaction to this "Suite for Group and Orchestra" is mixed, but its certainly a curious journey. The "Preludium" creates a glorious, brooding atmosphere through synthesizers and lightly muted guitars, almost like a Mekong Delta theme for 'Godzilla'. The "Allegro" component seeks to elevate this into faster, symphonic metal frenzy, and "Dance" becomes the peak, with a brief and beautiful, pure orchestra that shifts into a climactic dirge. That said, I wasn't so much into the "Fugue" fragment, or the closing classical guitar sequence "Postludium", so the experience as a whole feels lopsided in quality. Thankfully, the band have included some new vocal originals, with Doug Lee reprising his role: "Them" and "Imagination" are easily the measure of anything found on Kaleidoscope, the latter featuring some daft bass work from Ralph Hubert. "The Healer" is gentler on the conscience, a graceful waltz of pulsing bass and melodic lines, while "Days of Sorrow" offers up a swirling bridge, but not much else of note.
As a work of curiosity, Visions Fugitives is successful, even though one gets the impression that Mekong Delta might have been better served by letting loose and performing an even broader original classic composition, featuring vocals, choirs, and whatever else they could find, including their kitchen sinks. Even though the separate thrash tracks comprise most of the better minutes of the album, I feel like their very presence detracts from the experiment. This is not unusual, of course, and even progressive metal stalwarts like Dream Theater have used a format like this with one massive, self-indulgent composition and some shorter fare, but I feel like the flow of this particular LP is crippled by the shifts of intent. Thus, while I prefer it slightly to Kaleidoscope, this should not be counted among Mekong's better works.
Ahhh Mekong Delta,
Truly one of the greatest thrash metal bands of all time. Their ability to mix classical elements with metal has barely been equaled in any metal sub genre never mind Thrash.
Of course when someone thinks thrash + classical the first thing you should think off is Coroner. These 2 bands are not similar at all. Coroner is much more of a fast technical classical guitar playing inspired band.
While Mekong Delta is not nearly as technical and thus incorporates the entire classical elements much more in a compositional fashion opposed to Coroner where as i said earlier the classical influence is mainly obvious in the guitar playing itself. That said Mekong Delta is still fairly technical.
In my opinion this album is not one of Mekong Delta's Finest. Not because this album is bad, but because of the tremendous quality of the first 4 albums. This album is still very much an enjoyable listen but unlike the previous albums it does have a few rather noticeable issues.
This album consists out of 3 parts. The first a more straightforward in the Mekong Delta sense thrash part of 2 songs. Then a classical part which is divided into 6 parts and then another thrash part with 2 songs. The thrash parts are written in the same style and have the same issue namely: the mix is weird, the guitars are rather loud yet everything else is still clearly audible. This creates a weird unsettling atmosphere that at the same time has its merits as well as sounding uncomfortable at other times. Most likely this was intended to be, yet it for me at times still detracts from the experience. The thrash songs are still very well written and are quality Mekong Delta songs with excellent instrumentation and songwriting. There is not much else to say other than that. The songs flow well and are faster when they have to be and vice versa. It's hard to describe the actual tracks, they are not really fast and the riffs are not really like any other band. The thrash songs have a german thrash feel but that is about it. No breakneck thrashing, no loads of grooving. They are just typical Mekong Delta.
However the biggest issue of this album can be found in Suite for Group and Orchestra which is one larger composition 21 minutes long which consists of a couple shorter tracks. The synths just sound damn cheap in this part. If this was done with actual instrumentation instead of these synths then this problem would have been solved entirely. This is really the only issue of this classical part. It is well written and played in every other aspect. The difference between this part and the thrash songs are that these tracks are classical with some thrash opposed to the other tracks. The production and mix is different as well. The guitar has a different tone and the bass guitar is not as prominent. The Synths being the dominant part of this composition.
For the rest this album is pretty much flawless. Well written riffs, excellent bass guitar playing and good drumming. Well done vocals with interesting vocal melodies, especially on the track Imagination. The album never gets samey. The riffs just never bore, nothing really feels shitty and out of place. No disjointedness despite having an part which is rather different from the rest. This album would be an absolute classic if the quality of the synth, production and mix just were on the same level as the songs themselves. In short a very enjoyable albeit a bit jarring at times listen. No wanking, no redundancy and no sillyness. Just classical inspired prog thrash as it should be written. Now only if the issues could be fixed in a remaster or something and we would have one gargantuan classic.