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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.