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I'm not sure if "Sonderkommando" is The Meads of Asphodel's perfect storm or just another dazzling release by these Brits, but the amount of otherworldly magic here is seriously incredible. I’ve been a disciple of The Meads of Asphodel for some time now, yet this group continues to extend its roots into new ground with each and every release. The folks behind The Meads of Asphodel, being so naturally experimental and eccentric as always, really go to great lengths to prove just how excellent they are at writing insanely unique and anomalistic anthems, which capture an untold amount of emotion and energy. The many contributors of The Meads of Asphodel have created a musical portrait that, much like the project's other works, truly stands on its own as a remarkable and sophisticated piece of poignant, kaleidoscopic extreme music with thrilling intensity and lyrical candidness that is simply unheard of.
The Meads of Asphodel has always been grouped into the experimental black metal label, although most of their latter works mildly drift away from their inborn identity and surf more on the avant-garde waters à la Sigh or a folksy Akercocke undergoing an identity crisis. The lyrical themes and album titles throughout the band's travels haven't been the most warmly received items of all time, and touching on the Jewish people again—specifically the roles of sonderkommandos in Nazi death camps after having released a record titled "The Murder of Jesus the Jew"—will undoubtedly rekindle much of the criticism attached to bringing such a horrid event back to life. That said, their intentions are clearly rooted in explaining the horrors of the Holocaust with honest, uncovered clarity—not the shallow, watered-down regurgitation of statistics lacking the complex realism.
The tone of the album is obviously incredibly harrowing and devastating: a clear vision of the events of the Holocaust as they transpired, told through the many eyes and perspectives of those who had experienced or participated in what is undeniably the worst atrocity in human history. The brutal honesty is never entombed. However, this is no glorification of the ordeal: the essence of death courses through the veins of "Sonderkommando" in gripping fashion, telling a gruesome tale of lives lost, unspeakable cruelty, and innocence forever tarnished. In fact, this truth is made explicitly clear almost immediately after the twelve-minute title track opens its doors into this dark domain, as the soft, keyboard-laced rock jam is mixed with elegant male and female vocals, and they speak the most powerful line of the whole album: "You don't have to die to walk in Hell." Afterwards, the volatile riffing kicks up in the background, and Metatron takes over this auditory vessel of atrocity, leading the listener into a world of unimaginable horror with oars of unapologetic viciousness and ravenous riffing.
The Meads wear many masks, not all of them so epic and perplexing. The following tracks, "Wishing Well of Bones" and "Aktion T4," are less abstract assaults based on catchy choruses and savage riffs; the dynamic oddities of the band are still present, albeit to lesser degrees. "The Mussulmans Wander Through the Infernal Whirling Fires..." is a perfect example of a standard non-epic that this release tends to offer, using intense guitar work layered over unforgiving vocals with occasional bursts of harmonica leads between its bridges. However, The Meads are far more versatile and dynamic during the record's longer anthems. "Children of the Sunwheel Banner (Part 2)" is an otherworldly concoction of harrowing guitar sections, bombing madness, and chromatic keyboard solos flying through every musical orifice that this band could find. The first half of "Lamenting Weaver of Horror" features narrative passages of some twisted nursery rhyme before a boy awakens in the realm of the recently murdered, finding himself in endless darkness as Death itself explains to him that his destination is rooted in one unavoidable truth: he was fucking born.
"Sins of the Pharaohs" immediately throws out the forlorn despair and dives into a riff-driven journey of defiant vocals and inspirational forcefulness. There's no other group on this world or the next that could pull off this kind of sophistication without driving itself off a cliff; The Meads of Asphodel is truly an excellent faction. I have to add something about Metatron’s vocals: his scruffy, crude growls continue to prove that he's one of the greatest extreme vocalists in the realm of black metal, and extreme music in general. The plethora of guest musicians makes everything within "Sonderkommando" insanely magical and bold, and there are zero issues transitioning from punk-laden bursts of aggression to an incredibly dramatic, breathtaking harmony of clean vocals layered over soft guitars and charging percussion during "Silent Ghosts of Babi Yar," yet that's but one instance of this visionary craftsmanship. "Sonderkommando" is also brilliantly paced; it never exhausts itself into redundancy after seventy minutes of epic, artistic voltage.
Like some twelve-trick pony flying up from the lungs of Hell, "Sonderkommando" has much to say in its several musical tongues, a vice The Meads have strengthened throughout the years. Although the project has been labeled a genre-mashing squad almost too bamboozled for its own good by some, you won't find another band that can produce experimental metal at this volume of quality anywhere else. "Sonderkommando" plants in the soil a The Meads of Asphodel that is writing a new chapter of wonder and bliss in a discography already blessed by unmatched ingenuity. In fact, it's no factual amplification to dub "Sonderkommando" not only The Meads of Asphodel's finest opus, but also one of the best releases born in 2013. Lyrically majestic and musically entrancing, this is not to be missed.
"There was no hope, stripped naked and sent to death."
This review was written for: www.Thrashpit.com
I think it's fair to say that The Meads of Asphodel are one of my new favourite bands. Having only started exploring their music in earnest at the start of the year, I can’t seem to get enough of their inventive style and take on black metal. Calling them a cross between Akercocke and Sigh would not take into account The Meads’ undeniable uniqueness and quirk. In spite of their overtly pessimistic themes, their work- culminating with the recent masterpiece “The Murder of Jesus the Jew”- is filled with leftfield surprises and absurd experiments, taking their music to that rare crossroads where the avant-garde is catchy and even (if I dare say it) fun to listen to. While a concept album about the horrors of the Holocaust would not be a far stretch beyond the band’s typically misanthropic lyrical oeuvre, there would have been virtually no way for The Meads of Asphodel to have based “Sonderkommando” around the same playful, darkly tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of their earlier work without encroaching on the tasteless. While The Meads retain a healthy dose of inventiveness and personality on their latest album, they do so with a revitalized sense of solemnity. The Meads of Asphodel have undergone a maturation of their style, and it’s resulted in one of the darkest albums I’ve heard in recent memory.
For those who don’t know, the album’s title refers to the work units of Jewish death camp inmates who were forced to dispose of the bodies of fellow prisoners during the Holocaust. With subject matter than grim and heavy, it’s impossible to consider what the band has done here without taking into consideration the album’s concept. While The Meads of Asphodel have been accused of anti-Semitism in the past, it’s important to note that “Sonderkommando” does not endorse the atrocities of the Holocaust. Unlike the cheap and ear-cringing NSBM that seems to creep out of middle-class basements worldwide, “Sonderkommando” acknowledges the Holocaust as an affront to human decency. Not unlike a musical version of Schindler’s List, “Sonderkommando” explores these horrors from both sides; the ones perpetrating the atrocities, and those forced to bear the brunt of them. There’s no political ideology at play here, and those who are looking for one aren’t doing themselves any favours. The Meads of Asphodel are more interested in the human emotions born from these harsh circumstances. Powerful feelings of hope, anger, despair and hatred are all explored in depth here; while there are still bound to be listeners who won’t be able to look past the taboo of a Holocaust-related concept album, The Meads of Asphodel cannot be criticized for not including enough depth to it.
Conceptually, the most impressive element of “Sonderkommando” isn’t only The Meads of Asphodel’s ability to switch perspectives; it’s their ability to reflect that shift musically. Songs written through the gaze of the Nazis are often heavy, aggressive and dissonant. The two-part “Children of the Sunwheel Banner” begins on an oddly whimsical and light note, not unlike many of the strange interludes on Meads albums past. Even then, the strange electronic motif is made unsettling with a Hitler speech sample and a brilliantly subtle Wagernian sample. By the second part of this song, the whimsy has all but abandoned the music, instead being replaced by an aggressively martial barrage of guitars, percussion, and jarring ambiance. The Meads of Asphodel’s long history of misanthropy serve them well in the lyrical department. There is no shortage of crass language and matter-of-fact hatred spewed from the lyrics on this and the other Nazi-oriented pieces. You can’t tread through such dark and murky waters without getting your feet wet, and The Meads make no attempt to make soften up the hatred in the lyrics. By sharp contrast, the songs through the eyes of the prisoners are melancholic and much more aligned with the Meads’ typically melodic songwriting. The title track showcases the album’s solemn atmosphere perfectly, building up a foundation of violins and Gospel-laden clean vocals. “Sins of the Pharaohs” is one of the album’s faster-paced tunes, but it is melodic and relatively upbeat, distancing it from the malevolence of “Children of the Sunwheel Banner”, “Wishing Well of Bones” and other darker tracks.
The Meads of Asphodel’s songwriting has always covered a fairly wide range, and it’s no surprise that they continue to bring that same wide dynamic on “Sonderkommando”. While there are indeed surprises to be experienced here, “Sonderkommando” rarely has the mind-boggling left turns that made earlier albums so enjoyably unpredictable. With the possible exception of the first part of “Children of the Sunwheel Banner” (which feels a little out of place to begin with), The Meads of Asphodel are much less absurd with their experiments this time around. While this reflects their greater maturity, some tracks are left feeling a little blander than I would normally expect from the band. The album’s best material is jaw-dropping, but “Aktion T4” and “Wishing Well of Bones” aren’t as memorable as they could have been. Other lowpoints include the vastly-overdrawn witches’ dialogue at the beginning of “The Lamenting Weaver of Horror” (although it’s redeemed by a darkly hilarious dialogue that follows shortly after) and “Send my Love to Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz” which, while meant simply as an outro piece, crosses me as a wasted opportunity when you consider how important an album’s end can be. Parts of the album make me want to declare “Sonderkommando” to be The Meads’ best work and the best album I’ve heard this year, but its consistency robs it of both accolades. It’s rare to hear such an emotionally diverse and powerful album, but I have the feeling that “Sonderkommando” could have been even better with a little revision.
Since its inception, black metal has always been keen to seek out transgression wherever possible. While this aim was first largely manifested as a prevailing anti-Christian sentiment, tolerance of these remarks inevitably rise with time, and those with the aim of sparking controversy are forced to look elsewhere for their kicks. It’s really no surprise then that some would turn to Nazism for their source material. In spite of the enormous potential this sort of subject has to provoke and stir, so many of the bands involved amount to little more than superficial bedroom-grade howling about racial supremacy with the occasional Hitler speech sample to remind listeners that there’s some sort of ideology behind the wall of sound-rubbish. With “Sonderkommando”, The Meads of Asphodel haven’t just successfully brought their signature brand of experimental black metal to this often-stigmatized subject matter, they have captured the darkness as it perceived from both sides; the hatred of the oppressor, the horror and painfully lingering hope of the oppressed. This all-encompassing approach to the Holocaust gives “Sonderkommando” a three-dimensional darkness to it that a single perspective would have surely lacked. The Meads’ greater maturity this time around has resulted in their darkest album to date.
There comes a point in a modern young person’s life when he or she simply has heard everything about the Holocaust that they can stand in schools. What is, in reality, one of the worst things humankind has ever done, has become something one reads in schoolbooks and doesn’t really think about, and why? Part of it is just desensitizing. But at the same time it is because the human mind can only take so much. We turn the Holocaust into statistics because it is part of a deep-rooted revulsion and horror, and we don’t want to think about it too much. Because this is not the childish fears of monsters under the bed or the horror-movie ethos of silent killers in the woods, but a real-life atrocity committed by human kind. People – just like us. We don’t want to think about it all that much, certainly not in the level of detail that The Meads of Asphodel force us to confront on their newest album Sonderkommando.
This band gets a lot of press for being weird and wacky, and truthfully I never bothered checking them out. But one read to the lyrics of this album and I had to hear it. I didn’t know if the music was going to be good, but the lyrics were incredible – and more on them later. But fortunately the music on Sonderkommando turned out to be amazing. This is a gestalt of sweeping, tremendous epic metal unlike anything I have ever heard.
They start out with a black metal base in the riffing and faint echoes of such in some song structures, but really this is far beyond the confines of that genre. I’d actually say this is more of an epic metal album in the vein of a heavier While Heaven Wept or an angrier latter-day Bathory, although really even that is a far-fetched descriptor. What you get with Sonderkommando is huge, pulsating riffing and sweeping, wistful leads layered over with Hammond keyboards, acoustics to add extra depth and dimension and even some harmonicas later on, which surprisingly are used to a tremendous effect. The vocals are a big bellow with very little effects on them, which is nice, making the band sound sufficiently old school. The harsh vocals here remind me a lot of old Death, or even Celtic Frost at times. There’s something genuine and affecting about these vocals, so hungry and rabid as they are, which adds even more credence to the traumatic lyrical themes of the album. Plus, it’s just nice to hear harsh vocals that don’t layer over each other with shitty screams or tons of digital effects – the Meads know how to bring the goods. There’s also a clean voice utilized, a rather high, nasal sort of whine that becomes eerily somber and tragic in its despairing lilt. Very cool, and original to boot – most bands could never pull this kind of vocal trading off so well.
But the real star of the show is the songs themselves, as these are some of the best metal songs I’ve heard all year, or in the past few years in general. The straightforward songs like “Aktion T4” or “Wishing Well of Bones” are aggressive, propulsive bursts of manic energy, with pummeling riffs and deranged vocals. But the real meat of the album is the haunting, longer epics, such as the brilliant title track. This song is just a masterwork, with gentle folksy acoustics leading into a harrowing riff and a vocal performance befitting of the damned as they march down to Hell for the first time. When lead vocalist and band leader Metatron wails “You don’t have to die to walk in Hell…” you will either be a fan for life or you will be nothing. The epic sweep of “Children of the Sunwheel Banner pt. 2” and the soul-crushing “Last Train to Eden” deliver terrifying and visceral contortions of the metal landscapes, with twisted riffs and arrangements that spiral into despair. “Sins of the Pharaohs” on the other hand is a huge, rebellious epic with a triumphant clean chorus. It sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the depression of the rest of the album, but the angry, triumphant tone really, really works. Great song.
The other songs go even further into insanity. Witness the morose crush of “Hourglass of Ash,” and then the decimating “The Mussulmans Wander Through the Infernal Whirling Fires…” will just lay you completely to waste. The latter is an amazing song and the one that utilizes the harmonica. I never knew a harmonica could blend so well with filthy, slamming metal riffs, but damn do these guys make it sound dark and harrowing as all get out. Special mention has to go to “Lamenting Weaver of Horror,” though, as it is completely out of this world. Half the song is taken up by a spoken dialogue between a little boy and a growling voice who we learn is “Death,” informing him that his family is dead, he is damned “for being fucking born,” and he will burn in Hell forever. It’s incredibly in-your-face, but the band makes it theatrical and dramatic. When the song kicks into the latter half, a somber dirge, it is made all the more effective. The album ends with a muttered spoken piece detailing, listlessly, the statistics and numbers dead in the Holocaust.
I suppose it is time to talk about the lyrics – I think they’re brilliant. They’re always crude, violent and incredibly horrific, but they really, really work. Every song works as a piece of a whole, detailing rather explicitly the terrors of the Holocaust. Sometimes it’s from the soldiers’ point of view and sometimes from the imprisoned Jews’, but no matter what it is always incredibly bleak, hate-filled and bloody. They are incredibly uncompromising lyrics that will be very hard for most people to read, and especially those who have personal ties to the event. But as it is, Sonderkommando is written for a world that has long since been devoid of real, no-bullshit talk about the Holocaust, at least in the music medium – in the metal world most of what we get is shallow diatribes about the evil of the Nazis or complete bullshit Aryan propaganda. The Meads have delivered a set of lyrics that seethe with anger and rage at the Holocaust and portray it as it was: a landmark in human suffering. Through painfully vivid descriptions and violent word choice, the Meads portray the Nazis as deranged animals in their actions – “look at what you’ve done,” the band says boldly. By loading its hate-filled cannons in the Nazis’ direction, where it should be, the album has a distinctly pro-Jewish subtext to it.
Don’t get me wrong: I totally get why people wouldn’t gel towards this, and if you do just want to forget, by all means, call me out on my bullshit. A concept album on the Holocaust in 2013 is a bit out of place perhaps. But what I can never fault is a true, deep-seated musical and lyrical vision. These guys have something to say and they go all the way to say it, and I respect that. With this album the Meads put a powerful anti-Nazi statement, and I think it is incredibly poignant and visceral.
The whole sound gets bandied about a lot as “all over the place” and occasionally people even say it’s humorous, but I don’t hear that. This is an incredibly focused, singular work that never wavers from its absolute devotion to abject misery and inhuman torture. Every song adds to the theme and the occasional carnivalesque burst of melody only sounds all the more demonic when you consider where the Meads are coming from. It is incredibly wrathful – a true vision of nihilistic terror. I don’t get any sense of misplaced comedy from this and I really don’t think there’s any of that usual avant-garde wackiness about it. Sonderkommando is a true monument of power.
Really it’s just incredible all around. I love everything about this album. It’s weird to say I love something this dark and horrifying, but Sonderkommando is just a work of art that gets better every time I hear it. It is a complete work, and all-encompassing, sucking me into its opaque world every time I hear the opening notes. And more than that, it takes me back to the horror and abjection I first felt when learning about these events as a child. We can never desensitize ourselves to the horrors of the world and it is only through acknowledging them that we can move on completely. Sonderkommando is the sound of a generation’s disbelief at what came before, and as such, a defiant statement of moving on. This is a powerful musical statement and it is by far the best metal album of 2013 thus far.
The British Isles has never been shy of providing many an eccentric musical act down the years and this story runs true in metal, with the weird and wonderful The Meads of Asphodel perhaps our most eccentric specimen today. Now on their 5th album in a 15-year existence, there is no finer example of artistic eccentricity, but eccentricity with a reason behind it. You see, "Sonderkommando", both the 13-minute opening title track and the album, is the result of bizarre minds striving to be different yet remaining tethered to earth through a sense of keen musical awareness. Naturally, the title track is a perfect summation of what psychedelia (and I don't just mean in the musical sense) can do to the mind: opening with an excerpt of an Adolf Hitler speech from 1939 before moving into funereal doom riffing, folky violin, heavy piano chords, jazzy drumming and then, after 6 minutes, an explosion of chaos at the request of vocalist's Metatron's "This is fucking death!!" it is some wonder that it remains at all listenable.
Behind the madness there is that significant intent, however. Based on a concept of exploring the Holocaust through the eyes of the Jewish 'Sonderkommando' - the workers who removed the teeth, hair and nails from the corpses of the gas chambers before their cremation, The Meads take a quintessentially British look at the unimaginable inhumanity, surmising that outright negativity would not do justice to the victims perpetrated, thus a healthy dollop of humour is spread throughout. Across a 12-song 71-minute product that vision comes in many forms, from the hummable "Wishing Well of Bones", the surreal "Children of the Sunwheel Banner (Part 1)" (where background "Sieg Heil!" samples overlay a cartoonish instrumental beat), the thematically-depraved "Lamenting Weaver of Horror" outlining the evil of their lyrical source and the upbeat "Sins of the Pharaohs" based around its "Set my people free!" refrain.
Never far away are the samples referencing themes from the Holocaust; "Last Train to Eden" takes an ironically bleak look at the industrialisation of continental slaughter ("One way ticket/ there is no return") and provides the musical antithesis to the jovial "Sins of the Pharaohs" before it. "The Mussulmans Wander Through The Infernal Whirling Fires Amongst Silent Shadows to be Fed Into the Thirsting Jaws of a Godless Death Machine to Cough Up Their Souls to the Nazi Moloch Who Sits Within a Ring of Smoking Infant Skulls" (yes, quite) features perhaps the most black metal riff of all, a firing tremolo blast, but don't get too used to it before the operatic female vocals and sax solo cause radio frequencies to burn with the song's evident punk heart. "Send My Love To The Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz" offers a solemn conclusion to the piece, a spoken word account of the numbers who died in the suffering at Auschwitz.
Much like Sigh's excellent "In Somniphobia" from last year, what may appear as a windsept divergence of styles on the surface is infact much, much deeper. Lyrical exploration of World War II is common in metal but a neutral analysis of the Holocaust is much rarer indeed, as is a musical palette as patchwork as "Sonderkommando". Because of their inability to write a 'normal' song and play by the rules no Meads of Asphodel release is easily digested; not all moments hit the spot as The Meads can sometimes get too clever for their own good, but the majority bring a pleasing circus of horrors to a fascinating experiment into what it means to be plough one own furrow.
Originally written for www.Rockfreaks.net