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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.