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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.