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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