Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mekong Delta - Dances of Death (and Other Walking Shadows) (1990)

The severing of Wolf Borgmann from Mekong Delta feels almost as if someone were clipping the umbilical cord from the band's muse. Even though the man had his flaws, he was surely one of the most distinct voices in German thrash, and his presence on the great trio of iconic albums that jump started this band's legacy would cast a massive shadow on whoever was to follow. But the band also lost Frank Fricke after The Principle of Doubt, who was also a piece of the puzzle through their steady rise to cult status, so it was rather a surprise that one year later, they had a new vocalist in tow and a new album flitting about.

Doug Lee (of the obscure US band Siren) was chosen to join the band after 'Keil's' departure, and he would become the new voice of Mekong Delta for seven years. But despite the fact that the band did a decent job of finding a nice match for their crazed, meandering fusion of tech thrashing wanderlust, he's got some notable differences. He has a more pinched, higher register that is often hurled at the listener in waves of shrieking, and at times he reminds me of another Lee (Geddy), especially where he's given more room to breathe. As for the music, it's not a lot different than The Principle of Doubt or The Music of Erich Zann, with the exception that the novelty of their asylum-like testimonials was starting to wear thin, and you were hearing a lot of material that honored and acknowledged the band's past albums, but did little to surpass them. For example, there are a number of tracks here which use a similar, wrenching tempo similar to "A Question of Trust", but are just not as catchy.

The first eight tracks are all components of the title track, "Dances of Death", and they range from a dark, clean classical guitar intro to the bristling force of "Beyond the Gates" and "Days of Betrayal", in between which are twined some shorter thrashers like "Eruption" and "Outburst". Ralph Hubert and Uwe Baltrusch are on fire, the bass skilled and swerving, the guitars delivered with the same clinical precision as a Realm, Deathrow or Psychotic Waltz. But despite the frenzied level of energy and the thinner, better keyed presence of Lee, none of these are really the highlights of the album. Those are manifest late in the album, through the disconnected tracks "Transgressor" and "True Believers", both coiled tightly with great bass work and punchy psychosis; and the impressive, 10:25 metallization of Modest Mussorgsky's epic "Night on Bald Mountain", Anglicized here to "Night on a Bare Mountain".

It's impressive to hear the band tackle such a unique and noteworthy piece of classical history, and not the first time they've visited this one composer ("The Gnome", which appears here once more as a bonus track, rendering it's native EP worthless once more), and though it's absolutely no substitute for its original form, it's important as another presage of the band's future focus on incorporating classical music directly into their thrash. But in the end, it's just not enough to save this album from the merely 'good' category. Dances of Death (and Other Walking Shadows) does possess some of the best production work of the band's career to date, but so few of its constituent tracks offer more than a few moments of writhing, propulsive confusion and head jerking curiosity. After the three intensifying works leading to its conception, it feels like a clear step down in effectiveness, and it cannot all be pinned on the new singer.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (never saw a place like this)

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