Wednesday 20 May 2020

Mekong Delta - Tales of a Future Past (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 May 2020
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Ah, Mekong Delta! This is the band who, odd as it may seem, refused to tell the press or the public who they were when they started out, presumably with the goal of allowing their pioneering mix of prog elements into an energetic but hardly subtle thrash metal sound in the eighties to take the focus. When they had four albums out and prog metal wasn't unusual any more, they gave up the pretense and it turned out that the main man was Ralf Hubert, who ran a record label called Aaarrg. He's still the main man today.

Technically, Mekong Delta have never split up, though they've gone a decade without any new music before and this is their first new album in six years. While Hubert has been the only founder member since 1991 and Martin LeMar is the band's fifth lead vocalist, the line-up seems to have found a semblance of stability. Everyone current has been there since at least 2008 except for new second guitarist Peter Lake, who rejoined in 2018 for a second stint.

Now, while I remember Mekong Delta from back in the day, I may not actually have heard them since then. I remember them as avant garde thrashers, a mix of up tempo thrash, classical nods and experimental weirdness, meaning that they were intricate and progressive but not as accessible as, say, Hexenhaus or Sieges Even. They're still doing that but they're less extreme nowadays, if more varied. The fast and heavy does happen on a song like Mindeater but then there's A Farewell to Eternity, a song that isn't even really metal at all, more prog rock rooted in folk.

It took me a while to get back into Mekong Delta. For a few listens, I found myself struggling with the opener, Mental Entropy, but I did get there. Much of it is its complex rhythms, which keep drummer Alex Landenburg on the hop and everyone else with him. However, the vocals are pretty accessible, LeMar doing his best Bruce Dickinson impression at points. Really, it's prog metal that just happens to be pretty complex. It isn't wildly different any more, the way it was back in the eighties when nobody was doing this.

The more interesting material is still to come and it manifests itself first in A Colony of Liar Men, which occupies a vibrant place somewhere in between Voivod and Queensr├┐che. It's what else is going on in this one that makes it shine, though: there's a recurring choral part that's quintessential Yes and the seamless way the band roll in and back out of it is joyous.

These are the first two songs of six, each of which is paired and separated from the others by an instrumental Landscape. There are four of these, which also provide the bookends, and they make me wonder if there's a concept that I'm not seeing. Certainly part of my problem with the beginning of the album is that the first Landscape is an inconsequential waste of a minute, but the others are fascinating.

Waste Land is the second and it's a substantial symphonic piece that almost reaches the seven minute mark. The third is Inharent, just as long but more tentative and atmospheric in its build. Both of these are enjoyable and they break up the vocal songs well, even though it isn't the vocals that makes us need interludes. That leaves Pleasant Ground to wrap up the album and that's the wildest, most overtly classical of the four. I could swear that I know a lot of this but I'm sure that it's not actually another Mussorgsky cover, just the product of people who listen to and channel a lot of classical music.

I wondered how relevant Mekong Delta might seem in 2020, decades after metal caught up to what they invented out of whole cloth so long ago. What I found is that they're absolutely relevant, even if they don't own the cutting edge any more. There are little touches here that elevate them from the bands who grew up learning Dream Theater songs, as their musical knowledge extends not just to Rush and Iron Maiden but to Voivod and Celtic Frost too. To me, that is what elevates songs like Mindeater and The Hollow Men over what most prog metal bands are putting out nowadays.

I know you technically haven't been away, Mekong Delta, but I have. Welcome back!

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