FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 50: Melechesh – Sphynx

Posted: June 3, 2013 by kingcrimsonprog in First Impressions Articles

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 50: Melechesh - Sphynx

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 50: Melechesh – Sphynx

This is the fiftieth entry of my blog series ‘First Impressions.’ In each entry of the series I write about discovering an influential or genre-classic album for the first time and then write about that experience in a semi-planned, semi-stream of consciousness manner that is less helpful than a traditional album-review, but which does contain more personal flavour.

I prefer my reviews to be serious and informative. ‘First Impressions’ allow for a more director’s commentary approach. I can be silly and talk bollox, or make points that only a handful of people will understand. Usually I will deliver insights into my history with similar music as well as into how my mind works and how both of these things change over time. You will have to either possess a fairly detailed understanding of Rock and Metal history and Subgenre conventions or have a second tab open at Wikipedia to fully follow every single point that I make, but don’t let that put you off…I’m not honestly expecting you to know every single riff or tone I’ll point out off by heart.

If you want your own First Impressions article done, just suggest it in the comments. I’ll give anything a shot.

First off; what made me buy this record, other than the amazingly captivating artwork, which, like Mastodon’s Leviathan was almost enough to sell it on its own, was while I was putting the finishing touches on my list (now a full 1000!), I noticed a link on the side of a Youtube video and followed it, which lead me to Melechesh (which apparently means “King Fire” in Aramaic) and within seconds of hearing a supposedly Black Metal song with a great clean production and no blast beats, I started paying serious attention. By the end of the song I was pretty amazed, how much great little touches they’d packed into the song, all the Squeals, the clean guitar leads, the thrash riffs, the spindly prog-riffs and the big, big bounce. I heard another song that was an entire five minutes of just Middle Eastern folk music, but with this sort of story being told by the music in the way a Tool song does and I was pretty damn sold on this band. After one or two more brilliant songs from across their discography I decided to sit down and listen to the entire of their new album.

Imagine Children Of Bodom’s over the top speed, but with 100% of the cheesiness taken out, mixed with System Of A Down’s more unique passages but ignoring all of their “wacky” bits, mixed with the production job and professional attitude of a modern Amon Amarth record. Add in a whole bunch of Rust In Peace era Mustaine-style creative winding, unpredictable guitar lines, and a massive amount of thrashing, bouncing and grooving like Machine Head’s modern work. Then imagine only the fun bits of Carpathian Forest and Immortal, but with lots of little virtuosic guitar hero flourishes thrown over the top. Take that mixture of those two mixtures, add some very occasional blast beats that don’t overstay their welcome and some Black Metal vocals, you’ve got yourself a Melechesh.

There’s something of a Damnation And A Day feel in parts too, there’s some occasional time-sig complexities and general extreme metal complexity, but in a way that makes things interesting and not obnoxious, sort of like Remission era Mastodon. What Leviathan is to Sludge, Melechesh are to Black Metal. They took bits of it that are cool out of context, added some twisting, expectation-defying passages and a crap-tonne of grooves.

Then on top of it, they add some Mesopotamian and Sumerian folk influences and religious sounding chants, but rather than it feeling tacked-on or cheesy, it just blends perfectly into the music as if every Metal band did it, it fits as naturally into the music as a guitar solo or double kicks do.

Put simply, they are the single most exciting and interesting extreme metal band I’ve ever heard. Its an absolute crime this band aren’t more famous.

After finishing that album, I immediately broke my pledge to go two months without buying new music and raced to iTunes to pick up a copy of a Melechesh album, any Melechesh album. When I got there, Sphynx was the cheapest and I’d seen it appear in best-metal albums sorts of lists, so I went for that one. Plus, the artwork… I mean, c’mon. Look at it!

I’ve been looking at lots and lots of best-metal-albums lists and specifically ones about Black, Death, Grind and other Extreme Metal types that I’m not familiar with. Whenever I discover an album or band coming up again and again, such as Deathspell Omega or Pestilence or Dissection or Primordial I usually go and check out three or four tracks on Youtube to get an understanding of what its all about. The more Black Metal I hear, the less I enjoy it. However, the instant I heard some Melechesch songs I instantly had to explore the band further.

So here we are, time to look Melechesh’s gift-Sphynx in the mouth.

[Play]

The opening track is called ‘Of Mercury And Mercury’ but it is not, as you may be expecting, a track dedicated to the memory of Queen’s singer and his secret split personality. Its about some sort of Assyrian/Mesopotamian/Middle-Eastern Folklore. They’ve got an angle. Like Nile and their Egyptian lyrics, or Amon Amarth and their Norse Mythology lyrics. When bands have such an angle its both a blessing and a curse I feel. It instantly draws a quick ‘cool’ reaction from the brain, but when you are unfamiliar with the subject matter it can become confusing or frustrating at times. It also makes it harder to sing along to or memorize when there are place names, character names or general words that you don’t use in your everyday life.

Anyway. The album kicks of with a big build up and some speedy snare rolls, before launching into some quick buzzing, slightly off-kilter guitar lines and ridiculously quick double-kicks. It reminds me a little bit of Zyklon on the songs that they call ‘thrash songs’ but which aren’t actually thrash songs. The vocals remind me of Carpathian Forest, but just that little bit more listenable. That’s what attracted me to the band in the first place, the good points of extreme metal but with this inexplicable “listenability factor” that makes it not unpleasant on the ears like the usual aural-challenge for this end of the metal spectrum.

At around 1.49 it kicks into this brilliant groove based on guitar slides, like on the best DevilDriver songs. Then into a little Mastodon style section full of separate sections twisting into each other, with dynamic guitar-only breaks, a Lombardo style ride-cymbal-groove bit (like “Post Mortem”) and, on a one-off, this brilliant drum fill that has a super high pitched tiny tom (10-inch? 8-inch?) at the start that makes it sound like a Neil Peart fill.

Then there’s a slightly Blacker section of double kick pounding and after that, at say around 3.33, it has this section that is a mixture of a Lamb Of God breakdown, but with Iron Maiden style galloping double-kicks going off sort of slow-quickly giving the groove this diagonal feel. Then the groove section has a tail of straight-forward trad metal, after the second instance of this however, they kick into a djenty Messugah-style groove and a ghostly guitar solo over the top that sounds like its in 4/4 even though the background music clearly isn’t.

All the reviews about the band’s technicality (the death metal equivalent of Prog) were certainly not exaggerated. They are some skilled, skilled people. And they make the brilliant decision of having a) the guitar solo go on for fucking ever and b) solid 4/4 double-kicks come in under the djenty groove at the end of the song, at a speed that nails the point that it’s the end of the song and makes a really satisfying ending.

[Side note: the exact same double-kick speed comes up on a Carpathian Forest song off of Defending The Throne Of Evil, but I can’t recall which track]

Next comes the fantastically titled “Secrets Of Sumerian Sphynxology” which opens up with a big bombastic mid-paced double-kick beat that reminds me of the very best moments of Opeth and I (the Between Two Worlds band). After a few goes around at that, the drummer mixes it up, keeping the double-kicks, but flapping the arms into a bouncy John Dolmayan style funky beat that you don’t hear much anymore, but should.

Then a fill and a drop to just guitar. Then a brilliant fill and a fun bouncy punky d-beat comes in for one bar TO FOOL YOU as it then takes this left turn into bouncy, snake-charmer pogo-rhythmns. It’s the kind of thing you’d dance round to in an almost-racist impersonation of a middle-Eastern wedding.

Then drumming is full of brilliant little touches everywhere. Then the Metal riff cuts out a bit and there’s feedback and bouncing and one of those beats where you shuffle between the hi-hat and the ride cymbal so your two hands are going at opposite ends of the kit. They alter between those two sections once more, then drop in this extra heavy variation on the theme with this cool little 1-second double-kick fill. Then they come back to the heavier bounce but drop in a ghostly guitar solo. Then transition away from it with the four massive Pantera style bends. It continues on in that vein for a while, just adding different types of beats, or pinch harmonics, on one occasion it sounds rather like Lamb Of God again and then they sort of end it with an echoey sound effect.

Fun, fun, fuuuun song.

“Annunaki’s Golden Thrones” follows up that fun-fest. It sounds like the title of a cheesy BBC game show, if Annunaki was like Bruce Forcythe. WHICH HE OBVIOUSLY IS.

It bursts out with 1-2 beats, then blast beats, and one of those super fast trill-picked riffs that sound like waves. Waves of misery. It occasionally takes on a Kerry King feel, but its kind of too fast for him. Then it drops the Blasts for a second for some hanging grooves.

Even with the Blasts this is listenable. Then it goes into a more straight forward section with Blast-speed double-kicks and then the hanging and then the Blasts, only they have this fun little “wey-oooo” guitar squeak coming in and out over them. There’s a cool dynamic break that breaks to just a vocal hiss. Unusual. Fun though.

After those three punishing minutes however, the blasts all cut out and the band drop these massive heavy slabs of riffs down. Filled with such potential. It then goes into the sort of drum beat that a Machine Head album would end on, and the riffs are that sort of fool-you-into-thinking they’re straight forward, but they’re secretly complex at the end. And there are sneaky tails. Then it drops down quietly to a palm-muted version that makes you feel like you are in a Museum, then they heavy it back up, with these cool flipping drums that actually sound like the flight-path of a headbanging head. Then the museum section again which reminds me of Drake’s Fortune. Then an ending bit. Then an end.

Cool song. Not as good as the first two, just cuz of all the blasting y’know? …but with a really cool ending.

“Apkallu Counsel” opens up with fury and speed like a modern Slayer intro being speed-read from music-paper that’s in a tumble-drier, with a slight Flight Of The Bumblebees tinge to it. Around the 30 second mark the intro storm brewing is finished. It opens up with a big DUN DUN. [silence] deburleburderbedah DUN DUN. [Silence] that gives off the slight impression of Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ fed through the filter of Still Life era Michael Akerfelt’s brain.

They start adding different bits in and a different little drum section every time and its all very technical and exciting. Then a slightly ghostly line comes across. The stops bit is brought into more of a normal breakdown, only that becomes the verse. They fiddle about with it so much it’d be a nightmare to cover, but its a joy to listen to. It sounds like evil spirits. Then there’s some fun Deicide sounding bits but they get broken up with the same we-can-has-technicalz approach. At 3.39 they decide to be Chimaira doing the ‘Six’ sort of style tracks. At 4.29 there’s this brilliant stop-start section which almost pisses me off its that good.

Then they drop that big sort of Middle Eastern preacher voice that Zyklon occasionally use. Like ‘Ouroborous’ by Mars Volta. Then the song gets sneakier and sneakier sounding like it is trying to break into an army base beside a pyramid.

‘Tablets Of Fate’ which is not a song about ibuprofen, starts up next. Its got a riff that Nile could play. Then it throws down a section that sounds like Limp Bizkit almost, but that shifts into a super technical bit. It now reminds me of the best bits on the Carpathian Forest album. Ooh. A Bit that sounds very Slayer. There’s tonnes of cool little virtuosic guitar and drum moments. It drops that Bizkit bit back in, but it has a sort of Biohazard feel now because of the vocal pattern. Was that a power Metal vocal quietly in the background, or the singer of Sikth?

Then there’s a dynamic floor toms and singular guitar line bit, followed by a section that sounds like its trying to solve math problems. Then that section evolves into a jauntier version of the Bio-Bizkit bit. Its angular in one way, bouncy in another.

Towards the end, they just throw more and more cool little touches in. It sounds like a drum solo.

“Triangular Tattvic Fire” opens up very much like Shogun era Trivium, bouncy but with a darker, Melodeath angle and a kind of proggy attitude. Then it trows down this amazing bit that most sounds like horse’s racing, but with a tail that sounds like a mummy.

Then one of those actual Black Metal sections for a few seconds. Then the snake charmer vibe comes back to relieve me. The drumming is incredible. Its like he’s trying to prove a point. The parts keep turning back in on themselves. Then a straight up Amon Amarth riff for one second till a cut to silence. Then the horse racing bit comes back in alone until the whole band thunder in. Then the Black Bit but with powerful stop-starts that make it fun. Then the painfully good drumming trio of sections, snake charming etc. The vocal patterns are so fun. Then under the Black vocals, some clean vocals. Briefly.

Then some intensity and an end.

‘The Arrival Ritual’ arrives, opening up with some scary feedback noises, evil chanting, tribal percussion slowly beating, some … sitar? for a second. It sounds like Mortal Kombat loading screens. It develops slowly and moodily. Gaining a sort of Empty Spaces feel, but with Ghostly-wind sound effects. A guitar solo eventually breaks out slowly and quietly in the background. It’s a cool, atmospheric, near-six-minute let-up from the unrelenting savage bruising (fuck off journalism-talk ) of the album’s usual sound. It wasn’t as cool as the one of these tracks that was one the following album, it felt more like a story. It was a little better as a song and not just all-atmosphere. But still, this is cool. Just not something I’d put on my limited-space phone.

“Incendium Between Mirage And Time” opens slowly with heavy riffs stopping and starting. Teasing. Then it gets more and more worked up. Until a big build-up and eventually it gets ready to explode, but the drums bup-bap back in on themselves. It goes a bit Black for a second, but then they pull out the snake-charmer vibes just in time to keep it all cool. There’s a cool lead-bass bit. There’s loads of cool little touches. One-off cymbal choke sections or fills or guitar lines that sound like evil Genies.

There’s a bit that sounds Trad Metal, like Priest and Maiden, hidden in amongst the extremity. There’s a massive Hetfield chug-bounce section. There’s more of that fup-da-wop bouncy drumming, and occasional cleans underneath the Black to make the vocals more accessible.

It goes straight forward for a few bars and just absolutely nails it. 4.33 onwards is great fun. Especially when the solos come in, they start off all-effects, all wails and wah, then these half-blasts come in, and it all ends with feedback and a calm half cymbal-wash.

Then “Purifier Of The Stars” barges in like a drunken pregnant robot, that’s heard ‘Spheres Of Madness’ and ‘Stand Up And Shout,’ as well as Slayer’s ‘Disciple’ in the pub, but has mixed the three up on its stumble towards home, and is humming a half-remembered mixture of all three, filtered through its malfunctioning, hormonal, mechanic brain. The whole song is a continuous flow of cool variations on a cool slow groove that’s secretly fast.

There’s another neat ghost-solo, and a bazillion little flourishes by all involved to catch the attention. At one stage it kind of sounds like Iron Maiden and Mastodon trying to sound Russian. There’s a slow Sabbathy bit in there somewhere too. Its never not good.

The album finishes with “Caravans To Ur.” It starts off with this amazing riff that I’d swear was written by my brother (“The Strategist”s intro). Slow moody double-kicks drop in for a visit. The song sounds like two twin zombie dogs looking, undeadly, around for scraps of meat in Chernobyl, they’re kind of in-step but shambling and so not fully regimented.

This song is the album highlight already and its not even played a full two minutes. There’s riffs that remind me of Thin Lizzy-inspired Baroness bits, and bits that remind me of Sleep’s Jerusalem. There’s a little sort of bass solo going on underneath the main hypnotic zombie-dog riff… UNFORTUANTLY however, it fades out to silence after three and a half minutes, even though it was a twelve minute track. At around 9.40 it starts coming back in again with some Viginti Tres style evil windy noises, like a haunted moor. Then that ends. Shame. Shoulda brought old Snuffles and Fluffy back in for a reprise to end it.

OK. So that was Sphynx. It was cool. Damn cool. Very interesting. A breath of fresh air. A surprise and a new branch of trust for me to the extreme metal crowd. It wasn’t just as cool as the newer material on the two records that followed it (but they were both £4 more expensive) but it was damn cool and it give me plenty of what I wanted: bouncy snake-charmer sections, listenable Black Metal bits, guitar solos and virtuoso drumming.

I highly recommend that anyone who is a bit skeptical of Black Metal try this out. But check it out if you like Death Metal as well. Its not really a genre-album its more of a musicianship album. Think of it more like Opeth or early Mastodon, being near a genre, but actually their own utterly unique take on it.

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