Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: Amebix - Sonic Mass


“Distillation! Revelation!” bellows The Baron during the opening verse of “The Messenger,” the third track of Amebix’s upcoming album Sonic Mass. In the context of the song, he’s probably referring to the creation of Earth in the midst of the void. But with this exultant cry he is also giving us a key for interpreting the album as a whole. To speak of revelation is to speak of things becoming visible, becoming present. The word suggests the opening up of the world to our understanding, and the motion of hidden things from shadow into light. Sonic Mass is, above all, a work of and about revelation. It is the sound of a formerly opaque band showing us, for the first time, where their music comes from and what it’s about. But, pagan to the bone, Amebix know that revelation isn’t simply to be given. It must be won through ordeal. What follows are my own gleanings from hours spent listening to—and struggling with—this mighty comeback album.


As opening track “Days” crests in a wash of synth-strings and crashes into the martial crush of “Shield Wall,” it becomes clear that Sonic Mass is far from the raw and ragged metalpunk of yore. The sound is crystalline, the mix spacious, the instruments powerful and precisely played. While the songs are never convoluted, they’re positively mercurial in comparison with the minimalist bludgeoning of Arise. This may come as a surprise and even a disappointment to some fans of Amebix’s original sound, but in retrospect it becomes clear that this is where the band was heading all along. Crust punk happened almost as a byproduct of Amebix, who were always onto something much more difficult to pin down. More than anything, though, they were re-imagining heavy metal with a severe economy of means. Sonic Mass is the huge, ambitious heavy metal album that Amebix were always striving to create.


What’s even cooler about Sonic Mass, though, is that it’s a metal album dominated by non-metal influences. Rather than becoming imitators of themselves, or imitators of their imitators, the resurrected Amebix chose to bring out the tendencies that were always present in their music, hidden just beneath the surface. I’d argue that Amebix always had just as much to do with goth rock and post-punk as with punk or metal, and this album sees them making that connection explicit. Songs like “Days” and “Knights of the Black Sun” are steeped in the cold majesty of Joy Division. But Sonic Mass has an even closer kinship to Revelations, the challenging and mostly-forgotten third album of the Killing Joke. Amebix seem to have fully digested its dense textures and cryptic drones, reworking these for a more melodic, metallic context. On the verses of “God of the Grain,” the album’s fastest track, Amebix spin out strange guitar harmonies over whirling-dervish beats. This is cool enough in itself, but they’ve amplified the song’s sonic tension and mystical mania by sampling a wailing ram’s horn or syrinx. The effect is truly Dionysiac, and it’s easy to imagine the band whipping up cult devotees into a whirl of joyous dancing edged with menace. Amebix aren’t just paying tribute to their old heroes, they’re also channeling—more than ever—Jaz and company’s obsession with the rites of primeval civilizations.


Sonic Mass also lays bare a less obvious—but no less important—strain within Amebix’s musical DNA. Do you remember that song “Right To Ride” that’s included as a bonus on the reissue of Arise? Yes, it sounds like Motorhead, but what it really sounds like is punks doing Hawkwind. Now Amebix are more Hawkwindy than ever, but not in the way you might expect. During its most reflective moments, Sonic Mass recalls the wistful, hazy psych-folk that punctuated Hawkwind albums like In Search of Space. On “Sonic Mass Part I,” The Baron calls out in world-weariness over Stig’s nimbly plucked acoustic guitar, their interlocking melodies playing out over an electroacoustic background. This song could be taken as an expectant, pre-apocalyptic rejoinder to the post-apocalyptic lament of Hawkwind’s “We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago.” Of course, the resemblance may be unintentional, but what I’m really getting at with this comparison is that Amebix’s forays into folk-rock are completely consistent with their old musical trajectory. Rather than grasping after novelty, they’re firmly asserting their rightful place within a long line of strange, magickal, quintessentially English bands.


While I was immediately delighted by the simultaneous newness and oldness of Amebix’s sound, I didn’t quite know what to make of the songwriting. And that’s important, because great music is never simply a matter of style. While it was easy for me to get into the post-punk/folk trio of “Days,” “Sonic Mass Part I,” and “Knights of The Black Sun,” I found the bulk of the album frustrating. The beefy polyrhythmic chug of songs like “The Messenger” and “Sonic Mass Part 2” struck me as uncomfortably close to the spotty material of late Sepultura. Even “God of The Grain” threw me for a loop when its sinister, sinuous verse gave way to a shout-along chorus like something off a Ministry album. All in all, these more aggressive tracks offered neither the rabid extremity of vintage Amebix nor the poppy catchiness that I’d come to expect from the best 90s alt-metal. “Visitation” piqued my interest with an awesome arpeggiated riff that could’ve been lifted from the aforementioned Revelations, but the song’s dependence on vocal sampling and a simple, declaratory chorus led me to dismiss it as filler. “Here Come The Wolf” sounded like an attempt to write a Big Catchy Rock Song that didn’t quite come off. Over the course of the album there were several passages that felt arbitrary, and a number of places where I expected to hear more memorable riffs. For a week or two, I thought Sonic Mass was a bit of a disappointment.


Good thing, then, that I was totally wrong. I can’t quite pinpoint when I began to hear things differently, but it had to do with space and time. First, I took off the headphones. Even over my shitty laptop speakers, the experience was somehow different. It was as if I’d given Sonic Mass the fresh, open air it needed to thrive. The hyper-clarity of headphone listening had made it all too easy for me to isolate individual sounds, subjecting them to a criticism as rigorous as it was inappropriate. Now, I began hearing each song in its totality. The music was gripping and memorable, its power emerging in the subtle play between simultaneous parts and at the seams between adjoining passages. While seated at a desk and jacked into the computer, I had been cut off from the physicality coursing through Sonic Mass. And since it doesn’t really work in the same way as the brute force of Monolith or Arise, I was unable to hear it without feeling it first. Once I unplugged from the machine and set strides to sounds, I could feel Amebix pushing me towards imaginary stagedives. I remember walking towards the elevated train with “The One” stuck in my head, glorying in the sheer muscular strain of The Baron drawing out his syllables over those hammering chords. Sonic Mass was written to be released into the world.


As I gave Sonic Mass space, I was also putting time into it. I let the music sink in as I laced up my Doc Martens, puttered about my room, read about Vikings, and did the other important things in the life of a 22 year-old fantasist. In my initial listening session I hadn’t been open enough to hearing the album as an album—I was too busy attempting to assimilate all the details. In the period of frustration that followed, I’d been skipping from track to track. Now, I was getting a sense for the flow of the album, gradually coming to know it as a totality. And that changed the way I heard every song.


Moments that once seemed insufficiently powerful or catchy became captivating. Sections that once seemed arbitrary took on an important role within the overall song and overall album. The Messenger, for instance, is actually crushingly heavy, but this heaviness owes much to the way it bursts forth from the buildup of The Shield Wall and set us up for the frenzy of God of The Grain. Visitation, on the other end of the sonic spectrum, isn’t just a throwaway foray into atmospherics. It’s really a continuation of the sounds and themes of God of The Grain. While God of The Grain summons up the throes of worship, Visitation explores the moment when the ever-present god makes himself visible to men. Heard in this way, its ominous palm-muted sections take on more weight, and its chorus makes more musical sense. What first seemed like an interlude is really the slow-burning climax to the first half of the album. And so on.


I’m not just talking about sequencing and pacing. Every aspect of Sonic Mass derives its musical and symbolic impact not only from what it is in itself, or from how it relates to what adjoins it, but from its relationship to the whole. The album must be grasped in its unity. To hear it in this way is to unlock it, to open it up. For me, the songs became immediately enjoyable. Once I experienced them all as part of the whole, I could fall in love with each individually. It’s now difficult for me to imagine how I ever thought of Sonic Mass as something other than powerful, elegant, and supremely memorable. This music gives me great joy.


The unified musical narrative of Sonic Mass is more than an ambitious compositional strategy, though. It’s the very sound of “the circle turning to completion,” as The Baron sings in “Days.” For Amebix, the paradigmatic form of revelation is prophecy. This has always been their guiding obsession, and I don’t think it’d be an overstatement to say that their discography is, itself, a kind of prophetic text. But Sonic Mass is different from anything they’ve previously released. They’ve gone beyond envisioning the future to reflect explicitly on prophecy in their lyrics, and to give the album itself a prophetic form.


While we tend to think of prophecy as peering into the future, Amebix’s lyrics on Sonic Mass have just as much to do with the past. Indeed, “Days” opens the album by collapsing the distinction between these concepts entirely. It has us simultaneously coming “out of the night” and “look[ing] upon the risen dawn, the day of our creation.” On “Sonic Mass Part II,” Amebix invoke the pagan/pantheist worldview that thrived throughout the world “10,000 years ago, ” and lament its fall to the divisive forces of Christianity and Islam (which prevent the very unification they promise). With “The One,” The Baron narrates the creation of the world through the fusion of seemingly distinct elements into an indivisible whole. All of this history is part of the prophecy. Amebix aren’t St. John, looking forward from the present down the narrow line of Christian time. They’re more like the skaldic seeress of the Voluspa who “set[s] forth the fates of the world,” grasping the winding course of the gods’ wyrd from beginning to end. When at last we arrive at “Knights of The Black Sun,” which looks ahead towards the downfall of our age, we’ve passed through millenia of rituals and portents.


But why, after spending all of Sonic Mass working up to it, did Amebix release “Knights of The Black Sun” as the album’s lead single? This was, on the face of it, a strange choice. They gave away the end. It’s like a director insisting—against the frantic advice of his producer—on releasing the climactic scene of his upcoming film as its trailer. Why would Amebix undercut the arc of their music?


Because that’s how prophecy works. The end is fore-doomed. It is hidden within the origin, and it’s the responsibility of the seer to reveal it. By giving us “Knights of The Black Sun” first, Amebix bound Sonic Mass to a fated end. The music surges towards this end with absolute necessity. It brings us with it. Even as we hear the first strains of “Days,” its bass and vocal melodies foreshadow the final song. “These days will never come again,” The Baron intones. The circle turns, but not evermore. As it closes, we come to a time both foretold and remembered. We find the future that was always waiting for us.


It so happens that when I play through all my Amebix albums on iTunes, “Knights of the Black Sun” fades out into the opening drones of “Winter.” Nothing sounds more natural.


Buy this album on Amazon

13 comments:

  1. Great review, Pavel. I really need to hear this album.

    Really.

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  2. Oddly enough, it seems you experienced the album in the EXACT way I did. While I enjoy individual tracks of the album a fair bit, I simply cannot listen to this album without listening to it from start to finish, or finish to start. I've heard a good amount of people refer to this album as a third-rate Killing Joke album, and in a way they're sort of right, because this is an AMEBIX album and Killing Joke could never have written songs and messages in this way. Maybe at the very surface they could have, maybe, but Amebix sound like themselves more than ever here, just as you said. Damn good review, by the way.

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  3. @Daniel: Cheers man! And yes. You do.

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  4. @Dragunov: Whoa, cool! Glad to know I'm not the only one who heard it this way. Thanks for the praise, and thanks as always for your thoughtful comments!

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  5. That is an involving review,i dont know of many bands who can still provoke such a strong response within the listener.I remember well both Arise and Monolith,and how each were almost ahead of their own time,and were not immediately accessible...if at all. All hail the mighty return of Amebix!,we may well be looking at a future classic here.

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  6. @Anon: Great to hear from a veteran! Your point about the difficulty of their sound in the 80s is well-taken...they've remained true to themselves in every respect, it seems. And "involving" is what I was shooting for, so thanks a lot.

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  7. I'd actually decided (to my shame) not to bother with this album at all, despite its awesome cover. This review totally talked me round, and I'm blown away. Any record with this much time and effort invested in its composition deserves to be heard. There are years worth of ideas to get your head around here.

    So, cheers man!

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  8. Ok, Pavel, you've convinced me to give it a proper shot. I was worried but this review is way more encouraging than almost anything anyone else has said.

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  9. Excellent review. You really have some great points. Am looking forward to getting this album.

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  10. @Rob: Cheers to you for the praise, and for reading the whole damn thing! Totally agree about this being music that "deserves to be heard," so I'm quite flattered to hear that you checked it out based on my recommendation. That's what we critics live for, right? And I'm glad you're finding the album as enthralling as I have.

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  11. @OneRodeToAsaBay: Very cool! As I just said to Rob, it's lovely that you liked the review enough to give the album a shot. Especially since you've been so apprehensive about it. Nice of you to follow up on our forum conversation, by the way. I'm interested to hear what you think of the album, so let me know when you've done some listening!

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  12. @Ido: Thanks dude! definitely get the vinyl if you can, I think that'll only add to the experience for this one. Hopefully getting a reviewer copy in the mail at some point, though I'll need to buy a turntable to listen to it...

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  13. fantastic and helpful. beautiful prose also.

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