“If the oceans were filled with ink and all the forests and trees were pens,
As trailed previously, British eccentrics The Meads of Asphodel have written a concept album about the Holocaust, specifically the ‘sonderkommando’ groups of death camp inmates tasked with removing corpses from gas chambers and cremating them, as depicted on the haunting artwork. Since the Nazis needed them to be physically able they were given better treatment than other inmates, had better barracks and food; yet the Nazis followed a policy of gassing them every four months and replacing them with new units in order to keep the secrets of Die Endlösung der Judenfrage – the final solution to the Jewish question – safe. I said in my review of 2010’s The Murder of Jesus the Jew that there were very few metal bands that could get away with an album title like that, and there are even fewer who could get away with an album like this. Are there, in fact, any? I’m not sure The Meads have, to be honest, which makes for an uncomfortable listen and an uncomfortable review to write…
It’s obviously an uncomfortable topic for an album – no other rock band that I know of has dedicated an entire album to the Holocaust, although the likes of Salem, Slayer, Rush, and Sabaton, amongst others, have written songs about it, and there are various classical pieces inspired by it. Those who know the band will be very wary about this album, as The Meads are known as much for their Monty Python-esque humour as the suits of armour they wear in photoshoots – whoever made Sonderkommando would make it challenging, but this is especially in danger of falling into the sort of amateur theatrics that The Meads often toy at the edge of, being deeply inappropriate at best! And yes, this album doesn’t always alleviate those fears, although it does make a considerable effort. You can’t say that the band undertook it lightly, vocalist Metatron visiting Auschwitz in 2011 and writing album lyrics there, even recording some of the narrative sections there to catch the horror of systematic murder on an industrialised scale. He wrote a self-styled codex to go along with the album, explaining the thinking behind it and explaining the lyrics, which is well worth reading (at the band’s website, link above). Interestingly, Sonderkommando is something of a sequel to The Murder of Jesus the Jew, which dealt with anti-Semitism amongst other topics in the lyrics. Sonderkommando deals with the result, the actual death toll of the Holocaust, and as a result is the darkest album that the band has produced yet.
The opening title track has little of the metal bang and crash of past openers to it at first, beginning sombrely with an excerpt from Hitler’s 1939 Reichstag speech demanding a solution to the Jewish question. A lone female wordless voice is heard before the slow, deep music, a folky vibe present with an accordion, nothing that wouldn’t be out of place at an official Holocaust day memorial ceremony. It builds gradually to a classic prog-styled vocal theme as the first verse is sung, Metatron’s usual gruff bark nowhere to be heard – at least, not until the beginning of the sixth minute, when he roars out of nowhere and the band kick off, a thrashy gallop introducing their usual metal blast. It builds up to a final section, more prog than anything with the piano and vocals, the lyrics absolutely poetic and gripping:
“The smoke rises up into the clouds/Looming above like funeral shrouds
Describing the theme and lyrics properly without making the review even more ridiculously long is hard, so I’ll just say do read the lyrics whilst listening as despite often being Metatron’s usual foul-mouthed diatribes, they are absolutely fitting thematically, the despair and horror clear, although often unnecessary and over-the-top.
For once, the music itself seems restrained, and is often quite straightforward and driven – the sorrowful Wishing Well of Bones a good example, a central, folk-tinged, melodic riff circling above the sludgy chugging. For the first time, I think the band have completely turned their back on the black metal and avant-garde weirdness of the past and embraced crust punk wholly, albeit with an enormous progressive influence which makes the music so interesting. Plus, of course, the topic is the key here, not the musical experimentation. For example, you don’t need avant-garde weirdness added to the thrashy punk of Aktion T4 (describing the Nazi government’s mandatory Euthanasia program) when the opening scrape of shovels are left to chillingly speak for themselves. The track itself is oddly catchy, technical in the riffing and with some superb soloing, a subtle synth line adding to the progressive feeling, and the closing screams a realisation of the horror that so often lurks in plain view. Those with knowledge of what happened at that bloodsoaked ravine will find more to The Silent Ghosts of Babi-Yar than the dementedly swinging riffage, too.
Those looking for experimentation will find it, of course. The two-part Children of the Sunwheel Banner deals with the German nationalist pride of the time, the first part a military march atop speech snippets with a beat (reminiscent of Laibach up to a point) and the second an eight-minute prog epic opening with delirious percussion and psychedelic guitar swirls before a taking wall-of-noise approach, devolving as it continues. It’s here that Mirai from Sigh gets his now-customary keyboard solo, after some creepy chanting, far more befitting thematically there than it would have been elsewhere. Sadly, The Meads take a major misstep with the following Lamenting Weaver of Horror, which opens with Macbeth-styled witchy vocals and the shade of a dead child (played by Metatron’s son, interestingly) questioning in confusing fear, answered by Metatron as Death in full foul-mouthed flow: “I want my mother, where is she?” “SHE IS FUCKING DEAD!” Even the knowledge that Metatron recorded his parts to this separately from his son so as not to subject him to it doesn’t make it any less tasteless or woefully misjudged, and it drags the album down significantly – it’s just unnecessary for describing the horror of the Holocaust, apart from anything. The track ends with a psychedelic bit of folk complete with flute and whistle (played by Roibéard Ó Bogail of Ireland’s Mael Mórdha) that would have made a better track on its own.
From then on, the album takes something of a downward slope. Sins of the Pharaohs has sparse moments of genius, folksy calls of ‘set my people free’ highlighting the difference between the Biblical Exodus from Egypt and the very real lack of redemption from the death camps. There’s a return to previous horrors with the puffing trains of Last Trains to Eden, an instrumental section ambient in its ominous build-up and perhaps better left as an instrumental dealing with the arrival of the cattle wagons at the death camps (again, Metatron’s roars about dying fucking scum are too much) with the input of Mories from black noise project Gnaw Their Tongues. Hourglass of Ash is an album highlight, having the closest thing to black metal on the album, with blastbeats and dementedly twisted riffing after a jaunty orchestral theme (the music played by the Jewish band at Auschwitz as the gas chambers were packed). Later in the track, there’s the eeriest bit of saxophone you’ll ever hear, the track moving from moments of jazz to klezmer in a suitably deranged movement – it’s one of the most compelling moments of the album due to the sheer mad artistry of it. The following The Mussulmans Wander Through the Infernal Whorling 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 is a tribute to the 12th Sonderkommando unit, who attempted an uprising and perished trying to blow up the crematoria. It features both harmonica and wailing female vocals, and is aggressive and punchy, the sweary ranting of the lyrics utterly fitting the fatal desperation of the Sonderkommando.
Sonderkommando closes with Send My Love to Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, a largely instrumental piece with Metatron’s voiceover describing the insane capacity of the crematoria, and it’s a suitably dark finale to a very dark album. Summing it up is as hard as scoring it – I’m not sure whether it’s a fittingly atmospheric tribute, a woefully poor mistake, or something of both. The musicianship and much of the lyrics are superb, and cut down a little this could have been an astounding achievement, but moments such as Lamenting Weaver of Horror drag it down into melodrama and pantomime, and the very nature of The Meads becomes a weight around the music’s neck rather than part of its brilliance. Flashes of genius are mixed with flashes of sheer stupidity, the flaws so great that they ruin the exceptionally thought-provoking moments that the album is so full of. Can you both recommend an album, and advise that people don’t listen to it? Can you praise a band for attempting something so foolhardy, even as you damn it for the results? Sonderkommando is an artistic and critical challenge like no other, not because it fails, but because it nearly succeeds. The Meads of Asphodel have produced a truly unique and fascinating album, on a topic that many think should not even be a topic of artistic creativity. I ended my review of The Murder of Jesus the Jew by asking who would want The Meads of Asphodel not to be getting more controversial – well, I think they’ve overstepped the mark, but the results are so nearly worthwhile that I’ll be listening and questioning until their next album. And that, ultimately, is what good art should do, even when it’s bowing under the sheer weight of a topic as heavy as the Holocaust. A topic so heavy that perhaps silence is the only possible reaction… But Metatron clearly thought this too, to end on his words:
“Maybe some things are best forgotten, maybe unspoken. Then again, maybe they should never be forgotten, and if spoken of, maybe the world will be a better place by remembering.”
Killing Songs :
Aktion T4, The Silent Ghosts of Babi-Yar, Children of the Sunwheel Banner pt 2, Hourglass of Ash, The Mussulmans Wander…
|Goat quoted 70 / 100|
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