I was told about this album on chatting to Metatron about The Meads Of Asphodel’s last contentious album ‘The Death Of Jesus The Jew.’ As it is Easter I really should be giving this a spin but everything is concentrated on the imminent release of Sonderkommando. I had been looking forward to this and also had not, as the name no doubt suggests to you, that the subject matter is a bit on the grim side. The album conceptually focuses on the holocaust through the eyes of the Sonderkommando who were the Jewish workers who had to dispose of the corpses in the concentration camps, this included stripping them of anything of value (such as gold teeth etc) and then cremating them. To get really into the character of the album and to add to the atmosphere of it Metatron researched by visiting Auschwitz to immerse himself in the fumes of one of man’s grimmest periods of history. To accompany the album he has, as he did the last time, written a lengthy codex with descriptions about the album and the songs on it. I intend to sit down and read this myself but at the moment have avoided doing so as want to give my own thoughts on what I am hearing. The link is at the bottom of the review. I would however want to say that without any shadow of doubt and before anyone reading gets the wrong idea, this is an album that is far from revelling in the glory of war, it is a lament and a cry out to the hopelessness of it all and it is as ever with The Meads despite misunderstandings at times, very much an anti-fascist statement of events but one that does utilise speeches and recordings that are historically from the Second World War, one of which opens the album (Hitler’s Reichstag Speech)and already casts a cold shroud over the listener.
Since the last album the band itself has a new drummer in the form of Andre Kjelbergvik Thung who is also in multi-instrumentalist JD Tait’s other group Eibonillumi amongst others. Huw Lloyd Langton is unfortunately no longer with us for any guest spots but his formidable bass companion from Hawkwind is again present on what might well be the strangest album he has ever participated in. After that evocative opening sample on the title track we are instantly thrust into a familiar place and although this is a long album and one that is difficult narratively, musically it was instantly identifiable and quite an accessible album to get to grips with. Having said that if you are new to The Meads this will really not be the case.
Jaunty yet sorrowful melody oozes out and we are taken into a very Pink Floydian place. It’s almost ‘Wish You Were Here’ despite being the last place on earth you would want to be. Again The Meads have done that rock opera type of thing with clean vocals (male and female) adding to it and making the whole thing sound like it was designed for the theatre and an elaborate musical stage play (no doubt the main reason they will not simply play live). I am reminded of Hair and the like and it is impossible to shift. Well it is until Metatron gargles out the words “This is fucking death” and we go into a furrowing melange of brutal blackened punk. The feel of calm and near beauty has been shattered. It’s an epic 12 minute track and a powerful start for what is to come. Cantering keys and brutish vocals see some shorter sections like ‘A Wishing Well Of Bones’ clattering away. Melody is thick and the wailing clamour of the guitar lines, beseeching female backing vocals and leaden pogo bounce of the song’s mainframe all add up making it a crunchy ride before the grim sounds of coal being shovelled and flames crackling remind you that although you might feel happy from the music you are not in the right place to be so.
It would mean a ridiculous word count if I went through this thoroughly and described every part but there are linear moments of barraging black punk, there are flowing and spiralling leads and plenty of screams to keep things flowing at a fair crack of the whip. Just when you think you have got the hang of things and are riding on the crest of a wave as those choral parts are deliriously crooning away we find ourselves in a martial industrial zone with speech from The Fuhrer jolting us back into dark places on the two part ‘Children Of The Sunwheel Banner.’ After the short Teutonic hell forged in a Laibachian flurry terribly maudlin tones take into the second part followed by roaring rough vocals and harsh heavyset instrumentation. You could no doubt follow the lyrics to get the full effect but with the words “Zyklon B” harshly booming out the speakers would you really want to go that far into things? Again it has the habit of building things into a fervour and a jolly one this time in the form of some mental retro keyboards weaving away courtesy I suspect of Mirai, just to pull the rug out from under your feet, wipe the smile off your face and kick you back into despair. That comes on the album’s most heartrending part, ‘Lamenting Weaver Of Horror.’ It’s almost Macbeth here with what sounds like Witches around their cauldron and I think that is what it symbolises. Then we are taken into a chat between Death (Metatron) and a lost child’s soul; to say it is a chilling piece would be hugely understating it and the first time I heard it I was suitably horrified. The lone pipe / flute make’s this song of death all the more poignant.
The “Set My People Free” bounce of ‘Sins Of The Pharaohs’ with great backing theatrical vocals again is probably one of the easiest parts of the album to get on with as far as a radio friendly hit were concerned (what a ridiculous notion) and again it has that stage feel about it albeit this time around “Joseph And The Amazing…. or Jesus Christ Superstar”. At first like going to Transcendence KLF style and then hammering into hell the ‘Last Train To Eden’ is an ambitious number with many facets to it. It also really sees Thung making an impression on it with some eccentric almost experimental jazz style drum freak outs.
I am sure I have not touched on a tenth of the things going on within this album it has more happening in a song like Hour Glass Of Ash with mix of different musical styles by the band and references to other well-known snatches of music than most bands would touch in a whole career. It’s as epic a listen as watching the likes of Schindler’s List and every bit as much of a harrowing endurance test as it takes you through so many emotions. It also hopefully should make you think. It is a difficult album to simply listen to as music and that is possibly the one thing that could put people off but then again probably not the sort of people who would listen to the band in the first place. In case you were worried about them not doing one of their off the wall long title tracks not to fear it’s there and nope I am not copy and pasting the penultimate tracks name. It does give us a bit more of a wild dervish of a dance up to the end part which is a more than fitting epitaph to the whole thing.
One wonders what on earth The Meads Of Asphodel can do to top this, but then again we said the same last time around. Are they going to chill out and concentrate just on the music or are we going to stare even further in the abyss. There is very little else you can put on after it finishes not without a period of reflective silence at least. Sonderkommando is the sound of history and the ghosts within it have been stirred but it is important as it helps us never forget the inhumanity of man and war and perhaps, although it hardly seems like it today, it may help prevent anything like this happening again.
Pete Woods (9/10)