Mekong Delta – Kaleidoscope (1992)
It’s been quite a while since I last wrote about Mekong Delta. Their ‘progressive’ speed/thrash metal sound was sort of a staple of my listening rotation back in 2010, especially since this accessible recording was the first that I encountered, but it has admittedly diminished in relevance to me since then. Kaleidoscope is presumably the band at their most laid back and introspective, although it remains within the confines of the band’s chosen genre. It’s consistently “interesting”, for want of a better term, as there’s an emphasis on technicality and musical exploration, but it often leaves me pining for the band’s first three albums, which for all their ups and downs still had most of that while generally being more aggressive and ‘heavy’ experiences.
Given that Mekong Delta’s lineup in the ’80s and ’90s was basically a revolving door of who was who in German speed/power/thrash metal, it’s actually impressive how gradually the sound of the band changed over time. Kaleidoscope owes much of its differences from older material, admittedly, to Doug Lee, a vocalist who joined up on the last album, replacing Wolfgang “Keil” Borgmann and encapsulating the newly more conventional and musically accomplished if less charismatic sound of the band. I don’t know how aware the band members were of various strains of progressive rock/metal at the time; this notably came out the same year as Dream Theater’s Images and Words. However, the approach is obviously different – for one thing, Mekong Delta lacks, and furthermore has always lacked the vocal and keyboard emphases of their rough competitor/contemporary. They’re also less flamboyant in other ways, and generally come off as a highly disciplined and even cold act on this album, seemingly focused on the interplay of their instruments more than individual glory.
The other big part of the pivot towards prog is that Mekong Delta has tried to overhaul their songwriting for slightly extended formats. The rest of the Doug Lee years showcase a bit of this in more ambitious forms, including a 1997 adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Ambition. Kaleidoscope only pushes the average song to the 5-6 minute mark by adding in bridging material to what would otherwise be fairly standard pop structured songs, with… mixed results. In the process of writing for Death Metal Underground (see the blogroll), I spend a lot of time harping on how many bands that try to avoid the basic songwriting cliches fall into various traps. Mekong Delta’s, at least in 1992, is that they don’t do well with their bridges, which are often tangential and come across as filler. The verses and choruses seem to be fine, though, perhaps because the band simply had more experience making the simpler stuff work. In my experience, bands tend to be a bit more holistically good or bad (or mediocre) about this, so I guess that makes this band a rare exception.
Long screed aside, Mekong Delta drew most of my attention for being relatively extreme by the standards of a progressive metal band. My discovery of more intense (i.e death/black metal) bands interested in that form did much to diminish my interest in this band.
Highlights: “Sphere Eclipse”, “Heartbeat”, “Misunderstanding”