Posted by: Necci – Sep 28, 2011
Punk rock has a long history of attempting a scope that might charitably be described as quixotic. It's wonderful to think that an angry, three-chord song could give a dozen millenia of Western civilization a thoroughly-deserved dressing down, and while the redemptive and transformative properties of such music shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, their efficacy and accuracy need not be taken for granted either. Despite a million (give or take a few) songs disparaging the destructive and dehumanizing machinations of society at large, the machinery rolls on unabated. So when a band attempts to examine an even vaster panorama of human experience, a macrocosmic version of punk's ideal of speaking truth to power, the endeavor might seem to possess higher odds of failure concomitant with its heightened respectability. However, when that band is Amebix, the playing field levels and the odds must be reconsidered.
For the uninitiated, Amebix were an English band that originally existed from 1978 until 1987 and released a series of consistently excellent albums that existed in a nebulous gray area between the bass-heavy post-punk of Killing Joke, the metallic gallop of Motorhead, and the politics of Crass, albums that defied the era' s genre expectations as much as they defined those ideas for later generations. It remains visceral and bracing music, devoid of many of the time-specific references that have prevented a great number of their contemporaries' music from aging well. The band offered no diatribes against Reagan or Thatcher, instead opting for a series of paeans to the travails, tragedies, and occasional triumphs of the human spirit when navigating through what is often a cold and antagonistic world. After breaking up, several members continued in a variety of bands, and the singer began a two-decade career as a swordsmith on the Isle of Skye. The last few years have witnessed the band make their first tenuous steps from the shadows with a new drummer and a sound that is somewhat better-produced and more tightly-performed (to the chagrin of many a punk rocker), but is more in keeping with the spirit of their earliest releases than any cheap regurgitation of those albums would be.
The band offered small glimpses of their new direction on last year's Redux – a re-recording of three old songs in a manner that reflects the direction of their new lineup – and this year's Knights Of The Black Sun EP. The former was an encouraging sign of life, but not necessarily the best representation of the band. The latter possessed a far stronger sense of songcraft and vitality and was the band's first new material in twenty-four years, but as a single song EP was frustrating in its brevity. Amebix's two-decade lapse between releases, and subsequent return to the fold with only the briefest of re-introductions, will likely subject their newest album to a degree of critical dissection that a lesser band would have a hard time withstanding. But the material holds its own, proving the band capable of handling any scrutiny with aplomb.
“Days,” the album's opening song, is an immediate reminder that Amebix was always defined by their willingness to progress. The song starts with gently crooned vocals (that even offer a brief foray into a falsetto passage that's nothing if not surprising) over a hushed bass accompaniment that builds to incorporate martial drums and a surge of ethereal keyboard. It's a bold choice of opener, a balance of the delicate and the strident that very bluntly underscores the fact that anybody expecting another Monolith or The Power Remains will not be getting their wish. After the placid opener, the rest of the album swings across a wide spectrum. Songs like “The Messenger” and “God Of The Grain” are adorned with odd chanting and Middle Eastern flourishes. The first of two title tracks relies on a largely acoustic arrangement that calls to mind any of the better of the neo-folk artists (minus the sonic frailty and crypto-fascist orientations of which that genre is so enamored), and its companion could easily be counted as one of the band's heaviest, a brisk exercise in low-end pummeling that goes a long way towards negating any belief that Amebix had appreciably softened. This isn't to say that the album is defined only by its outliers – songs like “Here Comes The Wolf” and “The One” are both fairly straightforward heavy songs that don't allow their melodic content to undermine their blunt aggression. Closing track “Knights Of The Black Sun” varies little from the version released as an EP early in the year, but in the context of the album carries more power, with its continuous escalation (something akin to a six-minute, self-contained crescendo) capping off the album on a triumphant high note. It's an incredible piece on its own, but only benefits from the structural framework provided by the other nine songs Some of the best material the band ever wrote were those used to conclude their albums (“The Darkest Hour” and “Coming Home” are excellent examples) and this is no exception.
There are a few questionable moments, though they comprise a small portion of Sonic Mass. “Shield Wall,” the album's second song, is essentially a single riff repeated with little variation for two minutes before coming to an end abrupt as its beginning. Perhaps it was included to contrast the placidity of the opening song, or perhaps there was some other reason. Either way, its presence was somewhat confusing. Similarly, “Visitation” was somewhat repetitive, with a narrative recounting an experience with some otherworldly creature buried underneath the sort of mid-tempo plodding that Amebix has typically done a good job of avoiding. It's a shame too, because while the spoken content can be difficult to discern, it seems to represent a new-found focus in the band's lyrics – that of manifestations of energy in the universe that simultaneously influence and transcend the human experience.
Whereas earlier releases often focused on the viewpoint of those individuals dwelling at the fringe of a depraved, decaying society, Sonic Mass focuses on concerns that are larger than any one person, often through recurring references to overarching spiritual concepts inherent to, but often obscured by, the world's major religions. “God Of The Grain” focuses on the figures of Osiris, Adonis, Mithras, Dionysius, and Christ as embodiments of divinity that transcend both specific systems of thought and geographical/temporal constraints. There is a suggestion that such figures have a lasting appeal through being “born again” in different places and times – though it's not entirely clear whether that's a literal reflection on the personification of ideas, an examination of the manner in which humanity's conceptions of deities are often the result of syncretic grafting of such figures' characteristics onto one another, or a reference to Jung's idea that these death-and-resurrection myths are a recognizable manifestation of the larger collective unconscious.
Similarly, “The One” is written from the perspective of a semi-anonymous first person plural, an unspecified “we” that permeates all that humanity knows of history, a force or entity who “fell like comets from the universal mind,” who “fused the elements within the rising sun,” who “watched the cities crumbling into the raging sea,” and who “entered into life and took the human form.” Again, there's an ambiguity – it's difficult to tell whether the narrators are supposed to be perceived as beings that have engineered existence as we know it, if they are supposed to be the personification of the transcendent, creative process inherent to the very fiber of all matter and energy, or if there is not a distinction to be drawn at all.
Even the songs dwelling on less esoteric subject matter – the opener and closer are excellent examples – phrase their ruminations on enemies to be defeated and knowledge to be gleaned in a manner that's somewhat indirect, an approach which serves the songs well by preventing them from turning into some sort of escapist fantasy. The occasional mention of something more concrete - the album closer's reference to Dresden for instance – might seem like something of an incongruity, but Amebix have always proven adept at incorporating just enough real-world imagery to prevent their songs from turning into abstract ruminations on power and defiance. Instead, they incorporate allusions with enough restraint that the songs aren't chained to a narrow historicity.
Their lack of specifics could prove frustrating in less capable hands, but the band's unwillingness to fall into the trap of didacticism allows the ideas to stand on their own, with all the necessary mystery and majesty intact. While there's something of a Gnostic bent to much of the content, it seems like Amebix leave the lyrics somewhat vague, as if to suggest that, though grappling with these larger concepts is a noble pursuit, we may never receive the answers we seek – but that the promise of unanswered questions is far preferable to that of leaving those questions unasked. Theirs is a world of unheralded prophets and words made flesh, a world where petty everyday difficulties fade into an irrelevance wrought by transcendent forces that exist beyond our comprehension, but not our appreciation.
By Graham Scala