Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Amebix "Sonic Mass"

I am not a reviewer, I find music journalists' endless egotistical twaddle rather tedious, but Amebix so exceeded all of my expectations with their reunion album that I was moved to scrabble together a review.

This is the great work.

Amebix were always a special band to me. “Who’s The Enemy?” and “No Sanctuary” were lo-fi, finding-of-feet sketches. The “Winter” single sounded unearthly and was the point at which they started to sound like their own band, with their own voice. Yes, their influences are worn on their sleeves for all to see, but it’s sheer force of personality which makes them more than the sum of their influences. Ostensibly about braving the winter season in run down Bristol squats, with little to no money, it sounded like an evocation of The Winter to end all winters, an eternal state of suspended animation, a frozen anti-apocalypse, veils too cold to be lifted. “Arise” and the (until recently) massively underrated “Monolith” were paths away from the stifling straightjacket of anarcho/crust punk. As necessary as it sometimes is to shout “fuck the system”, there is no art there. No connection. Amebix always seemed to me to be striving towards communicating something much larger, more fundamental, and with “Sonic Mass” - after a 2 decade break, after “the well ran dry”, as Rob Miller put it in the Amebix DVD “Risen” – they have achieved just that.

The crusties and anarchopunk leftovers will likely hate “Sonic Mass”. But they never got it in the first place. Amebix was always a personal gnosis. As Rob “The Baron” growls here (and, I don’t think his voice has ever sounded better, both on the growling, snarling and cleaner singing), “Distillation, revelation”. The old tagline “No Gods No Masters” still rings through everything they do, but then, why songs about revelation, “I am the Logos, called again”, “Mithras, Dionysius, Osiris, Adonis”? Do you fucking get it yet? Regardless of what you believe, atheist, theist, deist, agnostic; you should realise the power, meaning and necessity of our human myths, archetypes, rituals. They have long spoken of self-realisation, of finding and knowing your own true self and strength. “No Gods No Masters” is a rejection of all dogma, not of all Gods. You never know who you’ll need on your side in this life.

This isn’t punk, and it’s only barely metal via surface detail. The stinking old crusties may think this is not the Amebix they loved. They, too, were concerned only with surface. This is Amebix through and through, more world-weary, maybe, and possibly a tad sentimental in places, but wiser, more mature, more measured. This is also very human music; like that twattish ego-in-wraparound-shades Bono, the Miller brothers deal in universals. Unlike him, they realise that old Taoist adage that “the way that can be spoken of is not The Way” (or, as Bruce Lee put it, “It's like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!”). They offer hints and pointers towards that which is but cannot be held by cages of words.

Although they released the last track “Knights Of The Black Sun” as a collectible teaser for the album, this really is a cohesive whole. Each track works on its own, but taken together it forms a journey of revelation. From the seemingly laid back Joy Division-esque opener “Days”, we hear a voice tinged with melancholy from the struggle of life. It may seem strange to open your first album in almost a quarter of a century with something so laid back and, almost, ballad-like, but sometimes the question which needs answering is, “how did we reach our starting point?”
“Days” speaks unspoken volumes of battles won, struggles overcome, a sadness but also a pride in reaching this point and the knowledge that only age can bring, that good or bad, each day is a unique treasure to be learned from. Life will try you and scar you, but you only get one chance at it.

“Shield Wall” is a short, pounding, instrumental, a declaration of, if not war, then of standing one's ground. Roy Mayorga proving his worth (as he has with the huge-sounding production job) with clattering tribal (generic term for those of us who know nowt about drumming) beat. Staring down the present, daring the future to throw at you what it will.

“Ba – Ra – Ka”, the invocation opening “The Messenger”, an ancient greeting, various alchemical references are called, with a typical – but huge sounding thanks to a production that has never before graced an Amebix recording – chugging riff and precise percussion. A melodic refrain rings out, “We saw the light… between the moon and the sun”. This is the work the wise man will see. This song (and, indeed, the whole album) is a mirror, if a monkey looks in, no philosopher looks out.
Our magick, our alchemy, is our lives. That is our great work.

The narrative threads along into “God Of The Grain”, referring to the similarity in many old myths (Mithras, Dionysius, Osiris, Adonis, Jesus). As I said before, you don’t have to be religious to realise the importance, value and need for myths. They are part of our human story and tell us things about ourselves that science cannot. The political philosopher John Gray recently had a piece published on the BBC discussion website (, concerning science/rationalists/atheists’ inability, or refusal, to recognise the value of the very myths (and human need for ritual) that Amebix are referring to here. Although generally a “fan” of Gray, I think he’s barking up the wrong tree with that argument. We can accept the reality, or lack thereof, of the basis of myths, while understanding their power and our own need for them. One can learn from any and every myth, legend or worldview, without necessarily believing that they are based on actual events.

“Visitation” has received some flack as a “filler” track, but I feel it to be an important part of the album’s meta-narrative. Utilising a spoken narrative from (I think) the brothers’ uncle, it speaks of “I was never young, and neither were you”, of some sort of ‘contact’ or revelation/personal gnosis experience, of being careful of what one wishes for. We don’t find out the nature of the contact, but as with “God Of The Grain”, the signs are there, “You know me”. We may never be able to fully express that one objective truth which lies at the heart of all our stories, but we, ultimately, know it.

“Sonic Mass Part 1” is another change of pace, a mostly acoustic lament, “when will we be released?” From what, I do not know, but I never thought mandolins on an Amebix album would fit in!

“Sonic Mass Part 2” is the polar opposite, a storming thrasher, with bellowing “aaahhhhh”s leading into a typical Amebix chugger, but with little embellishments they would never have had the confidence to try before. Hinting at things eastern, maybe Islam? I hear the call to prayer. By cleverly keeping their lyrical hints just vague enough, you’re hooked into imagining what is unsaid.

“Here Come The Wolf”… Tennyson-referencing, about those who come only to destroy us. Chiming, melodic with catchy refrains, “They dream revenge”, still drenched in ye olde teufelkunst, that darkness with a hint of possible salvation through self-affirmation. Amebix were never for the darkness they described, but the ways out of it which they hinted at over and over.

“The One”, also, is pretty tuneful, a building, keening cavalcade of rolling drums and a simple guitar motif, as the Baron points out what should be obvious, “all sense of separation, this is your illusion”. Once we forget from whence we came, we no longer know who we are and have no chance of figuring out where we’re going.

“Knights Of The Black Sun”… for many the first track we heard. I liked it at first, but after hearing it in it’s place as album-closer, and with the benefit of lyrics (I received no lyrics sheet with the vinyl, but they’re available, for “Knights" at least, on the official website), I can feel it’s true power. A real builder, starting fairly mellow, and with the melancholic edge that a few of the other songs have, it eventually grows into a thunderous acclamation of freedom. The only chains that restrain our freedom are mental, and once we realise that, no one can enslave us. I’d go so far as to describe it as rather beautiful and moving in its skilful intertwining of both metaphorical and realistic imagery.

Additional praise must be given to Roy Mayorga’s contribution here, far beyond just the drumming. The production and various samples/keyboards really help to bring the various threads and sounds of these songs into one cohesive whole. And, according to recent interviews, the reformation would not have happened without his input.

Wishing for an “Arise” part two - rather than this complex (yet simple, such is the old Amebix power), huge, very human piece of art – would be an infantile response to the return of this band.
We had no right to expect anything this great; surely they’re a bunch of crusty old has-beens whose influence extended way beyond their initial impact, only after their collapse.
But, 2 decades of forging swords in the shadows of Skye’s mighty Cuillins has kept The Baron in touch with the atavistic spirit which has infused all of Amebix’s greatest works. The well which was dry is once more abundantly overfull with inspiration.

The power, most assuredly, remains.

Desperation took us down
Uneasy lies, the head
That wears the crown
You can't see it

I saw the mourners passing by
These wicked men
Beneath the sulfurous skies
Oh what can it mean?

Every bell is silent here
The hands of clocks are bound
And time itself has stopped
Can you feel it?

The birds are frozen in their flight
Trapped within the thunder light

A storm is rising
A voice within the winter halls
Some great secret from these careless lips will fall

A star on our horizon
See you gods forgotten son
Lies broken and alone
Searching for a father,he has never known....

From Dresden's blazing skies
To the bloody wash of dawn
I saw the beast arise
And climb upon the throne

And fallen angels weep
And long for peace, for home
Whilst far beneath the ice they sleep
These dark knights of the black sun

And on the stormlashed mountain high
I found the hidden book
On the altar of the wretched prince of lies

And I broke apart the graven seal
And these seven words I read
Rejoice, the great god Fear is dead

So from the rooftops call it out
You were always free
Yes from the rooftops call it out
And ever may you be