Review: Amebix

Amebix, Sonic Mass Easy Action and Amebix Records

I feel like I spend a lot of time in reviews that I write explaining why I haven’t heard things. Usually it’s because whatever band I’m talking about is from some place that I’d probably know more about if I still read the right magazines. There was a time when I read MRR, Terrorizer, Metal Maniacs, et cetera, with religious fervor. Now I just don’t have the time.

But there is another reason (over and above the fact that I am just slightly dense) that I have missed a lot of things over the years: the wish not to see bands that I love decay. Very often, bands will follow up an excellent record with one that is simply not up to snuff. Sometimes this is unavoidable. Whatever Black Flag released after Damaged was going to be something of a letdown. Likewise, Slayer had no chance of outdoing, or even equaling, the achievement that was Reign in Blood. This is not to say that My War or South of Heaven were bad records, only that there was no way to listen to them (at least from my perspective) without a certain degree of disappointment.

There is, however, another class of records defined by a band’s failure to live up to an achievable standard set by their previous trajectory. The classic example of this can be seen in the reviews and commentary surrounding the release of SS Decontrol’s How We Rock in 1984. This was back in the days when people still took seriously the idea that there could (and should) be a rigorous separation between punk and metal. I remember someone writing in to MRR and saying basically that there ought to be some kind of warning label applied to the record to prevent unsuspecting hardcore fans from accidentally buying a metal record. Sadly, the problem with How We Rock was not simply that it was heavily laden with metallic tinges, but rather that it was just not very good. As became clear in the course of the later 1980s, metal had a lot to add to hardcore in terms of tempo and intensity. How We Rock was plodding and self indulgent, not just metal damaged.

There are plenty of other examples to which one could allude. I suspect that I was not the only fan of the Crumbsuckers Life of Dreams to be sorely disappointed by the extended guitar wank that was Beast on My Back. Raw Power fans might have had a bit of warning from listening to the Wop Hour 7” that changes were afoot, but that hardly served to soften blow dealt by the mediocrity of After Your Brain in comparison to their mindblowing Screams from the Gutter. The list of candidates for most disappointing release could go on and on (Bad Religion Into the Unknown, 7 Seconds New Wind, Hüsker Dü Candy Apple Grey, Sacrilege Within the Prophecy, anything released by Entombed after Left Hand Path, etc., etc.) but my point is simply that I have a very low tolerance for disappointment.

All of which brings us to Amebix’s Sonic Mass. I have to admit that, before a couple of weeks ago, I had never even heard Amebix’s previous record, Monolith, which came out in 1987. Living in the U.K. in the mid-80s, I gobbled up all of Amebix’s early releases, from Who’s the Enemy, to Winter, to No Sanctuary. Arise, released in 1985, was one of my absolute favorite records in those days. Amebix’s stock in trade was dark atmosphere, conveyed partly through churning guitars, partly through keyboards. This was a pretty novel thing in those days, when stylistic purity was still seen as an issue. One of the guys in Disorder once described them to me as living in the same squat that they did, but listening to Killing Joke all the time. From the perspective of the anarcho-hardcore scene in that period, this was kind of uncool. Nonetheless, people could really get with their music. It communicated a bleak, hopelessness redolent of destroyed cities and civilization in collapse.

Arise was one of those records that I loved perhaps too much. As a consequence, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy Monolith when it came out. That may or may not have been an error on my part. Monolith is not quite as good as Arise. It doesn’t transmit the feeling of a gathering storm in quite the same way that its predecessor did, and it’s possible that I wouldn’t have gotten it back then. Now, of course, I really dig it. It features a lot more variation in tempo and texture that their earlier releases did, sacrificing some of their more atmospheric quality for more clearly defined guitar aggression.

With my mind opened somewhat to the idea that Amebix might have something to offer beyond “Axeman” and “Largactyl,” I acquired a copy of their most recent release, Sonic Mass, which came out last year. Even with the preparation mentioned above, I was still prepared to be disappointed. The field of bands that got back together after decades apart is littered with depressing failures. My fears were not much allayed by the opening track, “Days,” which features clean vocals and a bass line that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Bloc Party record. As it continues, “Days” builds in power and intensity, and with repeated spins it really grew on me. It helped, of course, that leads directly into “Shield Wall,” in whose pounding tempos and low register vocals fans of earlier Amebix discs will find comfort. Clearly, this is an updated version of their sound. The recording is much cleaner than that which characterized their releases in the 1980s. The somewhat more prominent role of metal structures evident on Monolith continues here, but they don’t go overboard and allowed heal damping and downtuning to replace creative writing.

As I continued to listen, I felt myself slipping into a sort of comfort zone. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that the licks that make up these songs reflect a stylistic continuity with the band’s classic era. Sometimes this effect is quite pronounced, as in the case of “God of the Grain,” in which the main lick sounds extremely similar to that from the title cut of the Winter 7”. One major improvement over the previous incarnation of the band is the drumming. Meaning no disrespect to Virus, his drumming style was a lot better suited to Disorder than it was to Amebix, although he certainly did a creditable job on their early recordings. With former Soulfly and Nausea drummer Roy Mayorga now handling the drumming (and keyboard) duties, Amebix are able to add a much greater variety of tempos, and this in turn allows for the Stig to work in more complex elements into the guitar work.

All in all, Sonic Mass is an excellent record. It has enough classic Amebix elements to satisfy the purists, but also enough subtlety and all around quality to hold the interest of those unfamiliar with the band’s old days. Maybe too this is an indication that I might do well to be a bit more open minded in terms of where bands go. Perhaps a little disappointment now and then is a small price to pay for a new found gem.

Magadh

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