Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together and show your respect for the originators of the sound that we at The Sleeping Shaman all enjoy on a daily basis. They have arisen once again! Welcome back Stig and Rob – it’s been a long time. Let me tell you this, it’s important to the review: I lovingly painted “Amebix” onto the bottom of my black leather biker’s jacket when I was 16 years old. I think it was in Tippex. Gorgeous aroma. This was my favourite logo, all spidery and Raven-pecked, and my favourite band at the time (all spidery and Raven-pecked too). These were the prodigal West Country misfits who loved both the dark leaden riffs of Black Sabbath and the DIY anarcho-punk attitude of Crass. Weld the two together, and you may just produce a new genre (I do believe some call it ‘crust’, particularly the people at Southern Lord). After the second album ‘Monolith’, released in 1987, Amebix split up and slowly dissolved into the murk-filled annals of punk rock history. Never did I suspect that a new album would just materialise out of the murk, 24 years later.
Any band that reforms after too many years apart will undoubtedly sound past their best – wheezing and portly; well-fed and well-fucked; too satisfied with their lot in life – the lads getting together again just for something to do in the evenings. It’s not cool when good bands don’t know when to let their fine past sleep in former glory without besmirching their name with second-rate come-back albums. Exception located here – the second-rate comeback rule does not apply to Amebix. The eccentric brothers Miller are hewn from a different substance to most musicians. ‘Sonic Mass’ could be a debut. It has the exact same primal aura and splendidly dark energy of all their past recordings, yet it offers precisely the kind of depth and vision that one would expect from three travellers that have meandered through the perilous valley of experience for several decades. Note: three travellers. Forget not Roy Mayorga, a bone fide American heavy rock star: drummer of corporate balladeers Stone Sour and ex-drummer of New York’s fabulous ex-band Nausea (amongst other bands). It transpires that Roy was/is the catalyst in the resurrection of Amebix – a genuine fan of the band.
Opening track ‘Days’ is one of the mellower moments on this album, and in true Amebix style, builds up a mood or precursor for the onslaught that is to come. When I first played this album, this track threw me a little as I wondered if Amebix had ‘wimped out’ (an amusingly dated term that journalists for Kerrang! used in order to refer to bands that had sold out their thrash metal extremity for a slice of faux ‘maturity’). On repeated listens this is a beautifully written song, structured like a rock classic, and extremely well sung by Rob Miller. In actual fact The Baron has never sounded in such fine vocal fettle. His rich voice ranges from a wearisome and gentle tone to warlike bellows and cracked growls, all shot through with that distinctive Devonshire accent.
’Shield Wall’ makes clear that ‘Days’ was the calm before the storm – this is a short battery of bellicose heaviness that judders with tribal drumming and brutal bottom string chugging, segueing into ‘The Messenger’, a huge and soaring slice of grandiose Amebix genius. Roy’s deft double bass drumming underpins great chunks of chord-grind – the whole stunning track rolls along like a mechanised leviathan. The assault continues with ‘God Of The Grain’ – instantly my favourite track on the whole album. This song is a 24 carat titan, a true heavy metal-motherfucker; a monstrously powerful and brilliantly catchy ode to the recurring worship of the fertility god of old (Osiris – Jesus). This is the kind of juggernaut that Killing Joke should have written once upon a time. But it’s better than Killing Joke.
Speaking of KJ, it is their proto-industrial punk rock along with the gnarled sonic scrum-down of Motorhead that most clearly filter through as musical influences on Amebix here. These two bands have always been lurking around as surrogate parents to the Amebix sound – you can particularly hear the tribal brutality of Killing Joke in the earlier recordings. Do let me point out that Amebix are far more than the sum of the bands they have enjoyed listening to – every fucker has their influences. Amebix are Amebix too. Mavericks of a genius strain to my ears. ‘Visitation’ is yet another thrilling and brilliantly atmospheric slab of pumped-up supernatural histrionics, as ‘Uncle Johnny’ (friend of the band) recounts, in a most-fitting Oxbridge received pronunciation, an occult encounter with an ‘entity’ in a lodging house in Ireland. Stig’s muscularly rhythmic guitar playing is beautifully simple and adds a steroidal industrial crunch and lurch to the seismic power of Rob’s huge rumbling bass and Roy’s pinpoint precise drumming.
‘Sonic Mass Part I’ marks the beginning, as it were, of side two. The gentle and spiritual side of Amebix is illuminated again here as Rob opines on the reality of his own mortal existence, and of friends past. As the track dies out, the second part of ‘Sonic Mass’ kicks in with this MASSIVE thundercloud of sound that Amebix have now mastered as their signature (obviously with the help of Roy’s considerable talents). ‘Here Come The Wolf’ lopes forward on an urgent dynamic; a catchy and accessible song that will have you humming the chorus and stomping around in your boots. This track in particular, along with the two closing songs after it, highlights a real post-punk influence – a dark yet driving mood and atmosphere that reminds me of a few pivotal bands of the very early eighties that I used to listen to on hissy tapes in the womb of my bedroom. The penultimate song ‘The One’ also illustrates this other side to the Amebix sound. The term ‘anthem’ springs to mind. I could envisage Amebix rocking a stadium with these last three tracks in particular. I think rousing is the adjective I would use. Big fat choruses and roared lyrics that seek to evoke a grandiose concept of oneness with nature and the elements, and soaring synths that I’m not usually fond of (or maybe I’m not fond of the bands that use them), but which work perfectly in dimension Amebix as an uplifting complimentary addition to these huge and noble songs.
‘Knights Of The Black Sun’ closes the album in very much this grand fashion – I could really see Rob standing on a snow capped peak with sword aloft to the skies. With other bands that have touched on similar themes and imagery, I would generally find them to be tiresome and humourless. Within the concept of Amebix this pagan pomp and Dark Ages dedication makes absolutely perfect sense. There is nothing contrived about their vision (I mean, Rob actually does make swords on the Isle of Skye), and for all my sometimes hollow postmodern enjoyment of irony and sarcastic wit (and I am often the kind of person that sneers at the word ‘spiritual’), there is nothing more gut-wrenching to me than the ancient beauty of the hills and forests, and of the moon and the sun above them. It is this primal draw to the old landscape and a connection to man’s past that has informed the lyrics of Rob Miller since their first EP in 1982.
If you agree with chaps like Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till (Neurosis) that Amebix were the pioneers of the dark and heavy sound that is both punk and heavy metal yet neither (and you should concur, it’s a plain fact), then you will find ‘Sonic Mass’ to be the next fitting and logical step on from the timeless appeal of ‘Arise!’ and ‘Monolith’.
This is a mammoth achievement, regardless of the years that have elapsed since the previous album. ‘Sonic Mass’ is a truly huge sounding rock monster that paints both light and dark with ten ‘proper’ songs that make up a ‘proper’ album like they used to sound, before them bloody compact discs distorted the 40-odd minute dynamic of the two-sided long player. It works brilliantly as a well thought out and planned collection of songs – it tells a story like a classic rock album should. It is a musical book (with superb production too). In short, ‘Sonic Mass’ is FUCKING ACE, and proves Amebix never lost it, they merely kept it for a later date. I’m going to paint ‘Amebix’ onto the bottom of my jacket again. It probably won’t look as good on a blue North Face cagoule though.
Scribed by: Adam Stone