Amebix is one of a small number of noisy bands from the punk realms that seem to have this strange chokehold on those who have felt inspired by them. Undoubtedly not the fault of the band themselves, this has often bordered on a sinister reverence which overrules any manner of criticism. It could very well be as a result of their early dissolution, somehow sealing them in a preservation vat of their own vintage and safeguarding against a run of lesser albums as time ebbed by. At any given gathering, it was always the band that some bleary eyed stink-bag with last month’s sick in his dreads insisted that everyone listen to over and over. For these reasons and more, I never felt a particular affinity with Amebix. Listening back to ARISE, it sounds like an anomaly, a strange oddity from its place in time, rather than the infallible masterwork it has frequently been proclaimed as. The follow up, MONOLITH, shed much of the weirdness and made strides toward something altogether more streamlined, but in an era when harder realms of metal were finally being infused with big production, it was never going to be anything beyond a cult crossover album.
After a 24-year void, a much-advanced Amebix has reconstituted and delivered a sophisticated beast of a record in SONIC MASS, hauling an expansive palette of sound into their bubbling cauldron. These radical strides of innovation couldn’t have been better prefaced than with DAYS, the opening track, cutting somewhat of a folkish air with mighty fine vocals over sparse backing of bass and washes of keyboards. In theory, it should be utterly out of place (These are, after all, the same gentlemen who bought you AXEMAN) but it makes sense, swelling to a strong sense of premonition as the guitars eventually twist into the mix. If this could be considered a somewhat placid start, the monolithic battle charge of SHIELD WALL makes no such concession with its vicious barbs of guitar noise. Throaty invocations and a dissonant chug drive THE MESSENGER in the first of a number of songs here that have one foot in the Killing Joke gene pool. The vocal style in particular reflects this on GOD OF THE GRAIN with lyrics addressing ancient spiritual disparity as warbles of an eastern mantra punctuate the few air holes the track allows itself through the dense riffing. VISITATION writhes along in brash metallic unease with a strange spoken passage – “ Infinite repetition with no end in sight, Karmatic debts from another life I am starting to remember, A little here, A little there, Mitrochondrial memory, Up the twisting ladder, I recognise you instantly ” – alluding to the same spectral presence that has haunted much of the band’s output. SONIC MASS PART 1 is a moody neo-folk ballad that rides on a sense of impending doom as it leads into SONIC MASS PART 2, one of the album’s more relentless and pulverising tracks. Weighty riffs propel the demonic snarls as they lament the loss of ritual and tribalism to a myopic, unquestioning existence – “ We all were brothers once and shared the secrets of the stars, one thousand years ago, and now we die for this black blood ”. This might be the closest sonic connection with Amebix of old: Ancestral roots are clearly audible but modern production and life experience make replicating the past a pointless exercise. The rock-y aspirations of HERE COME THE WOLF border on a contemporary commercial metal sound: With a slick video it could almost be fit for rotation on some rock/metal channel, although I doubt somehow this was a consideration, or purpose for the track. To a lesser degree, some of this accessibility also rubs off on THE ONE. With a sense of spiritual despondency the lyric, “ Oh Man look upon your works and despair ”, summarises much of the conceptual content of the album in suggesting that mankind’s detached ideal of the divine has always been it’s downfall. The best is saved until the very end and KNIGHTS OF THE BLACK SUN is as close to perfection as anything gets here. Built on melodic structure rather than a wall of riffs, it centres round Rob Miller’s finest vocal performance of the album. The West Country accent again augments a unique folkish quality with clean harmonising giving way to superb growls as the track gathers pace. A maelstrom of guitars fight their way through the final minutes until all that remains at the end are a shred of piano and some tatters of feedback. This is a masterful piece of songwriting.
Much to the chagrin of those who expected a crust record (I have read some interesting complaints on the Internet), SONIC MASS is an album of immense confidence in where it needs to be now rather than what it will forever be compared to, or gauged against. The band hasn’t taken this as a crippling weight of responsibility… instead they’ve done the intelligent thing and simply freed themselves from the get-go. That won’t necessarily sit well with those who want theirs crusty, but there are a million shabby records out there that all sound exactly the same to keep the disgruntled few happy. This is as far removed from a diplomatic appeasement or aggregate patchwork as it could be and it’s so much better off for it. Given the stylistic shift of their first incarnation, had Amebix stuck around, I’m guessing that a similarly innovative record to SONIC MASS might have been made years ago. – BOZ