As Jerusalem Burns...Al'Intisar(Breath of Night/Pulverizer - 1996)
Having seen these guys often when they first started in Jerusalem, I can tell you that all the buzz and stories surrounding this band are not just an engineered image they created for themselves. At first I thought the members were just fellow Israeli neighbours trying to distance themselves from their roots to adopt a more suitable black metal image, but these guys are a strange mix of Assyrian/Armenian/Ukranian/whatnot that lived in Jerusalem, and although they didn't invent Middle-Eastern metal (Salem/Orphaned Land did) they did pioneer the use of it in black metal (naming it Mesopotamian metal), and for such a band to emerge from AND grow in Jerusalem was truly a unique event. Their first concerts in Jerusalem were almost surreal, and they caused a few overblown and silly waves of media and social scandals that worked up false Satanic stories about them, inspiring teenagers to perform 'rituals' right in my neighborhood, and giving them enough existential torment to want to leave Israel despite their love for the place. But enough of that, and on to this debut: 5 songs from their demo, 5 new tracks, recorded 'live in the studio', giving the sound a raw feel, enhanced by the gritty and under-produced sound. This is also their only pure black metal album (with light Middle-Eastern touches). Start with a base of early, under-produced Immortal/Marduk holocaust black metal, change some of the guitar textures to sound more Middle-Eastern, add some slow & pounding Bathory-esque passages and songs, a dash of early Satyricon dark buzzing texture, and some Middle-Eastern style drumming, and you basically have this debut from Melechesh. These embellishments aren't used as often as you may think though, they only make appearances here and there and are somewhat subtle the rest of the time, giving you a different sound without being blatantly Middle-Eastern. In other words, the music sounds like typical harsh black metal with an atypical primitive and rhythmic feel. The vocals are great harsh rasps that sound just like Ihsahn from Emperor. The one big flaw of this album however is that many of the songs tend to lack a buildup or development and get repetitive, the most extreme case being the 9 minute 'Assyrian Spirit' (despite its interesting raw & buzzing folk-Satyricon feel). The blasting Sorcerers of Melechesh is the best track and example of harsh black metal. In short, if you like primitive, minimalistic, simple but strong black metal with a twist then pick this up, but if you are looking for something musically interesting and challenging, skip it.
Djinn(Osmose - 2001)
It seems that black metal brings out the primitive or folkloric in people and inspires modern revivals of old cultures from the Dark Ages or earlier. Bathory started the trend with heavily Western-European tinged Scandinavian black metal. The Norwegians took this sound to its logical conclusion and thus 'Viking Metal' was born. Some German/Austrian bands did their own take with Barbarian metal; Moonspell added some traditional Mediterranean sounds; and now Melechesh from Israel presents 'Mesopotamian metal': An obviously spurious, but impressive sounding anachronism. Whereas the Middle-Eastern influences in the debut were sparse and subtle, here they are so thick and prominent that you can group this release together with heavy folk-metal bands like Amorphis, Storm and Orphaned Land (not in terms of similar sound of course). Harsh black metal takes the back seat here and practically vanishes on some tracks, sometimes replaced with death metal, other times with just plain undefinable extreme folk metal. This isn't gimmick music however; the compositions are well developed, the tracks are all different, and the blending of styles is seamless. Absu's drummer lends his talented hands and feet for the vastly different drumming on this album than what most metal fans are used to, and the vocalist tries his vocal cords on various styles, rasps, chants, shrieks and yells, all mostly good. The tracks vary a lot in quality and style, and this makes the album difficult to like: There is a blasting black metal throwback in 'Wardjinn', a death-black hybrid, some Venom-style blackthrash, 'Summoning of Ifrit and Genii' and 'Rub the Lantern' are overlong, slow-paced and lacking in musical content, 'Kurnugi's Reign' is by far the best song on the album with a brilliant, driving, powerful rhythm seamlessly blended into metal, and the second half of the album in general picks up the pace. All of the tracks are thick with various Middle-Eastern tunes, scales, guitar arpeggios, rhythms and even some traditional drums. In summary, an interesting and original album due to its unique sound, but they improved on this later, and the album does feature several weak tracks, so pick it up at your own risk. I'm expecting Aborigine black metal from Australia, Aztec black metal from Mexico, and Zulu black metal from South Africa any day now.
Sphynx(Osmose - 2003)
Very significant improvements are instantly detectable on this followup to Djinn. The first thing that hits you is the power of the sound, chugging guitars and driving rhythms, with the style ranging from Slayer-style deathrash with black rasps, to blasting black metal, to fast-paced folk-rhythm metal. The compositions are also tighter and offer more interesting variations on the riffs and structure, without meandering, sudden changes in style, or repeating ad nauseum as before. All this combined with the unique and seamless blending of Middle-Eastern sounds means that this is a killer release. Even the Egyptian/Assyrian/etc sounds are incorporated with more control and moderated quantities, not allowing the folk to overpower the metal, and vice versa. Proscriptor provides another precise, rich and muscled skin-beating, and Ashmedi delivers his vocals with mostly a venomous, higher-pitched black metal rasp that makes me think often of a black metal version of Bobby Blitz from Overkill, and the thrashy elements in the music only enhance this effect. Standout tracks include the ambient 6-minute "Arrival Ritual" and the dull throwback "Caravans to Ur", but the rest are consistently good ripping black-thrash. The lyrics and themes add Sumerian mythology to the Mesopotamian metal label. This album is where Melechesh developed their sound to a professional, enjoyable and powerful level, and it comes strongly recommended. Probably their best.
Emissaries(Osmose - 2006)
A basically similar follow-up to the successful Sphynx with the following changes: Xul takes over the drumming with a good, rich, but slightly less overwhelming performance, but this may be due to the relatively higher mixing of the guitars. The songs feel more riff-oriented, albeit mechanically so, and together with the more growlish rasps this time, the combination sometimes made me think of Passage-era Samael. There is also more variety again between the songs: Rebirth of the Nemesis is a unique, almost industrial-sounding contagious piece of extreme Middle-Eastern metal, then there are two great blackthrash tracks that wear their Slayer influence on their sleeves, a death-black hybrid, a weird, partially intriguing blackened, melodic cover of The Tea Party's Gyroscope, a mostly lackluster and repetitive hybrid metal track, an overlong atmospheric Middle-Eastern track "Scribes of Kur" with traditional Middle-Eastern instruments, more pumping, mechanical blackthrash, a ripping & rhythmic deathrash hybrid ("Sand Grain Universe"), and another plodding and overlong song with wailing Middle-Eastern solos. Of course, throughout the album, there is a constant use of Phrygian modes, octatonic scales and what have you to create their unique blend of Middle-Eastern extreme metal. Altogether, I can't say that this appealed to me as much as the more fluid Sphynx with its somewhat pervasive mechanical riffing sound that doesn't seem to breathe enough, their typical lack of thematic or structural buildup in the songwriting, and the mostly weaker tracks in the second half of the album. This is a frustrating listen for me, making me lose interest often but punctuated with many brilliant musical segments or tracks, mostly in the first half of the album. But these flaws are subtle and there is no denying its power, interesting variety and dynamic compositions. Pick this up blindly if you thought Sphynx was a masterpiece (I seem to be alone with my criticism), otherwise try it out first.
The Epigenesis(Nuclear Blast - 2010)
Four years later and we have another slight adjustment to the Melechesh sound. This is no longer ripping and dynamic, riff-oriented blackthrash with sharp edges, but a more organic form of metal with more emphasis on texture, groove and a full sound that brings out the Middle-Eastern elements in full vibrant color. In some ways, this is a blend of Emissaries and Djinn, and is therefore more folk-heavy again, but it's also an experimental step forward for Melechesh and features a new approach to their songwriting without losing their basic sound. The album is over 70 minutes long, the tracks average about 5-8 minutes, and the sound, genres and pacing once again vary greatly from song to song. For the first 4-5 tracks, I found myself really enjoying this on my first listen, which is not typical for me with Melechesh and I was ready to embrace one of their best albums. The songs have a gnashing, powerful, full sound and flow like never before, with growlish rasps and melodic blackened rhythms full of texture. But then came the very disappointing second half of the album: There are two 6-minute atmospheric traditional tracks this time with a wide variety of Middle-Eastern instruments, whereas my limit for this kind of stuff on a metal album is a single 5 minute track. I think they should stick to using this in intros and short interludes. There is an overly mechanical, industrial-sounding "Defeating the Giants", two more very uninspired faster tracks, and a dull, repetitive 12 minute epic that goes nowhere, proving once again that long tracks are not their strong point. 4-5 good tracks are simply not enough to recommend this one.