Friday, July 6, 2012

KONG - Merchants Of Air (2012)

It is nearly impossible not to be intrigued by Dutch groove metal band KONG. Through all of their line-up changes, they have managed to retain not only their intricate take on metal, but also their signature live setting, with each band member occupying a different corner of the venue. This "quadrophonical" set up creates a completely unique experience for the audience. And while that can't be captured in album form, there is certainly more than enough to keep every listener coming back for more. With only one remaining member from the old incarnation, bassist Mark Drillich, "Merchants Of Air" tries to live up to the name, and legacy of KONG.

There is no sense making you wait to hear those slaying guitar riffs, as "El Pilar" gives them to you in droves. When layered atop sliding bass lines, they pull you in, planting you firmly in the middle of the sonic rush. Guitarists Tijs Keverkamp and David Kox sound as if they were separated at birth, coming together with force and ferocity. The electronic additions are subtle, but well used. What stands out time and again here is the precision in all aspects of the song, with drummer Mandy Hopman doing the lion's share. And while "Astral Calls" doesn't come out of the gate with the same pacing, it carves out a sound that may seem surprising. With synthesized horns and strings pouring through your speakers, this symphonic kick takes you on an entirely different ride. It isn't a complete departure from that classic KONG sound, as the immense grooves are still the leader of the pack, but it strengthens the foundation of the track. It all sounds larger than life, sometimes even too big to make the movie score comparison.

Being an instrumental band, there is more pressure to create memorable melodies, sans vocal. So the backbone for "Steamtrucking" does exactly that. With small pieces of programming as an aid, the band forms a growing wall of sound, one that feels like a tidal wave with each passing "verse." Hopman leaves a trail of sizzling cymbals, as dueling guitars screech and wail forward. That same approach fills the opening of "The Gates Of Exception," giving you an unforgettable set of riffs. The combination of two guitars with catchy riffs and Drillich's rumbling low end, this is one track that may find itself buried in your brain for days. Even the short, but profoundly enjoyable organ melody does just enough to pull you in farther. And while it may take nearly three minutes for the explosion to come on "Same Meaning, Different Worlds," it comes with a vengeance. You are moved from very downtempo, electronic tinged bass lines into a full blend of distorted guitars and drums. Things get spacey at times, floating through the air with the beat, waiting to be pulled back to earth. You may get there, but it wears on you, making each return a little bit rockier.

Drillich takes the lead on "Wahnsinn, Baby" withn a rumbling bass groove that gets things moving in the right direction. The synthesized sound and beats occupy the early stages, but are pushed aside by some guitar riffs that may start your head moving. They try to share the stage and play nice here, with each aspect coming together for prolonged passages, but end up forming something that is not quite a sum of the parts. In the early stages of "Stug," Hopman takes center stage, so to speak, rattling your rib cage with her booming kicks. But this isn't an all out affair. There are a lot of smaller pieces to enjoy, from the light tapping of cymbals to the flowing bass line. There is an ethereal quality to the middle portion, one that leads directly into perhaps the most memorable melody on the album. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that "Vapour Lock" packs a wallop in its 4 minute run time, with some of the more aggressive guitar chugging. The use of both guitars in separate ways is highlighted in this track, with one providing the melody, and the other sticking to the rhythm. The outro alone is worth the price of admission.

A heavy handed intro launches "No Strings Attached," with each band member adding to the massive pile of notes and riffs. With some pieces, this sound like a heavy metal porno at play, but not in an entirely bad way. It may seem off putting at first, but it grows as the track progresses, each additional layer gives breath of fresh air to the track, and takes some of that staleness that may have developed. Much like the earlier tracks, "Blue Couch" has a very push and pull relationship with the listener. Certain chunks push you away, giving you a little cause for concern. But they manage to pull you back in at just the right times, whether it be with a dazzling set of drum fills, or just the right guitar riff to remind you why you started in the first place. Sure, "Back Into The Trees" has the tone of an off beat poetry slam. Sure, it seems wholly out of place. But it becomes increasingly harder to turn it off with each listen, with a sort of hokey appeal that keeps you coming back for more. The major down side comes in the track length, clocking in at well over seven minutes. And with few changes or variations, it can become tiresome, especially as a finale.

We have argued many a time as to how music is written, whether it be for the live stage, or for studio enjoyment. For KONG, there is no doubt that these songs, along with their entire catalog, would be a super sonic experience in the confines of your favorite music venue. But there is something missing on this album, something that is hard to identify. Sufficed to say, the musicianship is top notch, the writing is off the wall, and the sheer enormity of it all is mind-blowing. But in the drawn out song lengths, and the possible overuse of electronic elements, some of the raw power has dissipated. And, unfortunately, "Merchants Of Air" seems to have blown off course.


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