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Self-professed Mesopotamian black metal combo Melechesh - originally based in the metal unfriendly environs of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Israel who later relocated to the more secular Amsterdam, the Netherlands and recently France and Germany - has always been one of the more interesting of the original second wave bands. Together with Orphaned Land they were among the earliest to combine underground death/black metal with Middle Eastern instrumentation and Arabic folk music. Their legend and repute grew considerably in the second half of the nineties as they fled Israel under mouting pressure from strict religious authorities resulting from the release of their controversial domestically bred debut “As Jerusalem Burns... Al'Intisar”. Since their 1996 debut Melechesh has released three albums on French imprint Osmose Productions and two on the considerably bigger Nuclear Blast Records. Suffice to say Melechesh has an interesting history and oeuvre to say the least. This is where “Ghouls of Nineveh” double-disc comes in…

Thanks to the wonders of international licensing and distribution rights as well as the fine people at Napalm Records and their partners Nippon Phonogram there’s now a compilation for the casual fan who wants to whet his/her appetite as to what Ashmedi and his rotating cast of musicians have been up in the past almost quarter of a century. “Ghouls of Nineveh” is a Japanese-exclusive double-disc career retrospective spanning all of the Melechesh discography, bar “As Jerusalem Burns... Al'Intisar” and the prior demo. Interestingly there’s but a single track from 2001’s “Dijnn”, four tracks from “Sphynx” (2003) and almost the entirety of “Emissaries” (2006). The remainder of content for both discs is culled from “The Epigenesis” (2010) and “Enki” (2015) or the more widely known, far better produced recent releases on German conglomerate Nuclear Blast Records. The lack of inclusion of tracks from the band’s 1996 debut “As Jerusalem Burns... Al'Intisar” and the accompanying demo “As Jerusalem Burns...” from a year earlier is insulting to say the least. That there’s but a single track from “Djinn” but almost the entirety of “Emissaries” is another puzzling decision. Space that could’ve been put to better use by evening out selections from each album instead of what was done here. It is understandable, at least from a sonoric point of view, but as a historic document (what compilations should strive to be) it is a major point of contention. To dispense with the obvious, “Ghouls of Nineveh” covers most of the ground you’d want of a compilation and as such it is more than representative for Melechesh as a whole.

To their everlasting credit Melechesh always was more of an Ancient Rites than a Nile. Melechesh is more concerned with conveying a Middle Eastern atmosphere than with playing at an inhumanly fast pace and/or being technical just for its own sake. The band evolved from Ashmedi's earlier, short-lived death metal solo project Crushed Cenotaph. Upon release of the  “As Jerusalem Burns...” demo and their debut a year later Melechesh were charged with “dark cultish” activity by religious law enforcement officials of the Holy Cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, all of which were later dropped. While considered Israeli the members are in fact of mixed descent, most prominently Armenian-Assyrian, Assyrian, and Arabian-Syrian. Central to the band’s lyrics are Mesopotamian and Sumerian history, antiquity and mythology and “The Epigenesis” is an exception in that regard as it concerns the titular concept derived from Greek philosophers Aristotle (in his Historia Animalium) and Plato. Melechesh has overcome many hurdles and countered every prejudice/bias that any band in their part of the world might face.

Where Nile has downsized its Egyptian component considerably over the last decade, Melechesh has done the opposite and worked diligently to integrate as much ethnic instrumentation and Arabian folk music as its genre of choice would allow. Along with Orphaned Land, Melechesh has been one of the pillars of Middle Eastern metal and their output has consistently been one of quality over volume. Where Melechesh has made the most obvious strides forward is in fusing ethnic instrumentation and Middle Eastern folk melodies with their patented stomping melodic black/thrash metal. What Melechesh unlike, say, Nile benefits tremendously from is their more deliberate choice of tempo. Not that Melechesh ever had any shortage of able skinsmen. Whether it’s Saro Orfali, Proscriptor McGovern, Yuri Rinkel, or Samuel Santiago behind the kit.

Melechesh always allowed its songs to breathe and neither of their drummers had the proclivity to fill every second of every song with needlessly elaborate fills or double-bass blasts. Something of which George Kollias, Derek Roddy and several others are prone to, often to the detriment of the songs. It’s puzzling why “Ghouls Of Nineveh” capitalizes so heavily on the band’s Nuclear Blast Records repertoire when their releases on Osmose Productions and Breath Of Night Records are considerably harder to come by, and even moreso in Asia. Why then that this double-disc compromises for the most part of cuts from “Emissaries”, “The Epigenesis” and “Enki” is anybody’s guess. As a historical document “Ghouls Of Nineveh” blunders by not evenly distributing its track selection among the albums.

Of course the question of legitimacy looms toweringly over this double-disc. “Ghouls Of Nineveh” was released by Austria's Napalm Records in cooperation with Nippon Phonogram. Perhaps it has something to do with international licensing laws since all of the band’s major releases were issued through France’s black metal specialist imprint Osmose Productions and Germany’s Nuclear Blast Records. Had this compilation been curated in cooperation with Ashmedi and his bandmates surely the song selection would have been more even-handed. For the most part “Ghouls Of Nineveh” is a missed opportunity. It’s representative enough for most of the Melechesh discography, but the focus on the band’s recent output isn’t necessarily to its advantage. Obviously there are far worse compilations out there – and Melechesh is the last band to be accused of milking its fanbase for money.

How exactly this compilation came into existence, or what motivation was behind it besides good old-fashioned greed, is anyone’s guess. There are no indications that Melechesh has terminated its long-standing contract with Nuclear Blast Records, nor does the artwork chosen for this compilation reflect any of the band’s usual aesthetics and imagery, other than pillaging promo material publicly available from the albums it selects material from. Melechesh is in no hurry to acknowledge the existence of “Ghouls Of Nineveh” – and neither do the usual music databases. There’s definitely an audience for a band-approved Melechesh compilation. The purveyors of true Assyrian black metal deserve better than this. This might be interesting for the casual fan, but that's all positive that can be said about it.

There’s no question about Sinister's place in the upper echelons of European, and Dutch, death metal in the years from 1992 to 1995 or 1998, if one is feeling charitable. In its prime Sinister released the classic trilogy that was “Cross the Styx”, “Diabolical Summoning” and their magnum opus “Hate”. In 1998 the sub-classic (and vintage Suffocation inspired) “Aggressive Measures” followed but everything after never quite reached the same lofty heights as its first three recordings. Sinister continued to release albums consistently, but eventually imploded as mounting interpersonal conflicts rendered it dysfunctional. Aad Kloosterwaard regrouped and released two albums worth of Sinister material under the Infinited Hate moniker before reforming his main band with him moving to the fore as frontman. Since 2005 Sinister has steadily released albums. In 2013 the four remaining prime era Sinister members at long last reunited as Neocaesar.

Neocaesar puts Mike van Mastrigt (vocals on “Cross the Styx”, “Diabolical Summoning” and “Hate”; married to “Creative Killings” and “Savage or Grace” frontwoman Rachel Heyzer) at the front of a unit rounded out by Bart van Wallenberg (bass guitar on “Diabolical Summoning”, guitar and bass on “Hate”, guitar on “Bastard Saints” EP, “Aggressive Measures” and “Creative Killings”), Michel Alderliefsten (bass guitar on “Bastard Saints” EP) and drummer Eric de Windt (vocals on “Aggressive Measures”, drums on the Warfather debut “Orchestrating the Apocalypse”). Certain expectations are inevitable with a decorated membership of such pedigree and repute. “11:11” sounds exactly as the collective sum of its parts would suggest. The ultimate coup would have Neocaesar acquiring the services of Ron van de Polder, but his alliance with Kloosterwaard makes such a union improbable. The absence of any guest vocals from the inimitable Rachel Heyzer is probably intentional, as Neocaesar has the potential to exist beyond a single album. Hopefully we’ll hear Heyzer and her beastly roar sooner rather than later.

According to Christian beliefs 11 is God’s judgment number. In Biblical prophecy 11 denotes the 11th hour, or the time just before the rapture and Armageddon. The 11:11 passages in Biblical scripture all refer to the endtimes in one form or another. Adherents of New Age philosophies on the other hand believe it to herald the dawn of a new age, a spiritual awakening and the ascension to a higher plain of existence. In the theories of German analytical psychologist Carl Jung 11:11 refers to the concept of synchronicity, or that the structure of reality includes a principle of acausal connection that manifests itself in the form of meaningful coincidences. Suffice to say what concerns Neocaesar is the Biblical interpretation of the number. Not that Sinister has wavered from the anti-religious thematic in any way over the last years, but Neocaesar does it far more convincingly and with a greater degree of focus. “11:11” might not have yielded the next 'Doomed', ‘Leviathan’ or ‘Embodiment Of Chaos’ just yet – but Neocaesar have only just started to carve out their path. Who knows what splendid 'Art Of the Damned' they’ll be able to conjure up once they have been together for a few more years?

Even without input from van de Polder Neocaesar retains all vintage elements that made Sinister the ungodly beast it was: van Wallenberg’s signature churning riffing, eerie melodies and chord progressions are in full effect; van Mastrigt’s thunderous growls (he has lost none of the venom and bite in the intervening decades since his time with Sinister) sound as commanding as ever and de Windt easily matches, if not surpasses, Kloosterwaard in the percussion department. Neocaesar probably sounds closer to Sinister circa “Hate” and “Diabolical Summoning” than Sinister themselves do at this point. While there are no weak moments to speak of ‘Victims Of Deception’, ‘Sworn to Hate’, ‘Angelic Carnage’ and ‘Blood Of the Nephilim’ are the standout tracks of the record. The instrumental, semi-acoustic ‘Sigillorum Satanas’ deserves a mention just for how different it is from the remainder of the record, and it greatly enhances the thick occult atmosphere just by being present.

“11:11” is a more than laudable continuation of the sound and imagery that made Sinister a household name in the international metal scene. Are Sinister records better produced on average? Yeah, and some people will probably take issue with the matter-of-fact production that Neocaesar has opted for here. Not that anything that Kloosterwaard touches is always immaculately produced. Infinited Hate, especially on its “Revel In Bloodshed” debut, did not sound half as good as Neocaesar does here. Eric de Windt once again suffers from a suboptimal drum sound, but the guitars and bass guitar are positively crunchy and commanding. Hopefully de Windt will see it fit to lend his throat to Neocaesar in the studio when the time is right. On the visual side “11:11” is steeped in numerology and abstract religious symbolism. As of now, and if “11:11” is any indication, this constellation is a commendable return for 3/4th of the prime era Sinister line-up. Hopefully they’ll be returning with more new work sooner rather than later…