April 30, 2023

Delightful Sharp Edges is an intoxicating mix of irresistible riffs and epic progressive landscapes. The scale and ambition of the concept is truly remarkable.

It feels as if the Norwegian band Hex A.D. have been on an upward trajectory since 2018 when they recorded their third album (and their first on the Fresh Tea label), Netherworld Triumphant. That was still very much a doom metal affair but the following two excellent albums, 2020’s Astro Tongue In The Electric Garden and 2021’s Funeral Tango For Gods And Men, headed in a more sophisticated direction, with more varied sound and a strong prog edge being added thanks largely to the addition of a keyboard player. That evolution seems to have fully matured in this their first release on Apollon Records, with doom influences all but absent and the music dominated by long well-constructed heavy progressive rock songs.

One of the best songs on this album begins with synths mimicking a train’s whistle blowing. That’s followed by short percussion beats that cleverly imitate the sound of the train’s wheels accelerating from standstill over the sleepers. A lilting guitar riff enters, letting you feel the cosy rhythm of the train as it rolls along. Is this some musical depiction of a fun outing on a vintage steam train? Or is meant to accompany the kids TV programme Thomas The Tank Engine? No, it is the musical depiction of the departure of a packed train on its way to a German concentration camp. That’s because Delightful Sharp Edges is a concept album about genocide. It’s a brave and worthy topic if handled sensitively, as it has been by the Norwegians. Guitarist, singer and lyricist Rick Hagen does not tackle the issue generically, but instead examines three specific cases of genocide: the Jews in WWII, the ethnic cleansing of the Tutsi by the Hutu in Rwanda in 1994, and the more recent massacre and displacement of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

For each of these three genocide events, Hex A.D. have written one lengthy song (around ten minutes in duration) and one or more shorter pieces.   If you’re doing the maths, you’ve probably realised that this is too long for a single platter and in fact this is a double vinyl release (but single CD, I believe). A double concept album will probably already have prog fans licking their lips, and there are more prog touches in the form of the little connecting pieces such as snippets of radio broadcasts, which unify and emphasise both the concept and the prog feel of the album. The meaning of these snippets is often difficult to work out, adding that little bit of mystery that Pink Floyd were so adept at creating in the ‘70s. The icing on the prog cake is the album cover. It consists of a hunting scene with Avatar-like humans chasing fictitious beasts, painted by Dave Patchett. It’s an impressive painting, clearly influenced by the famous Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. This is the fifth time the band have used Patchett’s work, and that has created the same sort of continuity and synergy that Yes achieved with Roger Dean’s work.

Hex A.D….on the way up (Photo: Arash Taheri)

The first genocide to be tackled is that of the Jews and it tells the story of Herman Sachnowitz who was caught and deported, together with his family, to Auschwitz in the autumn of 1942. Sachnowitz was one of around 800 Jews rounded up in the same district of Norway where Hagen himself was born, thus making this a very personal story too.  The album opens with the thirteen-minute epic The Memory Division. It starts atmospherically with a repeated guitar phrase and a chord sequence which reappears elsewhere on the album (yet another prog touch), before a very typical Hex A.D. mid-paced groovy riff bursts in and Hagen starts recounting the story. While the riff is typical of Hex A.D., the production isn’t. Previous albums have been plagued by a muddy production so it’s great to hear such a clean and crisp sound here. Guitars, keyboards, and crucially Hagen’s voice and all perfectly distinct. At the half-way mark, there’s an atmospheric interlude with synths and acoustic guitar leading to mournful bluesy guitar phrases. This gradually builds up to a heavier and more aggressive guitar solo, a final vocal refrain, and the return of the repeated guitar phrase from the opening. It’s a great song and its thirteen minutes pass in a flash.

Three shorter songs complete the first genocide story, all of which are very strong tracks too. Murder In Slow Motion is perhaps the most commercial song that the band have ever written. Its languid melody and use of harmonised guitars both give it the feel of ‘70s Wishbone Ash. This song also highlights the lighter instrumentation adopted for this album with the guitar less overwhelming and Johansen’s organ and synths coming more to the fore. The acoustic opening of …By A Thread is a little disturbing, perhaps caused by the jarring chord sequence or maybe Hagen’s distorted voice. The second part of the song is all riffs and licks from Hagen, which is great but the two parts of the song don’t quite gel together. Når Herren Tar Deg i Nakken (which translates to When The Lord Grabs You By The Neck) is the instrumental track that describes the train journey mentioned earlier. Despite its topic, you can’t help tapping your feet to it. The track concludes though with the chilling sound of the carriage door unlocking at the end of the journey. Only 34 of the nearly 800 Jews that were deported in that roundup in Norway survived the camps. Herman Sachnowitz was one of them.

The ethnic cleansing in Rwanda is told through two very different tracks. The ten minutes of Radio Terror starts serenely enough with a gentle melody over synths – but you know it won’t last, and indeed at the three minute mark tribal drums enter as an ominous prelude to one of the few fast sections of the album where over an urgent rhythm Hagen sings of the awful hate that was stirred up ‘(You are the kill; you are the hate; say your prayers and face your fate’). The title of the song refers to the fact that radio was the primary communication methos used to incite the Hutu to slaughter their neighbours. After that intense track, a breather is needed and it’s provided by St Francis, a one-minute keyboard instrumental. Again, there’s a meaning behind that title – St Francis was the name of one of the largest of the many orphanages that needed to be set up after the genocide.

The third section opens with Throwing Down The Gauntlet, a track written from the viewpoint of the chased Rohingya, but those who decide to stand up against the Buddhist monks who want to kill them. It’s probably the most straight forward track on the album, driven by some lovely organ work from Johansen. It’s another good example of Hagen easing up on the guitar work and creating more varied soundscapes through Johansen’s keyboards. The Burmese Python is the centrepiece of the Rohingya set. It is in two parts with an acoustic opening characterised by a wonderful melody and heartfelt singing and a chorus that bursts in over harmonised guitars.  It almost has the feel of an ‘80s power ballad to it but it then heads off into a Floydian interlude that eventually builds up to the return of the chorus. Again, a gentle instrumental piece lets us down after the drama. Beyond the Venom Trail is all wistful bluesy guitar playing. Hagen describes it as a bittersweet piece inspired by the journey the Rohingyas have to take through the jungle and across the big river dividing Myanmar from Bangladesh. That image is brilliantly captured in this piece.

Spending too much time researching and retelling genocide stories is probably not good for one’s mental health. Hagen felt he had to write about dealing with all the darkness he had to plough through to get into the stories. The outcome was the two tracks that form the coda to the album. The first, Hell Today, is violent, bordering on death metal and has Hagen exorcising his feelings as he growls out lines such as ‘Death is just a canvas’ or ‘God is darkness; the pain I must get through’. The song has a lengthy postlude of meandering synths and incredibly slow guitar chords without any sort of catharsis, but there is partial resolution in the closing instrumental, …Gone Tomorrow, during which the tension is gradually, but not wholly, dissipated.

Delightful Sharp Edges is an intoxicating mix of irresistible riffs and epic progressive landscapes. The scale and ambition of the concept is truly remarkable. The stories recounted are not easy ones but they need to be remembered to avoid history repeating itself. Well done to Hex A.D. for using their fabulous music as a vehicle to do so.