Comecon: A Retrospective An under-appreciated Swedish metal band gets some love.

comecon-logo

comecon

One of these guys is Rasmus Ekman, and one is Pelle Ström. One of them is the drum machine.

It’s not exactly the stuff of legends: a name derived from a Soviet-era economic pact, two musicians (Rasmus Ekman, Pelle Ström) who handle guitar, bass, a drum machine and other instruments across three full length albums with three different singers on each album. But that’s COMECON.

Most of us can name-check Swedish metal bands like Entombed, Unleashed, Dismember, Hypocrisy, At The Gates, Arch Enemy or Amon Amarth. Comecon isn’t a exactly as well known, having floated just beneath the surface of popularity during the early to mid-1990s. Even though they shared many of the same touchstones as better known bands (recording at Sunlight Studios, produced by Tomas Skogsberg, vocalists from Entombed, Pestilence/Asphyx, and Morgoth, and a certain familiar guitar tone) they were never quite on the same level. Death metal fans never got to see them play live; they were a studio band that didn’t tour.

Despite these deterrents, if you seek out reviews online for Comecon’s second album, Converging Conspiracies you’ll find that it is regarded as a very fine and highly underrated example of Swedish metal from that era. On a personal note, I bought the CD based on nothing more than the cover art (Brugel’s “Tower of Babel”) and the fact that if the band was signed to Century Media. I remember hoping for something competent and decent. Imagine my happiness when it turned out to be quirky and damn good! The lyrics aren’t the usual death metal tropes and I don’t know of any other metal bands that used the sounds of a mouth harp in one of their songs.

But to fully understand the Comecon experience, let us step back a bit, because Megatrends in Brutality, Converging Conspiracies, and Fable Frolic didn’t come out of nowhere. There was a progression from the early thrash/crossover band(s) Rasmus Ekman and Pelle Ström were in before they formed Comecon: The Krixhjälters and Omnitron. Their experiences in those bands had to influence the creative process behind the three Comecon albums.

Prehistory

evilution

Evilution

In reality, the Krixhjälters and Omnitron are the same band that underwent a name change. The Krixhjälters were an entertaining crossover band (punk/hardcore/thrash metal with some elements of WTF thrown in for good measure) and I believe I detect a bit of a d-beat influence which is of course a very good thing. Give a listen to Evilution (1989), which bristles with a well-developed sense of melody and odd, occasionally humorous political lyrics about messiahs, obscure Communist martyrs, and the old bugbear of nuclear war.

Master Peace

Master Peace

After the name change to Omnitron they put out the album “Master Peace” which is a stylistic lurch to… well, I’m not sure. The time signature shifts and interesting melodic ideas are there, but the production is slicker and there are a lot more of those WTF moments with lots of samples spicing up the beef. There’s also an entertaining cover of “Ace of Spades”, giving some love to the influential Motörhead. The whole operation is less punk and more metal; according to Rasmus in an interview in 2005, they verged on the symphonic. Most important was that Pelle Ström (ex-Agony) was now part of the band, in important factor in what was to come. Omnitron went in too many directions at once to be sustained, and as I listen to it, I can’t help but think “What would happen if those two guitarists decided to strike out on their own?” And that is exactly what happened.

Enter the Petrov

Megatrends in Brutality

Megatrends in Brutality

Rasmus and Pelle scored a coup by getting L-G Petrov (Entombed) to sing on their first album as Comecon. The punk/d-beat/hardcore influence is refocused in a more metal direction. Recorded at Sunlight Studios with Tomas Skogsberg producing, Megatrends in Brutality features a vibe than is more ‘metal’ than what they’d done with their previous band(s). The production is dirty and dry, and while the guitar tone doesn’t quite copy the famous Entombed grind, it’s not far off, either. Lyrically it veers toward the political and stays away from the common death metal themes. The drum programming is competent; according to Rasmus they worked hard on getting the drums to sound as human as possible, going so far as to handcode variations into every bar. Overall it’s an enjoyable if unremarkable album, not much different from the other bands being recorded at Sunlight Studios at that time. But man… those riffs! Rasmus and Pelle were just killing it. It must have been a relief to be involved in a project free from strife and to be able to create what they wanted. It’s kind of amazing they were able to record their guitar parts in such a short period of time (a matter of days, according to Rasmus).

Enter the Drunen

Converging Conspiracies

Converging Conspiracies

Their next album was, as far as I’m concerned, the jewel in the crown. They got a fantastic vocalist in Martin van Drunen (Asphyx/Pestilence). They upped the game on everything: production, composition, the drum programming. The riffs are 26.8% more riffy than Megatrends…; rest assured I used very precise scientific riff-ratio calculation to get that number. And there’s a mouth harp, that musical instrument usually reserved for an Appalachian hoedown. Okay, so it’s only on one song, but still—that never happens in metal! Right? Rasmus explained that each album was meant to be a progression, with more elements added in on each one.

This goes a long way to understanding their third album Fable Frolic”, which for many listeners was a bit too much of a progression… more on that in a bit. There are hints, especially on the last song “The House that Man Built” of what’s to come: an acoustic guitar breakdown mid-song. Other than that, it’s layered guitars just pummeling away with a little bit of phaser thrown in now and then to keep things interesting. Solos are at a minimum and are a mix of noise and melodic, depending on the song. For instance, in the cover of the Dr. Know song “God Told Me To” they go for more of a disturbing noise, but that’s right in line with the song. The melody is often not in the solos but in the riffs themselves, which does make for an interesting listen. The bass steps up in places, like in “Worms”, giving a bit of textural variety. Van Drunen’s vocals are maybe mixed a bit too far back, it would have been nice to have had his effort more up front; but I don’t remember this being an issue when I first heard it. It’s only in hindsight after many passes through my speakers that this light grumble occurs to me; all in all a very solid effort and well worth the effort to track it down.

Enter the Grewe

Fable Frolic

Fable Frolic

Which brings us to that weird third album, released in 1995; okay, so, you’re going to either love or hate this one. Marc Grewe from Morgoth is on vocals this time around, doing something that’s more hardcore than metal. The production is even better than the first two albums, almost heading toward the slick, radio-friendly sound they were trying to avoid when Omnitron broke up. Once again the drum programming is pretty damn good. And there is no doubt that there are some killer riffs here, sometimes really fast chugs as in “How I Won The War” that are mixed with interesting melodies and time shifts. And then there are the acoustic guitars… what can I say? Does it sound a little odd when during the verse of “Soft, Creamy Lather” (gotta love that song title!) when the electric guitars dip out and are replaced by acoustics? Well yeah, of course it does; odd, but not awful. Just different and even a bit ahead of its time. Those acoustic bits do crop up in most of the songs and are a bit repetitive, but I don’t think that’s the issue here: it’s the vocals. Marc Grewe is just not a great fit. Rasmus said that for the fourth album (shelved because Century Media just didn’t want it) he wanted an opera bass, a female vocalist, and a growler, which would have certainly been interesting. Finished out the album is is a long ambient piece, an untitled extra track, which I like quite a bit but I’m a sucker for that sort of thing but I suspect it will just bore everyone else.

End of History

And then… that was it. Comecon was done. Rasmus went on to be a programmer and Pelle teaches school; that may or may not still be the case, as that info is gleaned from an interview in the webzine Nihilistic Holocaust in 2005 as noted above. What they left behind were three very entertaining albums of Swedish death/thrash which are still interesting to listen to today and are solid representations of what was going on in the Swedish metal community in the early 1990’s.

Addendum

comecon-worms-of-godIn 2008, Century Media released a 2-CD collection called Worms of God which includes all three Comecon albums. If you just want the tunes, this is pretty easy to find and goes for a lot less any of the original CDs.

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