While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

In Defence of Monster Magnet; and 4-Way Diablo: a Review

After my accidental review of the Foo Fighters’ Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace, I thought I’d try a repeat of the Album Review Written Whilst Listening To Album for the First Time style… only sober this time.

The album I chose was Monster Magnet’s 4-Way Diablo.

The problem was, I wanted to say too many other things as the album’s 57.7 minutes sped by.

So I’m not going to subject you to the 2177 words I wrote during those 57.7 minutes (actually, I wrote and intro and a summary either side of listening to the album, so it took slightly longer) – instead I’m going to try and organise my thoughts on this one.

The first thing you need is some background. For a chronological run-through, Wikipedia does a pretty good job, but chronology is over rated. Especially when it comes to fringe bands who have a commercial flare up mid career, which may or may not have corresponded with an artistic low.

For example, my first Monster Magnet album was their fifth (the only thing I’ve ever won on a phone in radio competition), then I bought their fourth, third, first, second, sixth, then their early EPS… and now I own their seventh. So while the story of how a band formed and the various membership changes is interesting, it doesn’t really speak to why this band would capture my imagination and hold it through nine years and hundreds of dollars (and now some pounds) of expenditure.

I had to wait a long time to own this seventh album, the follow-up to 2004’s Monolithic Baby, which I bought from the Ukraine because it was released in Europe long before making it to Australia (where I was living at the time). An unnamed album was supposed to be released in March 2006, but the lead singer, Dave Wyndorf, overdosed on prescription sleeping pills on the eve of Monster Magnet’s 2006 European Tour and everything was put on hold.

For over twelve months, monstermagnet.net was not updated. I wasn’t sure if this unnamed album would ever be released, or even if Monster Magnet was finished. I checked the net from time to time, but no one seemed to know anything.

Then, earlier this month I discovered a new Monster Magnet album had been released in November 2007. It took a bit of searching in Edinburgh, but I didn’t need to go to the Ukraine this time.

Looking back at the other bands I’ve mentioned on this blog (George Harrison, The Tragically Hip, Bob Dylan, Kate Bush, Warren Zevon, Elvis Costello, Radiohead…), Monster Magnet is a sore thumb. The music sounds different, the lyrics come from an entirely different place (more on that later), the album covers look different… yet I have 9 hours of Monster Magnet on my iPod.

People with no knowledge of Monster Magnet could probably still deduce a few things from the title of 4-Way Diablo. "Over-the-top," they might say. "Sexual and/or satanic content" (yes to the first, no to the second).

Then, when shown the album’s cover, the impression already building in the MM neophyte’s mind will sharpen.

[It may be useful for this new-comer to know that five of the seven LPs have some variation of the Bull God design on the cover - six if you count God Says No’s Bull God reappearing on the back of Monolithic Baby.]

This latest cover, at first similar in proportion and placement to God Says No manages to integrate missiles, celestial bodies and naked women – all integral aspects of the Monster Magnet universe.

Out of context – that is, without having listened to the music – all Monster Magnet cover art is a bit immature. The sort of stuff a thirteen year old boy who’s just discovered pot would draw on the inside of his English folder. But the covers are part of the package with Monster Magnet, a package that includes songs with names like ‘Pill Shovel’, ‘Cyclops Revolution’, ‘Slut Machine’, ‘Dinosaur Vacuum’, and (best name in the Monster Magnet catalogue): ‘Baby Götterdämmerung’.

The reason I love Monster Magnet is their songs fly so close to ridiculous but avoid it, most of the time. Not just the songs, but the whole ethos of the band.

But I can understand that people standing on the outside, those who’ve heard the title, seen the cover and read the tracklisting, will have pretty low expectations from this band. And I can understand those people who let all their prejudgements get in the way of enjoying the whole package.

But, if you are a neophyte, I’d recommend you seek out a Monster Magnet album and listen to the lyrics while jumping up and down in your bedroom remembering what it was like to be thirteen.

The lyrics really are the key. While Monster Magnet albums are always interesting musically, with the occasional transcendent moment, the thing that sets this band apart is the lyrics, which hold true to the look of the album covers and sound of the song titles.

I think of Dave Wyndorf the lyricist as being like the older brother who returns from college to regale his younger sibling with (exaggerated) tales of sex, drugs and rock and roll. A Monster Magnet album is like a wormhole to your experience as an uncertain adolescent when sex was a quest and music was an escape.

Wyndorf’s lyrics draw both from the older brother’s world of drug-references (‘Nod Scene’ is a classic example) and seedy sexual innuendo (‘Heads Explode’ and fifty others), and from the younger brother’s safer world of comic books (‘Melt’, ‘Superjudge’), horror flicks and hidden pornos. More recent albums have added another layer: an almost self-conscious hard-rocking-ness ("baby", "alright", "come on", "oh yeah").

With these Oh Yeahs and the cruder sex references, Wyndorf verges on the tongue-in-cheek, but he wants you to take him seriously when he says, “I got an itch in my cosmic pocket, and it won’t go away.”

It’s this adolescent take on sex, drugs and rock’n’roll that ultimately makes Wyndorf and Co. endearing rather than alienating.

But again, it’s all a question of perspective.

When Monster Magnet hit the big time with Powertrip and its lead single, ‘Space Lord’, they were the first rock band (to my knowledge) to make a hip-hop bling video. One person could see this video and think "what a bunch of sell-out tossers". Another person could think they were being ironic. But me, I see a bunch of guys living out the dream as any thirteen year old boy would, without being arch or satirical about it.

I’m not saying that Dave Wyndorf has the intelligence of a thirteen year old, or that the band’s music is a kind of novelty act – Monster Magnet mine a vein in human (masculine?) experience without being either sarcastic or simplistic. The problem with a lot of contemporary quote-unquote rock music is the bands try too hard to distance themselves from the ideas and emotions that first attracted them to rock music.

So, having thrown some words at why I love a lot of what Monster Magnet has done, the time has come to appraise the new album: 4-Way Diablo.

Just like the newcomer to Monster Magnet, the avid fan has reactions to an album before listening to the music. The album art comforts me. The song titles like ‘Cyclone’, ‘Blow Your Mind’ and ‘Little Bag of Gloom’ suggest the vein of adolescent material has not yet been entirely tapped out.

And there's a cover in the prime position of track six of thirteen: the Rolling Stones’ ‘2000 Light Years From Home’. This is another comforting sight. Monster Magnet are a great covers band because a) they have great taste and b) they always twist a song to their own means (see the way they hacked up David Gilmour’s ‘No Way Outta Here’ on Monolithic Baby, axing the limp chorus in the original and using one of the verses instead). Thanks to Monster Magnet covers, I was introduced to, or encouraged to take a second listen to, Hawkwind, Motorhead, Grand Funk Railroad, The Stooges, MC5, Black Sabbath, and The Velvet Underground. I owe them an amazing debt.

When it finally came time to listen to 4-Way Diablo, I was expecting a solid but unspectacular effort, treading similar ground as their releases before Wyndorf’s overdose. Indeed, in listening, I was able to pick out songs which sounded like they were recorded B.O.D. (Before OverDose) and A.O.D. The difference being one of tone, both lyrically and the sound of Wyndorf’s voice (which, if I’m picking B.O.D. and A.O.D. songs correctly, is not in the best shape after his recent troubles).

It’s a two faced album in many respects: riffs versus psychedelia, B.O.D. versus A.O.D., excess versus penitence.

There are some low-points (the “You’re alive, you’re alive, baby, you’re still alive” chorus to ‘You’re Alive’) and some lyrics that are too much, even for Monster Magnet (Killing Nazi Zombies in a German Town… I got a cock made out of platinum). Overall, though, it’s the constant mix of styles and registers which makes this a good-enough album, but also hold it back from being a great album.

Most promising for this fan are the hints of a new maturity in some of the songs, which surprisingly can still coexist alongside the Sabbath-comics-and-playboy material.

This maturity could very well have been like introducing a cat into an aviary. The refrain of ‘Cyclone’ – Your soul can blow me away – combines the tropes of space rock with a sentiment which isn’t too far away from adult-contemporary.

Thankfully, when the soppy sentiment reappears in ‘Solid Gold’, Monster Magnet are now channelling the funk of Beggars Banquet-era Rolling Stones, and Wyndorf sounds like he’s having a blast, replete with back-up singers.

You really are the rising sun /
You and you’re solid gold…

Goddam you’re a sight to see /
I ain’t never felt this before

It is a song unlike any other Monster Magnet song, but, through little things – the rattlesnake tambourine at the end of the bridge, Dave’s groans and oh yeah’s, the concession to a minute long guitar solo at the end – it’s still unmistakably a Monster Magnet song.

Then there’s ‘I’m Calling You’, which uses the same first person address as 2004’s stand-out track, ‘Monolithic’, but instead of taking down “the Suck Generation”, this new song seems to attack Wyndorf himself.

The world is dead, The world is dead /
What crazy shit is inside your head?

The final track, ‘Little Bag of Gloom’ again addresses a “you”, with Wyndorf’s voice high in the mix, with just a synth organ to for the first half of the song. Wyndorf sings:

But you never want to row towards the origin of storms /
And you’ve locked away your heart one more time

*enter guitars, eerily reminiscent of the theme from The Princess Bride*
So take you books, take your broom, take your little bag of gloom /
And I’m lost and I’m through, and I’m crying out for truth /
Maybe when you’re all alone you’ll realise where love comes from /
But until you take that time, you’re just blind

One reading (which I don’t think is stretching too far at all) is that this “you” is actually Wyndorf himself. Just as he has played the big and little brother, now he’s playing the role of wreck and saviour.

It is probably asking too much that Dave Wyndorf could have written an entire album which packed the emotional resonance of these lines, these glimpses into his A.O.D. state of mind, whilst maintaining the adolescent field of reference from his B.O.D. days. I’m not sure if that would work over an entire album anyway. But 4-Way Diablo has enough solid tracks and surprises to satisfy this fan, and ensure he’ll buy whatever Monster Magnet offer up next.


What I thought when I first listened (excerpts)

01. 4 Way Diablo : Starts with a great riff, sounds a bit like Turbonegro. Lyrics: pyramids, gods, cigarettes – classic Monster Magnet. Not sure about the strength of Wyndorf’s voice. Something’s off.

02. Wall of Fire : Another riff-driven song, a long way from Spine of God territory. 3 stars nothing more.

03. You're Alive : Terrible chorus… just sounds thin.

04. Blow Your Mind : A change of tempo … not before time. Still sounds more like Monolithic Baby! than Superjudge. I suspect this is a ‘before OD’ song.

05. Cyclone : Another mid-tempo number. Vocals higher in the mix. Simpler, more direct lyrics. Dave Wyndorf from the pulpit.

06. 2000 Light Years from Home : Rolling Stones cover… but the song pumping into my ears right now sounds like it could be nothing but a Monster Magnet song. And yes, it has that space-rock wormhole-of-sound thing going on. Dave’s voice doesn’t sound strained for probably the first time on the record.

07. No Vacation : It’s like ‘Kiss of the Scorpion’ except I don’t think he’s being intentionally difficult with this one.

08. I'm Calling You : This song grabs me. Not through riff, but through voice. I’m Calling You, I’m calling you Back to the airy/eerie sound of tracks 05 and 06.

09. Solid Gold : Crickey, this is something new. Funk. Dave opens with a “Woo!”…Quite romantic. In sleazy way. But this is infectious, feel good music.

10. Freeze and Pixillate : Sounds a bit like previous instrumentals… not different enough. Though Monster Magnet do know how to mix screaming into an instrumental better than anyone.

11. A Thousand Stars : Some of the lyrics are quite good... And a nice MM bridge... Still something missing though.

12. Slap in the Face : Starts with a good clean riff, dirties it up, then there’s a pause and Dave says, “Ahhh… Go!”. I like it. It’s been done before but I like it… Surprising funk-type break to lead into the second verse... Thumbs up.

13. Little Bag of Gloom : ...Oh my god. It just finished. Quite a stunning effect. Who’d have guessed that song was only going to be 2:18?


Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon this blog on my ongoing quest to keep on top of Monster Magnet news. I really enjoyed it, not many people know about MM which is a shame because they bring honesty and integrity to this current limp music scene. Was a pleasure to read mate


Craig Cliff said...

Thanks Metalbob

Re-reading this post of mine reminded me how much I was looking forward to hearing these new songs on their European tour at the end of '08. A 'greatest hits' concert was cool, but one or two of these new songs would have been awesome.