Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Rolling 10: Monstrance - Monstrance

The cover art may suggest Monstrance is Moonshine Records's latest attempt at PLUR-bot branding of a new dance club genre name called "Monster Trance." However, it's not only a reference to the highly adorned object associated with Eucharistic practices, but also the debut self-titled release by the collaboration of XTC's Andy Partridge, ex XTC keyboardist and ex Shriekback frontman Barry Andrews, and ex Shriekback drummer Martyn Baker.

If you are at least interested in XTC, this release is certainly exciting if not odd news. Barry Andrews was the keyboardist who had only been in the band for their first two albums, White Music and Go 2, released in 1978. His brief tenure in the band signified a distinct phase, primarily because Andrews's rapid and occasionally free-form playing stood out like an odd tentacle in the music. However, the presence of odd keyboard sounds is what allowed XTC to be considered cross-Atlantic peers of Devo and Talking Heads.

Andrews left XTC around the completion of Go 2, as he had.. well, I'll just quote the man himself from the liner notes to the Coat Of Many Cupboards box set, released in 2002:

"[...] Suffice to say the short version is that with the innocent megalomania 22 years I had decided it would best serve the general good if XTC became a Platform for my Thought and Vehicle-for-my-Unique-Personality. Not unreasonably, Andy [Partridge] was reluctant to take up this opportunity and battle (or rather both of us plotting and bitching) commenced. Democracy, man - good for the People - musicians just aren't ready for it."

And here was Andy's side of the story, also quoted from Coat Of Many Cupboards:

"[...] I was the little bastard who went to Virgin and said 'Look he's written all these songs and is insisting we record them. It's going to take the XTC sound down a different road too quickly. Can't we just limit him to two songs?' What a frightened little bunny I was. Here was my childhood dream of being in a pop group, driven by me, just taking off, and now the new boy in the band wanted to grab the controls and fly it to a different place. I admit, I was a selfish shit, especially as the songs Barry had written were actually very good. I didn't want my winter palace stormed thank you."


It's over 25 years later. Unsurprisingly, Andy and Barry have long settled their differences. XTC's history since Barry's initial departure is a book itself -- literally. And XTC's history continues from there. Amazon.com recently conducted a net-cast interview with Andy Partridge in November of 2006 as part of their "Music You Should Hear" series of broadcasts. You can read the transcript, or you can link to the actual broadcast from Amazon's current Monstrance link. In brief, XTC may be no longer. According to the previous broadcast and a news item from Pitchfork Media in February of 2007 (via a Partridge interview on WNYC), Colin Moulding, the only original member of the group aside from Andy, has apparently retired from music altogether. Unless Colin has a change of heart later, XTC is history.

Andy has been quite busy for the past few years nonetheless, mostly concentrating on his anthology of demo material for XTC, all collected last year in The Official Fuzzy Warbles Collector's Album box set.

Regarding recent adventures more disconnected from "the XTC sound" and venturing into more "difficult" territory, Andy has collaborated with ambient composer Harold Budd on the 1994 release Through The Hill. Later, Andy would work with ex Slapp Happy member and underground cartoonist Peter Blegvad on the 2003 spoken word/experimental album Orpheus - The Lowdown.

Monstrance, however, is the first experiment of which Andy has taken part that has involved another ex-member of XTC. So then! Is this even a slight return to the quirky/jerky days of White Music? Hell no.

Monstrance certainly flaunts the inspirations upon both which Andy and Barry exhibited over their respective careers: Captain Beefheart, Brian Eno, King Crimson, Henry Cow, and other sources of atmospheric avant-garde, not discounting a lot of jazz influences. There's nothing uncharted here. The double-CD -- the result of culling the best 90 minutes out of nearly a day's worth of recorded improvised, unprepared, and non-overdubbed material -- is quite a sprawl. No doubt a first listen isn't going to be sweet.

Nothing here gets to William Hooker or John Zorn levels of explosive free-form noise, and neither does it lazily hover in staidness.

Monstrance's strength is its rawness and clarity. No doubt, anyone who has followed XTC's career is going to expect heavily overdubbed and orchestrated work, so hearing Andy with just a guitar and few effects to play with is harrowing -- and that's a good thing! The man's guitar talents have always been overshadowed by his arrangements, understandably. But it's really refreshing to hear him play out his more challenging sounding facets, without necessarily forcing it in your face. "Chaingang" and "Ur Tannoy" are great examples of this.

Barry's playing has no resemblence to the playing he did back in 1978. Only for moments do the occasional highly dissonant synth-scrapes, like on "Torturetainment", bring that era to mind. However, he mostly plays it cool, but never rests. He'll often switch from ambient presets to basic piano presets to simulated prepared piano presets within the same stretch of material, without the transition sounding jarring ever. It's stating the obvious, but Barry's an accomplished keyboardist, and this release is yet another showcase for it.

Martyn's drumming is the perfect rhythmic accompaniment to both Andy and Barry -- whenever the music is rhythmic. When not, his drum fills are perfect as well. Martyn deserves the spotlight on most of the material here, in fact.

The guys may have claimed to not have any plans or preparation before recording, and maybe this just comes with age, but there's never a moment where one member is trying to butt into the front of the mix via volume or "lick" wars. This trait of Monstrance couldn't have gone undiscussed, right?

Alright, alright, just a sampling here, but without further ado...


Here's a promotional video for the track "Winterwerk", directed by Mitch Keen. "Winterwerk" may be the most obvious Fripp-Eno offering in the collection, and hence great for backing music for every National Public Radio show you can imagine. And yeah, there is something too "new age"-y about this video, but this is good stuff as far as watching the guys in action. Martyn's the man now dog, ur, here.

(Yeesh. I know I know, "Youtube comments lol", but still..)

Even though Monstrance represents less than 10% of the full sessions for this album, the 2-CD is still a lot to absorb. There might have been an involved process in the sequencing of these two discs. Or perhaps not. That said, I've honestly gotten more out of Monstrance by transferring the material on both discs to *ahem* another playback medium and then toggling "shuffle." I highly recommend doing the same.

Why does it have to be so difficult for a listener to be able to experiment with the listening experience of recorded experimental music itself? Mainstream pop releases now release deluxe editions often with instrumental versions, a cappella versions, and perhaps other backing tracks. Experimental music often has wacky packaging but (Warning: crass pop-ist generalizations to follow) ends up being just a compact disc or slab of vinyl with really long songs that one has to endure -- at least if there are no consumable vices available to help out. Capitalism vs. Music For The People aside, who's really being more experimental here?

Fah! Anyway... as Andy, Barry, and Martyn came into making Monstrance without a plan and having a grand ol' time with it, why not do the same on the receiving end while the opportunity is there?


And our first entry into The Rolling Ten of Oh-Seven! It's a modest experiment that's more enjoyable with each listen, even if there's nothing groundbreaking here. My socks are still on my feet, nonetheless. #3 it is!

Top 10 of 2007 so far...

3. Monstrance - Monstrance

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