France’s Monarch are one of those bands for whom genre designation seems reductive. Their music is extraordinarily slow, and heavier than an avalanche, which causes most writers to file them under “doom,” but they’re so much more than that. Since forming in 2002, they’ve been through a few lineup shifts (mostly in the drum chair), and their music has gradually evolved over the course of six full-length releases and several splits and EPs, from quite crude beginnings into something extraordinarily, hauntingly beautiful.
Monarch‘s earliest work, heard on the 2005 double CD 666 and a split with French grindcore band Elysium, tested the listener’s patience, quite literally. 666 featured three songs, two of which passed the 35-minute mark (the other slipped by in a crisp 14); their contribution to the split disc was the 58:27 “Amplifire Death March,” which lived up to its title. Vocalist Emilie Bresson, aka Eurogirl, shrieked and howled like she was being skinned alive, as guitarist Shiran Kaïdine and bassist Michell Bidegain emitted crashing waves of rumbling, roaring noise, adorned with singing feedback and pick slides, that might have qualified as riffs had they tripled in speed. The drummers (on 666, Guillaume Lestage; on the split, Felix Buff) took the first segment of “Black Sabbath” (the song) as a model, never speeding up beyond an ominous throb-and-crash.
Two things set Monarch apart in their earliest days. The music, despite its unrelenting heaviness, lacked the machismo of doom acts like Khanate, Burning Witch, or Ahab. There was always a sensitivity to it, a spaciousness that created an almost contemplative feeling. Just as importantly, their visual presentation deliberately subverted metal’s self-seriousness. Designed by Bresson, their albums had deliberately childlike cover art. On 666, their band name was written inside a giant pink heart, flanked by scratchy upside-down crosses; on the split with Elysium, a drawing of a burning church that could have been done by a second-grader; the compilation Dead Men Tell No Tales, which gathered 2006’s Speak of the Sea and 2007’s Die Tonight onto a two-CD set, featured goofy cartoon ghosts floating above a sailing ship, surrounded by stars.
Sabbat Noir, released in 2010, marked a change. Instead of a silly drawing, the cover art was a photograph of Bresson, long hair stretched across three panels of a digipak; inside were two live photos of the band, and another image of her, in front of a pile of amplifiers covered in burning candles. The album’s single, half-hour track (split in two for vinyl) showcased the subtle and dramatic work of new drummer Rob MacManus, and an increased role for Bresson’s atmospheric keyboards. Her vocals, too, were heavily treated, drifting as though heard on the wind from far away. It was still very much a doom metal release, but the band’s meditative side was more prominent. The 11-minute 2011 Sortilège EP was their most vaporous release to date, a slowly drifting feedback tone poem underpinned by a slave-ship drumbeat, Bresson crooning wordlessly in the middle of it all.
With 2012’s Omens, the band’s approach changed slightly. There were the expected long songs—the 13-minute “Blood Seeress” and the nearly 20-minute “Black Becomes the Sun”—but tucked in between them was “Transylvanian Incantations,” an interlude of just 3:40. Also for the first time, the band invited guests onto a release; Atsuchi Sano of Japanese art-metallers Birushanah added percussion, while by-then former drummer Rob MacManus and Eric Quach of Thisquietarmy played extra guitar, and Thisquietarmy‘s Jeanne Peluard and Ensorcelor‘s Yailén Munoz provided backing vocals. Omens bridged the gap between the heaviness of Sabbat Noir and the ambience of Sortilège, while adding a patina of beauty they’d been slowly building to.
The latest Monarch album, Sabbracadaver, which can be purchased directly from their label, is the next step down their path of atmospheric post-doom. Its first track (of three), “Pentagrammes,” begins with three long minutes of drone—guitar and synth—as Bresson whispers almost below the threshold of audibility. Then a riff, an actual riff, not just a massive chord, crashes in, and we’re into a song! The melody she’s singing could be a folk song; it would work just as well accompanied by mandolin and flute. Of course, eventually the unhinged screams arrive, sending the piece into hell, but even then, there’s a beauty to it. Monarch have absolutely mastered their ultra-individualistic sound, precisely located the poles between which they slip. “Pentagrammes” has a few more tricks up its sleeve, though; around the 10-minute mark, a burst of almost painful feedback recalls Eyehategod, and toward the very end, there are some explosive guitar sounds typically only heard in the work of Keiji Haino or Neil Young.
The album’s shortish (10:15) middle track, “Louves,” is even more conventionally melodic than “Pentagrammes,” with Kaidine, Bidegain and drummer Rob Shaffer plowing through a slow-but-cohesive riff cycle as multiple layers of vocals—two different screams, a whisper, a croon—give it all a disorienting, unsettled feeling. Monarch‘s music is never frightening or oppressive, the way, say, Khanate‘s could be. It’s immersive and emotionally potent, and “Louves” is one of their most beautiful pieces.
Sabbracadaver concludes with the 18 and a half minute “Mortes,” which they must have decided held single potential somewhere within, since they made a video for an edited version. At full length, it’s an epic journey, containing all the elements found on the previous two tracks—low end rumbles, crashing cymbals and sledgehammer snare, whisper-to-a-scream/whisper-and-a-scream vocals, and unexpectedly soothing electronics—arranged in almost ritualistic manner. When it all winds down to a minute-long high-pitched drone that ends the album, it’s like they’re offering you a peppermint after 45 minutes of waterboarding. Because they approach their extraordinarily heavy art with such a lightness of spirit, Monarch are one of the most fascinating bands in 21st Century metal, and if Sabbracadaver isn’t their masterpiece, it’s only because labeling it as such would unfairly devalue the rest of their catalog.
Watch the video for “Mortes”: