by Todd Manning
While instrumental music has rarely been more than a minor footnote to mainstream rock and pop music, it has been a vital movement within the history of punk, hardcore and metal. Monotrope, a band whose members are spread out all across the United States, are poised to take their place among the subgenre’s elite with the release of their debut full-length Unifying Receiver, due out November 10 on New Atlantis Records. Consisting of Ed Ricart and Dan Wilson on guitars, Joe Barker on drums, and Matthew Taylor, the members possess a staggering resume boasting current and former members of groups such as Hurl, Matta Gawa, and Unraze and collaborations with such luminaries as Glenn Branca, Merzbow, and members of Black Flag, Fugazi and Tortoise.
Nowadays, this type of instrumental music tends to be dominated by metal acts such as Dysrhythmia and Behold…the Arctopus, but when it comes to Monotrope, it is best to reset those expectations. Instead, the group takes influence primarily from Nineties and early 2000s indie rock, albeit the heavier iterations of that genre. And while Don Caballero quickly jumps to mind, and they certainly play a role here, the palette on display on Unifying Receiver is much broader, incorporating others such as Rodan, Slint and perhaps even a bit of the Dazzling Killmen.
And while none of those influences screams metal, Monotrope definitely possess a sonic density. There seems to be a hint of sludge or even doom peeking around the edges, but it’s hard to put a finger on, just moments here or there where the band locks into a solid stomp or cadence. They continually skirt the boundaries between math rock and those much heavier sonic landscapes, but never fully commit to one or the other. Perhaps that’s the charm; while certainly technical and heavy, their material is also quite memorable. They always seem to be working through a chord progression and melodies manage to nestle themselves within even the heaviest riffs.
Also, among all the elements at play, there are also hints of avant-garde music as well. This should come as no surprise, given New Atlantis Records’ involvement (Ed Ricart is the label owner). Still, there are moments when atonality emerges in brief glimpses and drones bookend some track changes. Perhaps it is most evident in the guitar interplay. Often one guitarist plays the riff as the other provides a skronking, almost raga-like counterpoint. This approach is highlighted in the introduction to the second track, “Aileron Pair,” but appears in many of the other songs as well. While the more experimental techniques are applied judiciously, they primarily reside in the music’s details rather than being foregrounded in the compositions.
It is hard to predict what level of activity Monotrope will attempt to maintain given there geographic disparities and commitment to other projects. The sheer level of execution on display with Unifying Receiver will certainly leave the listener pining for more. And while there is certainly no disputing the quality and validity of their more metallic instrumental counterparts, Monotrope makes a strong argument for maintaining a parallel set of musics, one intriguing for both its heaviness, atmosphere and melody.
Watch the band’s video for “Ganoderma”: