In 2017, instrumental indie-rockers Monotrope released their debut album, the excellent Unifying Receiver, courtesy of the formidable New Atlantis Records. Despite the members being spread out all across the country, Monotrope are already back with their sophomore effort, Immutable Future, this time released as a joint venture between New Atlantis and Ambition Sound. It’s indicative of the band’s passion and dedication that not only have they already written and recorded a new album, but Immutable Future displays a wonderful progression from its predecessor.
The quartet, consisting of Edward Ricart and Dan Wilson on guitars, Matthew Taylor on bass and drummer Joe Barker, are all seasoned musicians. Wilson previously played in the excellent Pittsburgh-based Hurl, while Barker played in the indie-sludge act Tigon and post-hardcore band Unraze. Taylor plays in Bellini and worked at Touch and Go Records for years. Ricart is no slouch either, having been involved in playing improv and free jazz with acts like Matta Gawa and his own quartet, among others, while also running New Atlantis.
Unifying Receiver found the quartet deftly playing instrumental indie rock with the density of sludge/doom. It wasn’t a metal album, yet it possessed the gravity to hang with that crowd. On Immutable Future, the tempos are a bit slower, but the intensity remains intact, and given the song titles, it feels as though the music seems to be a reflection on the current anxiety-inducing state of the world, even if there are no lyrics to support that hypothesis.
Album opener “10s + 11s” sets the stage nicely. The pace is subdued but the band locks in often, finding each other for big, crashing cadences that keeps the dramatic tension high. The main riffs possess a rustic feel, but not in the sense of a lazy pastoralism, but rather a sound that invokes the dangerous beauty of nature. And while one guitar carries the riff, the other lends spidery, raga-like lines to the mix. Watch the video below:
The second track, “Gilded Spectator,” starts with the kind of tense buildup Deathspell Omega frequently plays right before all hell breaks loose. This is far from a bad thing. Yet this riff trades off with a dark take on something Tortoise might have written. When the guitars begin to go their own way, a Neurosis or Isis vibe is also invoked. Yet when the first short solo comes in, a subtle beauty is rises into the mix. The song is a tightrope walk between tension and control. This is not metal, but there is a nervousness present that never finds release. When one riff resolves into the next, it sounds like one level of anxiety traded for another, seesawing between clenched teeth and knotted muscles.
“Grand Systemist” pulls the tension back just hair, the pulsing bass line connecting the dots between postpunk and dub. On top of this solid rhythmic foundation, the guitars interrogate and subvert any sense of conventional harmony. “Foliot” is a sharp-elbowed riff maze, the constantly morphing chords somewhat reminiscent of Ben Monder’s titanic Oceana. The track climaxes with feedback and freer interplay between the instruments.
“Forty-Nine” is slightly less harmonically challenging, but is a somewhat busier composition, while “Prismatic Symmetry” rediscovers a bit of the driving postpunk influence heard previously on “Grand Systemist.” The turnarounds press hard against conventional harmony and are all the better for it. A new guitar line enters about halfway through the song, adding a more melodic element to the sound. Yet even this is deconstructed by the band, the drums leading the charge to take the figure through any number of variations.
Named after a military exercise depicting a nuclear war, the album closes with the short but stunning “Able Archer.” The splashy opening chords seem to imply a post-apocalyptic conclusion to the human experiment, and the music that follows feels like a lament. This is the soundtrack to the dark road the humanity seems to be traveling on, a journey with an inevitable conclusion. The song is short, giving the impression that the destination has almost been reached.
There is no shortage of great instrumental music being made right now, but Monotrope still manage to rise to the top. It is fascinating how Immutable Future seems to capture the dread and tension of our times without utilizing vocals or lyrics, instead giving us complex music that builds expectations that never seem to resolve. There is no peace to be found, only more nervousness and instrumental intrigue. The playing is top-notch and the compositions are even more so. In many ways, Monotrope evokes nature, but as mentioned before, it is the darker side of the natural world, and maybe even more importantly, the darker side of human nature itself.