If the covers of Monolord’s first two albums (Vaenir, the subject of this review, being the second) don’t strongly enough convey a difference in aesthetic, then a quick comparison of each record’s first 10 seconds or so should do the trick. Because there’s certainly a difference. You look at the cover of the now-one-year-old debut, Empress Rising, and you see color. In a word, it’s psychedelic. As fantastical as it is grim. 2nd album? Black. White. Period. OK, a little brown. But way grim, no doubt. In four words, a descent into the abyss. And then you turn the suckers on and the comparison sustains. Empress Rising begins with fuzzy flanger, and stays hazy even at its loudest. Yup, still psychedelic. But the new album? Holy shit.
Sonically, what defines Vaenir from the very start is a stunning clarity of sound. Which is not to say that their riffs have gotten cleaner or prettier. Much to the contrary, in fact! But what they have succeeded in doing is separating themselves from much of the contemporary doom pack, by resisting the temptation to bury their sound under some fuzzy mountain of sludge. Instead, every note, power chord, riff, pierces with a startling immediacy, a shamelessly unfiltered level of volume and force. This, in my opinion, is what makes the album great.
Of course, there are plenty of other things that make the album really, really, good. These are absolutely first-rate riffs we’re talking about. And what makes a first-rate riff? I’ll tell ya. It’s interesting rhythms. Riffs that go four-on-the-floor, sure they might sound really heavy, but they’ll also sound boring. The verse on kickoff track “Cursing the One” has this great riff that instead misses the “one” on every other measure, and the unfulfilled anticipation every time they skip it makes you feel like you just sped past a black hole, but now the gravitational pull from the black hole is pulling you back towards it:
Also, listen to this track on headphones. There’s some crazy, shakey kinda sound that pans hard alternately left and right. It sounds like someone is standing right behind you and playing the maracas around your head.
The real “holy shit” moment on the album, however, hits a little more than halfway into the 2nd track, “We Will Burn”. The song is doing its thing, plodding along with a real bone-hammer of a riff, when at exactly 4:47 everything cuts out except one guitar, and what the guitar plays essentially serves as a bridge between two different time signatures. When the rest of the band comes back in at 5:10, the observant listener will notice that we’ve gone from plodding to galloping (through molasses), and what would have been a broken triplet in the first riff is now a quarter note in the new riff! It’s rhythmic alchemy, god dammit. And while this might seem like some “who cares”, nerdy shit to some people, this is the kind of thing that realllllly does it for me, the kind of thing that makes a lasting impression. For about a second and half you’re startled because you don’t recognize the new tempo, but as soon as you lock in with it, you’re like “Ohhhh. Shit! We’re groovin now….”
Never underestimate the value of a good surprise.
All in all, the record does little to disguise its debt to Electric Wizard and Black Sabbath, the latter being invoked with particular acuteness in the very “Planet Caravan”-esque segue piece “The Cosmic Silence”, which serves mostly as set-up to the album’s behemoth of a closer, title track “Vaenir”. But I don’t mind if a band like Monolord wears a few influences on their sleeve. At the end of the day, Vaenir is a very, very strong record, and shows a band whose forward progress comes in large, decisive strides.