Following two albums on SPV, New Jersey stalwarts Monster Magnet have made a new home for themselves on Napalm Records for the release of their new album, Mastermind. Itâ€™s the bandâ€™s eighth album overall (theyâ€™ve been on a regimented every-three-years schedule since 1995â€™s Dopes to Infinity), and if youâ€™ve followed the course frontman/guitarist/singer Dave Wyndorf has taken in his songwriting over the last decade in the band on albums like 2004â€™s Monolithic Baby! and 2007â€™s 4-Way Diablo, you probably wonâ€™t find too many surprises on Mastermind in terms of style. Rather, what sticks out immediately about the new collection is how much livelier the production sounds, particularly in relation to 4-Way Diablo, which was practically flat across the board. This is still a modern, professional production in every sense (pretty sure those are drum samples), and as Matt Hyde also helmed the last album, I can only imagine it was a specific change frontman/guitarist Dave Wyndorf — common understanding is itâ€™s his band in terms of songwriting and direction, etc. — wanted to make in terms of overall approach. It was the right choice.
Mastermind begins strong with the rumble of Jim Baglino (also of Riotgod)â€™s bass on whatâ€™s arguably the albumâ€™s strongest song, â€śHallucination Bomb.â€ť The song itself is slower in pace than previous Monster Magnet hits, built on a huge riff from guitarists Ed Mundell and Phil Caivano, but is an effective way to start the record nonetheless. Wyndorfâ€™s vocals are fire and brimstone, apocalyptic and loaded with effects that give him an â€śon the mountainâ€ť kind of feel. Drummer Bob Pantella (also Riotgod) matches the riff well, though I do wish it was more of his playing personality and less sampled snare hits. Hazards of the times in which we live, I guess. At least there are some killer dueling guitar solos to drown my sorrows in, and the hard-hitting chorus groove alone is one of Mastermindâ€™s high points.
Thatâ€™s a double-edged sword. I understand the band wanting to put their best foot forward, and I donâ€™t disagree with the approach, but the tradeoff is the listener is spending the rest of the album waiting for something to match up. â€śHallucination Bombâ€ť is an instant comparison touchstone. Subsequent songs â€śBored with Sorceryâ€ť and â€śDig that Holeâ€ť (is that the N-word I heard in there?) rock with a more driven punk rock pace and riffy/catchy choruses, respectively, Wyndorf and Company again toying with the pace as they go. Wyndorfâ€™s vocals come on in multiple layers especially on â€śDig that Hole,â€ť which isnâ€™t really new for Monster Magnet either, but always works because of his charisma as a vocalist. Even the ultra-Magnetic â€śGods and Punksâ€ť holds up stylistically, especially in the guitar — late-era Monster Magnet specialize in a kind of pop-minded â€śstoner rock by any other nameâ€ť — and the chorus of Wyndorfs that shows up on the chorus to let us know how much they rule the planet from high to low both sets that track apart from the three before it and provides listeners with an memorable hook. In lieu of â€śHallucination Bomb,â€ť I wouldnâ€™t be surprised to find the band opening with â€śGods and Punksâ€ť live.
The first of Mastermindâ€™s several missteps comes in the form of the awesomely-titled â€śThe Titan Who Cried Like a Baby,â€ť which is three and a half minutes of Wyndorf over synth orchestra that sounds like the intro for a song that never takes off. It does have a build to it, donâ€™t get me wrong, but if it were a minute shorter (the chorus doesnâ€™t need to be repeated, Iâ€™m sorry) and it led right into the ensuing title track, it would probably work much better. The length it is, I keep expecting Mundell, Caivano, Baglino and Pantella to kick in behind and start off the most epic track Monster Magnet has ever done. As it is, it justâ€¦ ends, and it takes a lot of the momentum the previous four cuts had worked hard to build with it. The title track brings back the band but sounds quieter somehow production-wise. I donâ€™t doubt thatâ€™s the effect of the lead-in rather than some discrepancy in the recording, but itâ€™s the feel Mastermind gives at that point nonetheless. Listening to the song â€śMastermind,â€ť I almost spend the entire five minutes still wondering what the hell I just heard before it and how that possibly made it past the cutting room floor in the form it did.
Drum-wise, â€ś100 Million Milesâ€ť follows a course almost identical to â€śBored with Sorcery,â€ť steady snare hits pacing out the verses and choruses like a metronome. Itâ€™s a song that gets better with volume, but itâ€™s worth noting that with these seven songs, Mastermind is already at 35 minutes, and there are still five to go before the album hits its full hour length. I donâ€™t think tracks eight through 12 should have been left off, but some of them easily could have and Mastermind would be a better record for it. The â€śMonster Magnet does garageâ€ť cut â€śPerish in Fireâ€ť is undercut by its high production value and guitar notes that beep through the verses like a heart monitor. Itâ€™s the first song on Mastermind that really feels like filler, but by no means the last. â€śTime Machineâ€ť beings a string of songs that are obviously stacked at the end of the record for a reason. Band puts out an album on a steady three-year cycle; fine. Bandâ€™s album is exactly an hour long after signing to a new label contract and Iâ€™m thinking thereâ€™s filler. Thatâ€™s not a dig on â€śTime Machineâ€ť itself. Actually, I think if Monster Magnet had ended Mastermind with it, it would make a cool, atmospheric kind of closer to a quality nine-track, 45-minute album. In the context of the three songs still to come, itâ€™s the beginning of the bloat.
â€śWhen Planes Fall from the Skyâ€ť has a vibe and pace similar to â€śHallucination Bombâ€ť and â€śDig that Hole,â€ť Pantella sitting back on a groove to ride it out in good measure, and itâ€™s one of Wyndorfâ€™s best and most natural-sounding vocal performances on Mastermind (which I donâ€™t doubt is why itâ€™s there), but by now weâ€™ve already heard everything it has to offer musically and the affect it has it just to be redundant, which hurts both the song and the album. And if youâ€™re going to bring in an acoustic-led track at all for a record like this — Iâ€™m not sure Iâ€™d recommend it — it needs to be earlier than track 11 or it needs to not be there at all. Mundell was quoted while recording the guitars as saying Mastermind was very space rock, which I think is what the bulk of longtime Monster Magnet fans want from the band, for them to get back to their inner Hawkwind space/psych, and Iâ€™m not about to hold that quote against Mundell, since itâ€™s impossible to know 100 percent how a batch of songs will turn out before theyâ€™re finished, but â€śGhost Storyâ€ť is about as far from space rock as the band has ever gotten. It feels tacked on for the sake of formula and uninspired.
By the time â€śAll Outta Nothinâ€ť comes around, my excitement at the prospect of one more new Monster Magnet song I havenâ€™t yet heard is just about completely abated, and the song itself could just as easily have been on 4-Way Diablo or Monolithic Baby! as Mastermind. It has nothing really new to offer tonally or in terms of approach and comes off as more filler from the cynical mindset that most people wonâ€™t make it that far anyway. Wyndorf says in the chorus heâ€™s, â€śsick of the bullshit, baby,â€ť and Iâ€™m left wondering if he didnâ€™t have anything nice to say at that point, he mightnâ€™t have been better saying nothing at all.
There are those Monster Magnet fans out there — I know a couple of them — who will follow the band through anything, who will regale you at length with tales of Wyndorfâ€™s genius and the bandâ€™s innovative style. Theyâ€™ll probably really like Mastermind, because theyâ€™d probably like anything the band put out. Likewise, there are those who think Monster Magnet hasnâ€™t done anything worthwhile since 1995 and theyâ€™re a cash-grab running on the creative fumes of what they once were. Mastermind isnâ€™t going to budge them of their opinion. For me, I reside somewhere in the middle. Mastermind certainly has its moments where greatness seems attainable, particularly early on, but those moments are undone by filler and a stagnant approach. I genuinely think if the album was 45 minutes instead of an hour long, it would make all the difference in the world, but even if you skip those last couple tracks while listening, theyâ€™re still there and in looking at the album you have to take it all into account. Itâ€™s unfortunate. As a fan of Monster Magnet, a Jersey resident and someone who genuinely believes they helped shape stoner rock into what it became in the 1990s, it pains me to have an album come from the band and not be able to dig it the way I should.
Tags: Monster Magnet, Napalm, New Jersey