Marking a decade of existence in 2011 after one of their most successful years yet – 2010 found them appearing at both Roadburn and Hellfest – Swiss psychedelonauts Monkey3 follow-up 2009’s covers EP, Undercover, with their third full-length, Beyond the Black Sky. Released via Stickman Records with art by Malleus, the eight-track LP runs just over 42 minutes, and on it, the four-piece Lausanne band delves into a range of atmospheres, keeping their instrumental songs memorable and grounded with a foundation of heavy riffs. The vibe is vaguely stoner, but there’s more going on with Monkey3 (either written thusly or Monkey 3 with a space between the name and number; I’ve seen it both ways) than simple riff-driven instrumentality, and where an act like Karma to Burn has clearly had some influence, Beyond the Black Sky pulls from synth-inclusive space rock and heavy jamming, resulting in a feel generally more atmospheric, as they show in the low underlying rumble of the short “Tuco the Ugly.” These are songs, and they’re accessible on that level, but each piece also has a character of its own and a progression playing out.
For that alone, that Monkey3 manage to achieve that balance, Beyond the Black Sky is a win. They open the album with “Camhell,” which finds guitar and synth affecting a repetitive hypnosis while drummer Walter (first names only, all around) keeps the build moving. And it is a build. The song peaks once, drops down, and peaks again in its six-plus minutes, ending at a noodling guitar apex that cuts off as though the low-end effects that open “One Zero Zero One” are a wall the band has just pushed you into. “One Zero Zero One” – which doesn’t actually translate from binary to anything in text – is more patient all around, guitarist Boris and keyboardist dB working well together as the former offers a memorable rhythm line in the song’s final moments. That interplay between the guitar and keyboards runs throughout Beyond the Black Sky, lending the record as a whole a progressive air, but Monkey3, despite being a heavy psychedelic band given to lengthy jams like that in Side A-highlight “Black Maiden” (8:52), are never fully lost in self-indulgence. The structure of “Black Maiden” isn’t so different from “Camhell” or that which shows up later on closer “Through the Desert” (another high point of the record), but through diversity in their riffing style and complexity of the parts they’re playing, Monkey3 avoid sounding samey or repetitive where they’re not meaning to be. “Black Maiden” brings bassist Picasso and dB for hits and ringouts during a lengthy midsection of mostly guitar and synth, and it works tremendously well setting up the build of the song’s latter half.
“Tuco the Ugly” is more of an interlude at 2:13; a well-placed comedown from “Black Maiden” that provides afterthought to the breadth of that track while also closing out the first half of the record, but more interesting about it is how it plays next to “K.I,” which follows. Where “Tuco the Ugly” relies on acoustic guitar and a foreboding Western ambience perhaps inspired by their take on the theme from Once Upon a Time in the West from Undercover, “K.I” is practically industrial, with Boris’ start-stop riffing, the mechanical-sounding rhythms behind and wash of synth. Since both cuts are the only ones on Beyond the Black Sky under three minutes, and since they’re paired right next to each other, one can’t help but compare them, and though I’m more partial personally to the relaxed, open-country style of “Tuco the Ugly,” there’s no denying that “K.I” grooves and leads well into the organ-ic “Motorcycle Broer,” which finds Picasso at his most present yet, mix-wise, and Boris moving the guitars into atmospheric volume swells when not playing up straightforward rock riffing or – as later in the track – busting out the best solo on Beyond the Black Sky.
And while most of the album has a nighttime aura thematically in terms either of the name, the artwork or the songs contained on it, “Gate 57” feels downright sunny by comparison. Perhaps all the better then that Beyond the Black Sky’s brightest moment should lead into its darkest in closer “Through the Desert,” maybe echoing the naturalist/industrial duality of “Tuco the Ugly” and “K.I” with some musical chiaroscuro. Whether that was Monkey3’s intent or not, I don’t know, but they certainly show a mind for structure in the track order, and putting “Through the Desert” last was invariably the right choice. Where “Camhell” and “Black Maiden” – Beyond the Black Sky’s two other most extended tracks – ebbed and flowed and dropped out and got loud, “Through the Desert” disappears entirely. The most engaging work from dB is met by powerful riffing and soloing from Boris, and there are even some whispered vocals in the cut’s middle and closing movements. Most of all, though, it’s the right place to end the album, because there’s nothing they could have followed it with that wouldn’t have been out of place. As evocative as it is, as driving and as massive as its build becomes at the end, there’s really nowhere else to go at that point but to silence.
Like much Europan instrumental heavy psych, Monkey3 are never going to be for everyone, but their progressive edge, their innate sense of structuring and their willingness to balance the varying sides of their approach make them essential listening for fans of the style. I’ll confess here that this was my first real exposure to the band on a concentrated-listening level, and I found it satisfying enough that I’ll look forward to investigating the Undercover EP as well as their two prior full-lengths, Monkey3 (2003) and 39 Laps (2007), and trying to get a better sense of where they’re coming from stylistically. For now though, as someone who just did so, I can assuredly recommend Beyond the Black Sky as an excellent place to start with Monkey3, and likewise recommend getting started at all, however you should ultimately choose to do so.
Tags: Lausanne, Monkey3, Stickman Records, Switzerland