There’s is a thread of self-awareness running through Last Patrol, which is Monster Magnet‘s ninth full-length overall and second for Napalm Records behind 2010′s Mastermind (review here), an overarching consciousness that bleeds into the material and manifests itself in the lyrics of songs like “Mindless Ones,” “Last Patrol,” “Paradise, “End of Time” and “Stay Tuned.” Even the John Sumrow artwork could be argued as having a play in the purposeful exposition of concept — very much what we get on the album is the Bullgod gone cosmic. Last Patrol marks not necessarily a return to the drugged-out psychedelia of albums like 1993′s Superjudge or 1991′s ultra-landmark debut Spine of God, but easily the most swirling release the long-running and massively influential New Jersey outfit have had since 1995′s Dopes to Infinity. Vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and figurehead Dave Wyndorf – who also recorded Last Patrol with rhythm guitarist Phil Caivano in an attempt to capture a DIY spirit — has clearly made a conscious decision to harken back to Monster Magnet‘s earliest days. He’s taking a risk by doing so. A big one. Since 1998′s Powertrip, the band has been geared around a straightforward hard rock sound, always definitely their own, but increasingly straightforward. Following the commercial breakthrough of 1998′s Powertrip – do I even need to mention the “Space Lord” single? — and across 2001′s God Says No, 2004′s Monolithic Baby! and 2007′s 4-Way Diablo, Wyndorf refined this approach, writing skillfully crafted but increasingly staid hard rockers with faint traces of the personality that flourished in his earlier works. Mastermind satisfied tonally but essentially stuck to the same songwriting modus, and while there was always a sense of development there and Wyndorf‘s careful hand has never relinquished control over the band or its sense of mastery, it was clear Monster Magnet had long since conquered the form. Time for a change. But it’s a risk because the band Wyndorf has built around him — Caivano, lead guitarist Garrett Sweeny, bassist Jim Baglino and drummer Bob Pantella – has been geared the whole time toward playing the more straightforward style.
Baglino and Pantella are the longest-running members of the band at this point — apart from Wyndorf, obviously, who founded the band in 1989 with John McBain and Tim Cronin – but even they came aboard in 1999, after Powertrip was released. Certainly they’re adaptable players, as shown in Baglino‘s past participation in Lord Sterling and Pantella‘s in The Atomic Bitchwax, but the critical question when it comes to the shift in sound on Last Patrol is whether or not Monster Magnet could “go psychedelic” without lead guitarist Ed Mundell. Mundell left the band late in 2010, following the release of Mastermind, but had been a part of Monster Magnet since 1992 and was widely regarded as a crucial element to the band’s sound. So not only has Dave Wyndorf stepped into unknown territory with this latest record without knowing how the majority of his audience will react, but he’s done so without the guitarist whose blazing leads were such an essential part of what drew a line from the band’s classic psychedelic material to where they went up to 2010. In many ways, Mundell, who has since embarked on an interstellar journey of his own with the instrumental jam trio The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic — their self-titled debut was released earlier in 2013 (review here) — would likely be more at home on Last Patrol than on any Monster Magnet outing since Dopes to Infinity, but Sweeny and Caivano perform more than ably here, tearing into some deft Hendrixisms as the penultimate “End of Time” brings Last Patrol to its apex and helping propel the space-rocking pulse of “Last Patrol” while adding to the bluesy quirk of centerpiece “Hallelujah.” The rhythm section, which also includes Caivano, who reportedly also recorded the bass parts, prove likewise amenable to the change, and ultimately, Wyndorf‘s personality shines through all the more for it. Even in studio recordings, his charisma has always been a big part of Monster Magnet‘s draw, never a technical singer — though he does will with a cover of Donovan‘s “Three Kingfishers” as the third track — but a consummate frontman and brilliant lyricist, and on Last Patrol, the latter particularly comes to the fore right from the start of opener “I Live behind the Clouds,” which with the 9:24 title cut following forms a bookend that finds its mirror in the closing duo of “End of Time” (7:45) and “Stay Tuned,” starting subdued then rocking out, where with the final two, it’s the other way around, rocking out and then finishing subdued.
Much of Last Patrol and indeed many of its highlight moments are in moodier pieces like “I Live behind the Clouds,” “Three Kingfishers,” “Paradise” “The Duke (of Supernature)” and “Stay Tuned” — more than half of the nine-track/51-minute outing — and as much as Wyndorf‘s inescapable penchant for crafting memorable hooks comes through in the more driving reaches of “Mindless Ones” and the revival stomp of “Hallelujah,” it’s the dynamic throughout the work as a whole that makes Last Patrol such a success. Where Mastermind seemed largely monochromatic stylistically, leading with its strongest material in songs like “Hallucination Bomb,” “Gods and Punks” and “Dig that Hole” — the latter of which, admittedly, could be seen as a precursor to “Hallelujah”‘s gospel snakehandling — sticking closely to an approach that was if nothing else the most tonally weighted of the band’s career, Last Patrol plays out in a manner that’s freer and as engaging in overall flow as it is on a track-by-track basis. Still, Wyndorf – and you’ll have to forgive the presumption that where there’s a decision being made about Monster Magnet, he’s the one making it — does right to start the album with “I Live behind the Clouds.” Open-feeling with a gust of wind behind it, it nonetheless holds a tension in its steady guitar line that finds its release in the bounce and groove of “Last Patrol” and sets up the other quieter pieces noted above. The album’s first vocals are barely above a whisper, and for a man who once triumphantly proclaimed “I’m never gonna work another day in my life,” the line “I stay behind the clouds” comes on like a humble declaration, less that he’s a god than he’s hiding someplace no one will look. Drums come in after two of the opener’s four minutes and the song takes off, but it’s a fitting summation of Last Patrol‘s dynamic and holds to its mood even as Sweeny launches the first of many soaring solos. Bringing it back down for a quiet final verse and chorus, “Last Patrol” is set up with satisfying turns punctuated by Pantella‘s crash and given warmth by Caivano‘s prominent bass as Wyndorf teases with lines about cashing out and going to meet up with his 10-foot blonde. In movements, “Last Patrol” shifts from effective space rock turns with no shortage of backing swirl to a solo and then on to a quiet break as the echoes fade. Synth and effects back cymbal flourish and the rhythm guitar line as “Last Patrol” reemerges, gradually making its way back up from the ether with a new progression, no less insistent, but thick tonally, layers of wails and churns brought to a satisfying build as a victorious riff takes hold.
It’s the longest single piece on Last Patrol and it earns the honor of having the album named for it. Extra percussion is layered into the second half as a solo once again takes hold and Monster Magnet ride the groove while Wyndorf tosses in vague incantations in the lower regions of the mix. Even the jam is dynamic, and it’s some of Sweeny‘s best lead work, cutting suddenly to let the effects loops that have underscored carry the song to its finish. One could argue that “Three Kingfishers,” “Paradise,” “Hallelujah,” “Mindless Ones” and “The Duke (of Supernature)” represent the “meat” of Last Patrol between the front and back bookend pieces, but I wouldn’t intend that in the sense of taking away from the substance of the opening or closing pairs. Still, it’s with the Donovan cover, “Three Kingfishers” that the album begins to move past the initial shock of its opening and hit its stride. “Three Kingfishers,” particularly early on, is fairly loyal to the original, which appeared on the Scottish singer-songwriter’s classic 1966 formative masterpiece of psych-folk pop, Sunshine Superman, though where Donovan‘s version takes off with strings and sitar following its first two verses, Monster Magnet substitutes big riffs and guitar leads after the first, finding a middle ground between the heavier side of Last Patrol and the quieter that seems to delight in playing one directly off the other, the lead guitar once again distinguishing itself with classic and classy fretwork. At first, “Paradise” seems to echo the tense strum of “I Live behind the Clouds,” but it stays quieter for the duration, giving the title a sarcastic edge as the acoustic rhythm couples with intermittent kick-drum thud and electrified, fuzzy leads. Echoes and effects lend depth to the arrangement, but even at its most active, “Paradise,” despite a relatively quick tempo, keeps its groove away from the kind of raucousness that showed up on “Last Patrol” or even “Three Kingfishers,” opting instead for a brooding groove that finds satisfying resolution in the clap-your-hands-and-stomp-your-feet push of “Hallelujah” — a wake-up call if ever there was one. Wyndorf answers his own sung lines with megaphone-spoken wit, and the titular chorus brings an array of layers and attitude. The verses are propelled by the preaching in the vocals (hard for a heavy rocker not to think of Clutch here, but Wyndorf‘s influences are rarely so easy to pin down, except perhaps when he’s working under his own influence), but as the band locks into that “hallelujah!” exclamation, it’s funky enough to make me want to throw my hands up and testify.
Pantella gives hardly the showiest performance of the album — that would be probably the fills of “Last Patrol” or the propulsive display of “End of Time” still to come — but in a way the most satisfying, refusing to overplay the part or leave off the steady beat even as he moves to the crashes for the chorus. It’s a one-two-three-four count, but it’s just right for the song. Following “Hallelujah,” just about anything would be a comedown, but “Mindless Ones” keeps the momentum going with an echoing opening warning and build into more guitar-driven heavy rock fare. A quiet verse and an accompanying hook might seem like Monster Magnet playing to a more straightforward side — something they might’ve proffered on Monolithic Baby! — but even here, the natural-sounding production and omnipresent solo layers, met with Pantella‘s continued precise timekeeping and the winding basslines all combine to keep “Mindless Ones” consistent with the stylistic breadth of Last Patrol to this point. In fact, I’d argue that in the context of this album, “Mindless Ones” is an expansion of that breadth, considering how little time Wyndorf and company have spent embroiled in such fare. If it’s to be a single — the first seems to have been the subsequent “The Duke (of Supernature)” — it’s a solid one. Echoplex effects on the vocals and swirl on the guitars comes to the fore following a final runthrough of the chorus, hitting a peak and then echoing to a gradual finish as the tape loops seem to unwind. That’s as fitting a lead-in for “The Duke (of Supernature)” as one could ask. Wyndorf assumes the mantle of the titular character over smooth acoustic lines and percussion, the central figure hard-strummed but not at all abrasive. Less moody and more swaggering that “Paradise,” it’s an excellent rending of what has always worked and stayed the most reliable in Monster Magnet‘s approach: Wyndorf‘s ability to carry the song and the band’s ability to let him. Where his voice seemed to be swallowed up by the rising storm of effects in “Mindless Ones,” “The Duke (of Supernature)” is clean-toned and relying more on the synth — is that a Mellotron I hear? — and cool bed provided by Caivano‘s bass to give the frontman space to work. The drums surface later on, taking over for the percussion that has thus far punctuated the formidable groove of the track, and slide guitar gives “The Duke (of Supernature)” even more richness of vibe, leading to a culmination of deceptive psychedelic heft that nonetheless maintains its melodic sensibility.
Similar to how “Paradise” found payoff in the contrasting raucousness of “Halleluah,” the laid back groove of “The Duke (of Supernature)” gives way to the seemingly in medias res space rock movement of “End of Time,” which brings Last Patrol to its climax over the course of its 7:45 and righteously blends the immersive, get-lost-in-it feel of “Last Patrol” with the standout hook of “Mindless Ones.” As has been the case all along, it’s the right song in the right place, with clap-worthy snare and interplay of swirl and strum that blasts into the chorus with energy that highlights just how reserved Monster Magnet have been for much of the album. Even as they make their way through the first verse, it’s like the chorus is something they can’t wait to unleash, and once it arrives it’s plain to see why. After cycling through twice and adding a second chorus on the latter runthrough, Sweeny comes to the fore with a solo that carries “End of Time” past its midpoint, only to return to the chorus with all the more psychedelic chaos. The song is a landmark and stands among Last Patrol‘s best accomplishments. Sweeny‘s leads are a big part of the reason why, but the bass in the concluding jam isn’t to be missed, and really, it’s everything working, not just one or two factor. A trailing soundwave finish gives way to closer “Stay Tuned,” which finds Wyndorf in direct conversation with the listener, sounding burnt out and fed up as he asks, “Why even keep it hard in flatline mode/Where every piece of dung is the next big thing?” It’s a bit of navelgazing, but passion-fueled and well enough earned amid the relatively minimal instrumental accompaniment; acoustic guitar and the wind returning from the opener. He states his case plainly in the verse preceding, “There ain’t no more targets to aim for, man/No more mountains to climb/At least they’re not where they used to be.” One could argue it’s final of those reflections that’s actually the issue — that it’s not in fact a “death of cool” as the song posits, but a realigning of what “cool” means. Whether or not “new cool” in fact sucks is an entirely different debate to have, but Wyndorf knows the score even if he’s leaving himself open to Last Patrol being exactly that — the last.
Even before pressing play, that’s the central question of the album. Have Monster Magnet “returned” — I’d say it’s not a return to a past sound but a new interpretation and rebalancing of influences on the band’s part; to call it a “return” is to simplify it — to a more psychedelic feel as a way of putting a capstone on their career? Is Last Patrol going to be their last record? There’s no shortage of concluding fare, with the title-track, “Mindless Ones,” “Paradise” and “End of Time,” and if “Stay Tuned” has any answers, it’s not letting on; the chorus of the track reads, “What’s gonna happen now?/Will the good guys pull through somehow/Stay tuned till next time/And we’ll see what’s what?” and is met at the end by a foreboding electric guitar chord. The mere fact that Wyndorf acknowledges the possibility of a “next time” as he toys with the Saturday morning cartoon cliffhanger trope is a positive sign, but the issue finds no resolve by the end of the song. A few sparse, bluesy lead notes meet with acoustic lines and the wind whistle to cap “Stay Tuned” with a suitably contemplative feel, and a slow fade brings Last Patrol to its finish. If it does turn out to be the final Monster Magnet album — and I wouldn’t speculate one way or the other on the possibility — then at very least Last Patrol accomplishes the daunting task of bringing their sound full circle to some extent. Validating that portion of their fanbase who’ve longed for years for a re-weirdening, it doesn’t look to give a commodified, hackneyed version of psychedelic rock, but instead to twist those methods to its own purposes, which continues to be what makes Monster Magnet‘s earliest material so exciting. That is to say, Monster Magnet is not trying to come off like they did 20 years ago. Last Patrol has a modern feel and whatever classic elements may be at play production-wise with the use of vintage amps, etc., a modern overall sound. It does not forget the last 15-18 years of the band’s career and songwriting development, but nor is it limited by them, and with a record so clearly aware of its own place in both the band’s catalog and in the larger sphere, that can only be on purpose. Last Patrol is a coagulation of everything Wyndorf has brought to bear thus far into his career, and if it’s to be a terminus point for one stage of that career, then the culmination stands as no less rewarding than the journey itself.
Monster Magnet, “The Duke (of Supernature)” from Last Patrol (2013)
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