Album Review: Sacri Monti, Live at Sonic Whip MMXXII

Sacri Monti Live at Sonic Whip MMXXII

It doesn’t seem out of line to think of Sacri Monti as survivors of the San Diego heavy rock/psych scene, which is also to say that not everybody has lasted so long who circa 2015/2016 was ripping it up in what had become arguably the most vital underground in the US. And they were never the flashiest band — that was and remains a flashy scene — but they’ve put out two quality records in their 2015 self-titled debut (review here) and 2019’s Waiting Room for the Magic Hour (review here), and toured domestically and internationally to support, going about their business in almost defiantly unpretentious fashion.

Their music is not arrogant, for all its ’70s-derived swing and strut, the swirling and shredding guitars of Brenden Dellar and Dylan Donovan, Evan Wenskay‘s organ right alongside to drive the apex of “Staggered in Lies,” which also began the first LP, as it opens Live at Sonic Whip MMXXII, their first official live album. Even as they hit that crescendo, the song becoming an upward sweeping churnfest, guitars in freakout mode as bassist Anthony Meier and drummer Thomas Dibenedetto hold it together in forward movement. “Staggered in Lies” ends with a semi-big crashing rocker finish, not overdoing it, and Dellar, who’d said hello to Nijmegen before the song started as well, says, “Thank you. We’re Sacri Monti from San Diego, California.”

And so they are. Live at Sonic Whip MMXXII (on Sonic Whip/Burning World Records) is the third live release to come from the 2022 edition of the Dutch Spring festival, behind offerings from Kaleidobolt and Elephant Tree, so clearly recording the fest is producing the desired result. With a mix and master by Scott “Dr. Space” Heller (also Øresund Space Collective, Black Moon Circle, etc.) at Éstudio Paraíso, the wubbing impression made as the synth swallows the quiet guitar at the start of “Staggered in Lies” doesn’t feel like a coincidence, but there is clarity in among the stems, and way the organ emerges solo from the power-shuffle intro to new song “Immediate Death” is duly churchified. Clearly this is the magic hour they’ve been waiting for.

“Immediate Death” is one of two new inclusions, with “Desirable Sequel” later on, and has a proggy enough bounce to its verse to earn an Astra comparison, flourish of lead guitar carrying through under the verse, which is vintage wistful heavy rock of the sort Led Zeppelin could make believable and repeated depressive lyrics, “Running through this world on empty,” it sounds like the song is reassuring itself when Dellar follows with, “Trying to do the best I can.” It moves into a quick run to cap, and after, there’s a natural pause perhaps to tune up. That’s a detail not always worth keeping, but having it here makes the shift into the mellow start of “Fear and Fire” feel that much more organic. So maybe Sacri Monti aren’t the biggest bunch of showoffs ever to come out of San Diego. I don’t think you could see them live or hear them twist their way around “Fear and Fire” on Live at Sonic Whip MMXXII and not come away thinking they’re hot shit nonetheless.

Sacri Monti at Sonic Whip 2022

It’s a rare thing for a live album to work well on headphones, by which I mean that ‘live albums,’ as a general category, can vary widely in terms of the character or flatness of their sound and the general quality of the recording — it’s off the board, fine, but mixing, mastering, and so on — before you factor in something like the actual performance. Live at Sonic Whip MMXXII has dimension enough to its execution that elements like the fluid kickdrum as “Fear and Fire” gives over directly to “Armistice” as the second in a three-song salvo completed by “Starlight” that appears in the set in the same order as on side A Waiting Room for the Magic Hour.

Particularly fiery is “Armistice” as it reminds that the prog lean showing itself in “Immediate Death” isn’t entirely new in Sacri Monti‘s aural playbook and cymbal washes into the languid groove at the outset of “Starlight,” gorgeous and bluesy and, again, worth hearing in detail as the keys and one of the guitars shift to the verse while the other guitar continues the spaceout under the vocals. Compared to some from San Diego and elsewhere, I’ve never really thought of Sacri Monti as a vintage or retro band. They’ve never touted antique recording technics or fancy costs-as-much-as-a-car amplifiers, though they might have both, but on “Starlight” especially and “Winter” to come, Live at Sonic Whip MMXXII has a vibe that’s way more MCMLXXII, which works to its benefit and adds to the vitality of the show itself. It must have been a hell of a set to see, but they sound like a band actively coming into their own touring around Europe, not yet old enough to be jaded about it (much) and about to put out a third album that will be a defining moment.

The second of the new songs, “Desirable Sequel” calls to mind some of Deep Purple‘s balladeering — as I guess it inevitably would — but has a trippy comedown after its verse and chorus that recalls the quiet start and builds to the live album’s most fervent thrust before the band lines up for cascading downward crashes for a false ending and turning back to end “Desirable Sequel” with a final chorus and instrumental run. Maybe they are flashy. Maybe they are arrogant. Maybe it’s just all in the music. Fair enough if so, as they take on “Winter” by rediscovered original-era heavy rockers Iron Claw with its memorable line of lead guitar and spaciousness to fill out in the midsection, a surge of volume and another controlled-cacophony finish not far behind. When the guitar stops, you can hear some whistling as Meier starts the bassline of 11-minute closer “Sacri Monti,” and there’s cheering at the end, but otherwise the crowd isn’t really the point here so much as the performance itself, and in that, “Sacri Monti” arrives like a victory lap (not on the vinyl), perhaps some sense of exhale after the new song and the cover back to back as they return to a comfortable, signature piece from their debut — it’s the band’s eponymous song and it’s closing the set, safe bet they know it pretty well — and explore some reaches around its well-established central groove.

Dellar offers the quick reminder, “Thanks, we’re Sacri Monti,” as they presumably begin breaking down pedal boards and keyboards and such and leaving the stage. In an hour-long set though, Sacri Monti put forth a vision of themselves as the veteran act they may yet become, mature and poised, experienced on the road and with a chemistry born out of that between players. They’re not the type of act to be out there selling themselves as a product on social media, and as dug-in as they get on Live at Sonic Whip MMXXII, they’re never any more indulgent than the song needs them to be. They perform with class, distinction and purpose, and I come away from hearing this with a really good feeling about their next studio full-length and an appreciation for the moment they’ve captured here.

Sacri Monti, Live in France, May 15, 2022

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2 Responses to “Album Review: Sacri Monti, Live at Sonic Whip MMXXII

  1. Dr Space says:

    Thanks JJ. It was a real pleasure working with the band and mixing this great performance… thanks for the credit..
    scott aka dr space

  2. Blang says:

    I will absolutely be getting this. Was able to see Sacri Monti live earlier in their run and have been a big fan ever since. Glad there’s some new material on this recording too, hope they have a new studio album in the pipeline as well.

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